Rollers Make History


When Dan Cahalane came to American Roller in 2005, he thought rollers were a simple commodity. As he learned about the vast amount of technology that goes into the manufacture of the products, it “blew him away.” With American Roller celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, Cahalane took a few minutes to tell PFFC a little bit about the company and its history.

Founded in Chicago in 1938 by Hillard Ditzler, American Roller eventually moved to Union Grove, WI, where it now has a “campus” comprising administrative headquarters, a technical center for research and engineering, and several manufacturing facilities. It remained family owned until 2001, when it was purchased by the private equity firm CM Acquisitions. (Hillard's son Bob remained on the board until his death in 2007.)

Owners throughout the company's history believed in growing the company. “The Ditzler family invested an awful lot in technology over the years,” says Cahalane. And, in what has been a challenging market for growth, CM has acquired another roller company as well as a plasma coating company and brought in Cahalane, Neil Hersh as VP of sales and customer service, and Dennis Gaber as director of technical services.

Three-Pronged Mission

While a mission statement has been in place since his arrival, Cahalane says there are three basic things the company is trying to accomplish. One involves having the capabilities to go to customers and focus on solving their problems rather than soliciting for a particular product. Second, backing up a field sales force with an experienced, centralized customer service team.

But the point emphasized by Cahalane most strongly is the company's overall approach to the roller industry: “We are trying to bring more discipline and more process to an industry that tended to be very informal. I'm talking about both internally, in our process, and externally, in the interaction between us and the customer. A large gap in the industry is in the area of product specifications.

For example, what tolerances, what finishes, what formulations are required to properly satisfy the customer's manfacturing process and end-use product requirements. The specifications and communication process is much more robust in other areas of manufacturing than what we find in the roller industry. When interacting with customers, we need to move away from the historical nature of manufacturing a roll ‘just like last time,’ which is not a very good recipe for success…especially in converting and printing, where the rolls are such a critical part of the customer's manufacturing process. We continue to work with customers to establish metrics and tracking for their roll programs.”

What kind of response is this approach getting from customers who are being asked to participate more? “This industry is resistant to change,” Cahalane acknowledges, “but those that we've introduced this to find great value in it. …we're being a partner and bringing metrics to help them improve their own manufacturing.”

American Roller serves four basic markets: converting, graphic arts/printing, metals and steel, and business machines. In addition to the facilities on the Union Grove campus, there are manufacturing facilities in Walkerton, IN; Rock Hill, SC; and Franklin, TN; the Plasma Coatings Div. has facilities in Arlington, TN, and Waterbury, CT.

Challenges and Costs

Neil Hersh says the big challenge today is that the industries American Roller serves are very dynamic. “How do you keep up with that, and more important, how do you lead those changes?” Another big challenge today, says Hersh, is trying to do things better from a cost standpoint.

“A lot of our raw material cost is petrochemical. We're downstream from oil, but you can't just continue passing that along to your customers. That doesn't work. So our focus is to pay attention to our customers on the revenue side, i.e., where do we need to be with our products and services to give them the solutions they want? And on the cost side, i.e., how do we keep our manufacturing costs and total costs under control to be competitive in today's world.”

Hersh agrees with Cahalane that one of the major reasons American Roller has thrived for 70 years is the investments the company has always been willing to make, both under the Ditzler family as well as under the ownership of CM Acquisitions. “It's investing for the long-term,” says Hersh, “in physical assets, including plants and equipment, as well as in people.”

Looking ahead, Cahalane says the next logical step is to expand internationally, from both a selling and a manufacturing end, in Europe and Asia. “Life is not getting any easier for any of us in manufacturing,” says Hersh. “You have to be looking at how to make money for your customers and then to hopefully piggyback on their success. And that's not an easy task!”

For 70 years, however, American Roller has proved to be up to its tasks.

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