A paper-thin sheet of polyester thousands of feet long rolled about four miles an hour through a coating machine, filling the space at Elkridge Coating Technologies on Monday afternoon with a steady, low hum. It's the sound of chances taken, a business and jobs saved.
Not exactly what Bill Decker and his two partners necessarily had in mind only months ago, before they owned the place, before two of them had owned any business at all. But there was the opportunity, and they took it, rather than see the operation shut down, taking 20 jobs with it.
"You don't get a chance to do something like this very … often," said Decker, 57, a chemical engineer by training who had worked in the business in product development and sales for more than 11 years before people started hearing rumblings of change in the joint venture that owned the business.
By early fall last year it was clear the business was going to close. Used industrial equipment brokers already were snooping around.
By then, though, Decker had been talking with operations manager Gene Shellenberger, who'd been given a wild suggestion by an executive of one of the two joint venture partners: Why don't you buy the company?
Shellenberger, of Baltimore County, and Decker, of Howard County, had not owned businesses or run one, but they knew the products and the equipment in this relatively small, specialized industry. The company coats various sorts of paper and sheer plastic to prepare the materials for use in an array of products: adhesive tapes, sticky labels, display boards used at trade shows and museums, even murals at Dulles International Airport.
They called on Shellenberger's uncle, Ron Harden, of Baltimore County, who had years of management experience with the Public Storage company and also had his own business acquiring and managing self-storage operations. A partnership was born, but they still needed help.
Decker said he had a basic question: "How do you do this?"
He called Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who put him in touch with Lawrence F. Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. This sort of thing, Twele said, is "the meat and potatoes of what we do."
The county helped the partners renegotiate their lease, provided a $100,000 loan and enlisted the help of the Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority, which backed the partners in their application for a bigger loan from Howard Bank. That reassurance was key, Harden said, because for years the previous owner had run the operation at a loss, making it a tougher sell for a loan.
"We couldn't have gotten the loan approved without the support of the state," Harden said.
It was all rather nerve-racking for Decker, who was sailing into what for him were uncharted waters.
"There were some sleepless nights," said Decker, who had parted ways with the prior owner in the fall and was out of work.
He said he kept thinking, "I do not want to go get a job. I want to do this. I didn't want to work for someone else."
All the while, the work kept going, the paper and plastic on rolls four and five-feet wide kept running through the coater, a machine that stands nearly 30 feet high.
Several months after the previous owners delivered bad news, Decker had the good news that the deal was made. Elkridge Coating Technologies bought what was the manufacturing operation of Neschen GBC Graphic Films LLC, which had been owned partly by the German firm Neschen AG.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Neschen said its U.S. operations had been losing about $2 million a year when it announced an agreement to sell them.
The purchase saved the jobs of the 20 full-time employees in manufacturing.
"We were happy we were able to work with these local entrepreneurs who wanted to save this company," Twele said.
They cut the ribbon earlier this month, and the work goes on, but it's only been a few months. Too soon to call this a "success story," Decker said.
"Talk to me in another two years," he said.