Is there a manufacturing renaissance in Centre County?

John Bonislawski, of Homeland Manufactoring Services, shows one of the company’s circuit boards on Jan. 11.
John Bonislawski, of Homeland Manufactoring Services, shows one of the company’s circuit boards on Jan. 11. adrey@centredaily.com

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Business Matters special section.

The machines appear to work at the speed of light and the people methodically finalize every detail at a snail’s pace.

The technologies and skilled employees work together, perfecting the manufacturing of circuit boards so much that the company reached No. 16 on Inc. 5000’s 2017 list for growth.

There’s a three-year plan, according to Homeland Manufacturing Services owner John Bonislawski, who called off a five-year plan when the company accelerated past self-projections of its growth in College Township.

Homeland — named appropriately given Bonislawski’s service in the Army National Guard — began in his 300-square-foot basement. Bonilawski wanted to launch a business that would focus on local job opportunities instead of the outsourcing he witnessed under employers.

Bonislawski has 22 employees and plans to have at least 40 by the end of 2018 in an 11,000-square-foot facility off Clyde Avenue. The company might appear to be growing at breakneck speed, but Bonislawski said he has a measured approach that at times has included turning down large contracts that the business might not be able to deliver on until it moves into a larger facility.

“I prefer the model of KCF Technologies, Homeland and Restek, those types of companies,” Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins said. “They’re small, growing entrepreneurs and unlock intellectual property from Penn State or they’re in a field and they are in the right place at right time. They are building up and providing good paying jobs and diversifying the local economy. Instead of paying for a big company to come in with 500 jobs Centre County is better off supporting local business and creating three to 10 jobs at a time across more than 150 startups. It’s more diverse. It’s safer and improves quality of life.”

Higgins warned against the Foxconn model that has cost Wisconsin taxpayers about $4.5 billion. The planned manufacturing facility in Racine County could employ up to 13,000 people, but expenses to the public have been about 50 percent more than anticipated.

“In the FoxConn deal the company isn’t paying the salaries for every employee the first year,” Higgins said. “That’s the state, which is also paying for infrastructure and the building. FoxConn has zero cost in year one. An entrepreneurial economy creates a more vibrant, safer system.”

There is a quite renaissance of manufacturing in Centre County where the days of Murata Electronics and Corning might be over — 47 percent of the county’s manufacturing jobs were lost from 2001 to 2008, according to an American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition report.

But there are advantages of keeping manufacturing in Centre County, Bonislawski said. His company’s focus on three core principles — quality, customer service and people — have been key.

Bonislawski hires “needle in a haystack people” who have exceptional commitment and integrity, sometimes opting for those with little experience because he believes they have intangibles that can’t be taught. He also has faith that United States companies will buy from a homeland-based company that produces high quality circuit boards compared to foreign manufacturers.

“Our quality, our customer service and our people are the keys to our success,” he said. “We hardly ever get products returned, but there are mistakes. When that happens I’ve been known to jump in my car and drive straight to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and fix it on the spot. I believe that much in customer service.”

Higgins noted that other companies like Diamondback Truck Covers and Advanced Powder Products, which also made Inc. 5000 in 2017, have followed similar models. The companies are two of 28 in Philipsburg where 12 of 15 lots in the regional business park have been sold.

Students from Penn State, Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science & Technology and local high schools also provide a wealth of skilled labor in the county where the unemployment rate is 3.6 percent. Higgins said where manufacturing makes up about 4 percent of work in the county, it used to make several times that 30 years.

“I think the future of Centre County manufacturing is in smaller to medium size facilities that touch on technology or customization,” Higgins said. “There’s a bright future for manufacturing, which is one of a number of different growth areas in Centre County’s economy.”

The future of Centre County manufacturing might include a $50 million bottling facility built by Nestle Waters, which said in January that Centre County is the frontrunner for its next location.

The company is considering environmental sustainability, local infrastructure and community support for the project, according to Nestle Waters Natural Resources Manager Eric Andreus, before a decision is made. Nestle’s goal is to have a new factory built by 2020.

Another manufacturing building could be under construction at the same time.

Bonislawski will buy property somewhere in Centre County — he has looked into several locations — and build a permanent home for Homeland.

“I’m a central Pennsylvania guy, born and raised in Williamsport,” Bonislawski said. “I landed back here and I’m committed to doing whatever I can do to create manufacturing jobs. This is where I’ll be, and this is where we’ll be for the long haul. This isn’t a short term play at all.”

Shawn Annarelli: 814-235-3928, @Shawn_Annarelli