Thursday February 15, 2018

92 Years Young and Still Going Strong

Bruce Phelps remains at helm of Fulton Tool Company after 59 years
By Payne Horning

    Bruce Phelps

    Retirement has never been a consideration for Bruce Phelps.


    The owner and founder of Fulton Tool, an Oswego County company that uses computer-controlled machinery to make parts for manufacturers, chuckles when he’s asked at what point he plans to hand over the reins to his family.


    “That will be when the mortician looks at me,” Phelps said.


    Phelps is the only remaining founder of Fulton Tool. His former partners died decades ago. Since that time, Phelps has steered the business through rough waters, including the hemorrhaging of Upstate New York’s manufacturers and a 2003 fire that destroyed the facility. He’s also seen Fulton Tool grow over the years, adapting to a changing marketplace by expanding its footprint online and finding new customers outside of New York and the United States.


    The resurgence is coming to a peak in 2018. The company is adding space and staff to accommodate its largest backlog of orders since the 1990s. And Phelps plans to be there for it. That unrelenting work ethic stems from his upbringing in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, where he got his first job at age 7.


    “I always had a job,” Phelps said. “My father wouldn’t allow anybody not to have a job.”


    Phelps’ father William owned a hardware and farming supply store in the small Canadian village. During the Depression, money was tight for many of its residents. So William would sell parts to farmers in exchange for maple syrup.


    “We were right in the middle of the sugar production in Ontario,” Phelps said. “A farmer would come in and need a double harness and didn’t have any money — there wasn’t any money in the Depression. It was all trading. And he would trade a double harness for so many gallons of maple syrup.”


    William would then sell that syrup to employees along the Canadian National Railway, which is where Phelps came in. It was his job to help build the wooden crates used to ship the syrup.


    “All I had to do was nail them together,” Phelps said. “That was my job after school. And in the spring, my job was to fill the syrup cans.”


    Phelps didn’t make much for the work — one dime per week. He would quickly blow through that when the mobile movie theater, operated by a traveling projectionist, would stop by the town hall to show movies. The cost of a ticket at the time was 15 cents.


    As he got older, Phelps started working at his father’s store as a clerk. That’s when his salary increased, albeit by his own doing. Phelps said he was slipping money out of the register. It wasn’t long before his father figured out what was happening.


    “He called me in the office and said, ‘You’re going to have to help me. I got a clerk out there that’s stealing.’ So he said, ‘You’re a big boy now. I shouldn’t keep giving you 10 cents a week. You just take whatever you need out of there and leave a note so I’ll know how much you’ve got and I’ll find the person who’s stealing.’ And that was the end of it,” Phelps said.


    Phelps said his father knew who was taking the money, but he didn’t want to call his son out. He wasn’t a disciplinarian.


    What his father was, Phelps said, was a great teacher. He learned a great deal from his father about business during his adolescence, despite the fact that William only had a fourth-grade education. Phelps said his father never passed up an opportunity to teach his children the trade.


    “We’d sit around the table for dinner and my father would say to us, my sister and I, ‘Joe Brown was in my store today and he bought some 22 bullets. And they were 49 cents. He gave me a dollar bill. How much would I give him back?’ We both came out of that with rapid calculation,” Phelps recounted.

    After graduating from high school, Phelps joined the Canadian Air Force. He served from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. Phelps said it was a dream come true.


    “For a kid out in the country, flying a plane was a great thing,” Phelps said. “It was exciting.”


    He returned to Delta to work with his father until he met his wife Barbara. She was vacationing with family in 1946 in the Beverly Lakes, near his hometown. Phelps was canoeing nearby when he saw Barbara sitting at the end of a bluff. She waved at him.


    “I turned right around,” Phelps said.


    They were married later the following year.


    After the honeymoon, Phelps moved with Barbara to her hometown of Fulton. Phelps said his father wanted him to stay and help run the store. But William knew that Phelps had a better future elsewhere.

    “I think he could see the handwriting on the wall,” Phelp said. “He always told me if you ever start a business, start a business with more than one road in town and one road out. My father felt the small business like he had wouldn’t make it, and he was correct.”


    Larger, big-box stores in the area later drove many mom and pop stores out of business. Phelps said the block of stores he frequented as a child in Delta were derelict when he returned there with his family in 2016.


    The move to the U.S. turned out to be the right decision.


    Taking the plunge: Phelps started his career in Fulton at Sealright, a manufacturer of dairy products, later working in the company’s machine shop as an apprentice. That’s where he met his future business partner, Ed McGuane. The two decided they wanted to explore the possibility of part-time business opportunities.


    “My dad used to call me a plunger because I would jump into something without studying it hard enough,” Phelps said. “I would call him the same thing because that’s the way he did it. We were almost brothers in that respect.”


