by: Tom Buchanan, Wire Rope Exchange Magazine
Nearly 30 years ago, a small New Jersey start-up company embarked on a risky journey that would ultimately turn into a gleaming success story. This successful journey embodies what is often coined “The American Dream”. In June of 1981 the owners of Bilco Wire Rope & Supply Corp. first rolled open the over head doors to their sparse 2,000 square foot warehouse. While many of the necessary components were either non-existent or in short supply, one item was stocked in abundance — Enthusiasm.
Fortunately, for owners Barry Lemberg and Eric Meder, this enthusiasm was the key ingredient needed to put together three decades of success within the wire rope and rigging industry.
Recently, I sat down with Barry and Eric and learned not only how these men shaped their company into a success but also how they plan to ensure consistent growth and strong return into the next generation.
Introduced by a mutual friend just after finishing high school, Barry and Eric’s personalities immediately meshed and the two became instant friends. The pair compliments each other like peanut butter and jelly. While Barry is enthusiastic and constantly pushing forward, Eric is laid back, thoroughly grasping each detail and concept before making an important decision.
Barry Lemberg attended Union College in Cranford, New Jersey, but as Barry explains, he was more of a social success than an academic one in his younger years. In 1969, Barry left school early to pursue an exciting opportunity with British Ropes (now Bridon American). “The opportunity was too good to pass up. I was 19 years old and they offered me a sales representative position in Chicago paying $150 a week,” Barry recalls. Not being the type to start something without finishing it, Barry returned to New Jersey in 1973 and completed his degree while simultaneously continuing his career in the wire rope industry. It was back in New Jersey that Barry met his wife, Fran, and also began to develop the entrepreneurial spirit that would become so valuable when an opportunity presented itself just a few years down the road.
While Barry considered academics his weakness, Eric always excelled in the field of academia. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1971 with a degree in Economics. Eric continued on to receive his MBA in International Finance from the University of Chicago. It was in Chicago where Barry and Eric’s paths crossed again and discussions began on the possibility of starting their own company. The timing, however, was not yet right and after graduating University of Chicago, Eric began a career with Fidelity Union Trust in Newark, NJ. Following two frustrating years in the banking world, Eric’s entrepreneurial hunger sparked and he craved to be in business for himself.
In 1975, he approached his old friend Barry with a business proposition that revolving around importing wicker and rattan items from overseas. As Eric explains, “We were just two crazy kids trying to make a living.” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the difficulty in maintaining consistent hours and steady income proved too high a hurdle for the young entrepreneurs and their initial endeavor was short lived. In 1977 Barry returned to his wire rope roots and went to work for Anchor Wire Rope, while Eric wound down the wicker and rattan business. While some would abandon their entrepreneurial spirit after an unproductive venture, Barry and Eric saw the demise of the wicker business in quite a different light. “That was probably the best thing that ever happened to us,” explained Eric, “We both got valuable hands-on experience and proved to ourselves that even though this business didn’t pan out, the idea of starting our own company was not so far fetched.”
Three years would pass before another opportunity would arise for Barry and Eric. In June of 1981, a year after his first child was born, Barry decided that he felt at home in the wire rope industry and the timing was right to move on from Anchor Wire Rope and begin his own company. Barry said of leaving Anchor Wire Rope, “I was working hard, building relationships, I liked the work but I wanted do it for myself. I knew the companies relied on my experience. It wasn’t Anchor Wire Rope they trusted; they trusted me as a salesman. I had no doubt that I could run a successful business in the wire rope industry.” With marriage, mortgage, and a growing family, Barry set out on his own confident and excited to face the challenges ahead.
Like any great captain of industry, Barry was confident of his strengths, but also cognizant of his weaknesses. He needed a partner, someone who had not only the background for the financial aspect, but also the patience for handling the day-to-day workings of a business. Naturally, he talked with his longtime friend and former business partner about starting a wire rope company. Eric, who had recently met his future wife, Susan, wanted to establish his own business before settling down and starting a family. Once again, the two longtime friends were back in business together. This go around, the timing was perfect. However, there was one large detail that needed to be addressed before they could be off and running — the naming of the business. The two tossed around possibilities until they stumbled across the idea of “Bilco” (stemming from Barry’s initials). The two loved the name and not only was a company born, but also a nickname. To this day, Barry is known around the industry not as Barry Lemberg but rather as Barry Bilco.
Over the years, Barry and Eric would continue to nurture the growing business, always keeping an open ear and eye on possible growth opportunities. In 1987, such an opportunity presented itself when Barry and Eric teamed up with a former co-worker of Barry’s, Richard Doran, to give birth to a manufacturing division named Doran Sling & Assembly. Doran Sling would go on to specialize in the manufacturing of wire rope and chain slings, along with state of the art synthetic rope assemblies for the marine-towing industry. The expansion would continue with three additional divisions entering into what would later be termed “The Bilco Group.” The Shaw Belting division was brought aboard in 1995. Shaw manufactures a complete line of nylon and polyester web sling and tie down products. Five years later the Web-Tec Chafe Guard division was instituted to manufacture a line of chafe guard protection for all types of synthetic slings. Lastly, in 2004 East Coast Anchors was launched in an effort to service the needs of the growing number of heavy marine and tug boat customers. Of the five companies, only Shaw Belting was purchased. The company was originally established in 1942 as one of the first nylon web sling companies in the United States. The two partners founded the remaining divisions as a means to diversify and satisfy the company’s always growing customer base.