    And Phelps did make that leap of faith. To buy the necessary equipment and supplies, he and McGuane mortgaged their homes. The money was invested into a mail-order system for machine parts. Phelps had a good working knowledge of that system from his experience with his father’s maple syrup trade. Among other clients, Phelps said he sold a number of items to oil dealers.


    Joseph Metibier, the final founding member, joined Phelps and McGuane as the business started to take off. But getting the necessary capital to fully launch Fulton Tool Company proved to be a challenge.


    “Back then, there wasn’t good banking for new businesses starting,” Phelps said. “We had a couple of commercial banks in Fulton and then Fulton Savings, but the one commercial bank that we did our banking with wouldn’t loan us any money.”


    Fulton Tool was able to get the much-needed financing from a local businessman. Combined with what the three founders had saved, they were able to open the business in 1959. It started in a Fulton incubator.


    “We had a great year the first year,” Phelps said. “We probably didn’t make any profit, but we were in business.”


    Phelps joined the company full time in 1960. The three-man shop grew slowly, but surely. Fulton Tool would go on to employ 60 people in a 23,000-square-foot building, creating parts for large companies in Upstate like General Electric and Carrier. Phelps credits that, in part, to his fellow owners.


    “We all felt the same way. We wanted to make a mark that people would remember,” Phelps said. “They were good partners, and very aggressive.”


    Both McGuane and Metibier died about a decade after the business started, within two years of one another. Phelps said it was incredibly difficult to lose them, but he didn’t even contemplate leaving. In fact, his role at the business grew substantially. He came in off of the road and took over operations.


    Perseverance pays off: As the years passed, Phelps navigated the business through a changing landscape. Manufacturers were fleeing Upstate and the country altogether. Job shops like Fulton Tool were being forced out of business.


    So the company broadened its horizons. Phelps started courting business outside of New York, including what turned out to be a very valuable trip to Texas in the early 1980s.


    “Business had just gone flat here,” Phelps said. “At that time, the news pointed out that Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, along with Denver, had a lot of business. Their unemployment at that time and in those places was less than 4 percent and we were something like 7 or 8 percent. So I said to Barbara, ‘I’m going to go to Dallas.’”


    That trip started what would turn out to be a key change for Fulton Tool — moving into the defense industry. Another pivotal transformation was building a presence online. Where New York companies were once all of Fulton Tool’s customers, today they represent only 25 percent.


    Phelps’ ability to persist is one of his defining qualities, says George Joyce, who serves with Phelps on the board of Operation Oswego County, an economic development organization. He also operates a logistics business, Laser Transit, based in Lacona.


    “That’s dogged determination, that willingness to address whatever adversity gets in front of him — he never quits,” Joyce said. “Every challenge — he just moves on.”


    That perseverance was tested in 2003, when a fire ravaged most of Fulton Tool.


    “I felt devastated,” Phelps said. “We lost that whole manufacturing building.”


    Phelps said his top concern was keeping his employees working. The company bought a little machine shop in Granby. It only had enough space for five or six people to work, but it was enough to fill the orders for some of its customers.


    The company was out of commission for almost two years, according to Phelps. The questions of how to rebuild and where to do that were not easy, but he ultimately decided to stay in Fulton.


    “Some people, they would cash in at that point, but not Bruce,” Joyce said. “That’s the resiliency of his character.”


    The company has rebounded and is entering 2018 with more staff and orders than at the time of the fire.


    Giving back: Joyce says Phelps has been an invaluable member of Operation Oswego County since he joined in the 1970s, providing a pragmatic but optimistic viewpoint.


    “When I think of Bruce on the board, it’s always at the point of advocacy,” Joyce said. “He wants to do the right thing for the community and that’s what I enjoy about his outlook. He sees the big picture.”


    Phelps is also a board member of the Oswego County Workforce Development Board. He said it’s the kind of work he has always sought out because it helps others in the community.


    “It kind of works on the compassionate side of a businessman to do something for others,” Phelps said.


    Phelps also served on the executive committee of the National Tooling and Machining Association, and in 1985, he became the organization’s chairman. He had to relinquish much of the day-to-day operation of Fulton Tool during the tenure because of the travel involved with the one-year term. It required traveling to many of the association’s 1,500 chapters spread throughout the U.S., which Phelps said he enjoyed.


    “It was kind of fantastic because you would get to the airport and one of the members would pick you up,” Phelps said. “You would go out to dinner and get to know people. It was quite an honor.”


    Phelps said he is equally proud of the time he has devoted to family and church. But even after a lifetime of accomplishments, Phelps said he still can’t think of any reason to retire — even at 92.


    Work is part of who he is.