Finding new opportunities year after year is a challenge, but diversification has proven key to weathering the current recession. The Bilco Group is currently participating in a variety of multi year projects that include the rebuilding at Ground Zero, the new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and various Homeland Security projects.
Opportunity, according to Barry, “has a lot to do with timing, luck and simply the people you work with. Inside and out of the office, the community around your business makes it grow and thrive. We’ve had great people with us to help create these opportunities.”
Barry strongly believes that a successful business can only be as strong as the people who make up the company, stating that, “Our employees are knowledgeable, dependable and have been with the company since the beginning. They are family and we take care of our family.” When asked if anyone stands out over his years in business, Barry is quick to point out numerous success stories but more generally stresses the vital importance of a strong collective workforce to the continued success of the company.
Bilco began to receive and fill more and more orders during the first year and by the end of 1981 Barry and Eric needed another employee to assist with the growing work-load. In January of 1982 Bilco hired its’ first employee, Peter Grossmann, to help alleviate some of the growing pressure.
Barry had worked alongside Peter at Anchor and knew Peter had a knack for the business and was someone who would be willing to make the sacrifices a small, growing business required. Grossmann proved even more valuable than expected. As Eric explains, “He put his full heart into every job; he became our anchor of inside sales.” Eric continued, “Peter is extremely hands-on. He’s here before the office opens and stays until the last shipment is loaded.” Today, Grossmann is also the traffic manager, handling all inbound and outbound freight.
Three years into the journey it became quite evident that the fearsome threesome of Barry, Eric, and Pete would not be enough manpower to handle the exponentially growing business.
In 1984 Mike Cuccinello became Bilco’s second employee and first outside sales representative. With Barry, Mike, and Pete covering all aspects of the business from the inside, Mike hit the ground running as he eagerly and successfully drummed up new customers from Maine down to Virginia. Following Bilco’s acquisition of Shaw, Mike assumed the role as President of the company and set out to introduce Shaw’s unique product line to Bilco’s growing customer base. Since Shaw was initially based out of Middletown, CT, Cuccinello would travel between NJ and CT twice a month to monitor operations until 2000 when the Shaw division was relocated to NJ. Cuccinello juggled his responsibilities as President of Shaw and outside sales representative for Bilco and Doran until six years ago. In 2004, he left his road warrior days behind him to join Bilco’s management team. Today he currently serves as Barry and Eric’s right hand man in the role of Senior Vice President of Sales.
For most of the early years of Bilco, Barry and Eric served as Jacks-of-all-trades, taking part in any activities necessary to run a business including the handling of warehouse duties. However, as business began to take off in the mid 80’s, Barry and Eric realized the need to focus on their individual strengths thus making it essential to find someone trustworthy and hard working to run the warehouse. In 1986 the two were lucky enough to find a fresh-faced 18-year-old named Louis Esteves who had recently moved to the area from Puerto Rico. Esteves initially worked in the warehouse handling all shipping and receiving, however, his ambition quickly propelled him to role of managing foreman. As Bilco grew over the years, so too did Esteves’ responsibilities in the shop. He currently manages the Doran Sling division and is the senior splicer of both wire rope and synthetic rope. Furthermore, Esteves handles all walk-in business and offers a multi lingual capability that is an invaluable asset to serving Bilco’s culturally diverse customer base.
When Barry and Eric purchased Shaw in 1995, business for the nylon sling company had “literally and figuratively gone to the dogs.” Over the years prior to the take over, Shaw had increasingly lost more and more customers and accordingly more and more employees.
At the time of the takeover in 1995 Charles and Kate Voight, and their 3 four-legged security team of Sammy, Holly, and Brutus were the only employees remaining. Barry and Eric decided to hire the “Voigt Team” into the Bilco group hoping to rely on their expertise and experience in the webbing industry to ensure a smooth transition. After some time remaining in Middletown, CT, Bilco consolidated the group under one roof and the Voigt’s relocated to New Jersey. Charles Voigt handles domestic purchasing and, along with Peter, inside sales. Kate Voigt handles all scheduling and production for Shaw.
In 1996, Kyle Harrington, fresh from Wall Street, joined the Bilco Group with an interest in Industrial Sales. Initially, Barry worried that a Wall Street trader could not flourish in the wire rope industry. However, Kyle’s passion and high energy level were evident immediately, and he “learned the ropes” quickly. Harrington became instrumental in diversifying Bilco’s product line and introducing the Bilco brand to new industries. Kyle focused on the heavy marine sector, quickly making it a large part of the Bilco business, and helped develop new business opportunities in Bilco’s Anchor Chain, Web-Tec and synthetic rope product lines.
Looking ahead is key to any businessman, Barry and Eric already have an eye towards the future and are quick to point out the ‘second generation’ they hope will continue the Bilco legacy. Barry’s son, Jason Lemberg, has been working for The Bilco Group for 5 years and is now handling outside sales in an effort to expand Bilco’s client base. Meanwhile, Eric’s son, Alex Meder, recently graduated college and is training in all aspects of the company as well.
You make your own success – and it is obvious that Barry and Eric embraced the American Dream by not only establishing a company built on valued employees but also by seizing the challenges of changing times. However, for as much as they have already accomplished, Barry and Eric are far from content. “We have barely even scratched the surface of what we feel Bilco can achieve.” It is this type of enthusiasm that has secured the company’s strong foundation and will guide the next generation of Bilco to the top.
Article written by Tom Buchanan for the Wire Rope Exchange Magazine: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of the Bilco Group. Black and white photos courtesy of Wire Rope News.