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Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Richard Jenney, owner of Empire Welding Fabricating Co., shows foam parts that can be made at his business.

People in Cortland County don’t know the power of small business, said Richard Jenney.

“People don’t have a clue what we do in Cortland County. It’s unreal what people do in Cortland County. They know about big business. Not small business,” said Jenney, 77, the owner of Empire Welding Fabricating Co. on Route 392 in Virgil, a two-man operation that makes parts for testing labs, hospitals, schools and construction companies. It uses plastic, paper, Plexiglas, foam and steel, with machining centers, lathes and plasma tables.

The company also has a patented rescue trailer and makes six-foot, trailer-mounted barbecue grills. It has storage units available and is a source for U-Haul rentals.

“When I first started this business, 90 percent of the work was for farmers. It’s turned right around. Now we do work for big companies, ETL and Cornell,” Jenney said.

Jenney has a huge warehouse that he’s expanded three times through his 41 years at the business. He’s been a welder a lot longer, since he got out of Homer High School, where he learned the art in class. “Nelson Wright taught me,” Jenney said.

He stuck with it because he was in demand.

“Everyone found out I knew how to weld,” he said. “I worked at Brockway Motors for 10 years before they closed. I was a welder down there, too.”

Manufacturing a business

The business has morphed into parts manufacturing using computer numerical control machining centers, lathe and plasma tables.

Jeff Holcomb, who has worked for Jenney for 23 years, is priceless for his knowledge of computers and technical expertise in setting up a job.

“He’s doing a super job,” Jenney said. “He’s actually grown this business with the machining.”

The range of jobs is unlimited. The pair can take a customer’s print of a part and recreate it in metal or plastic, whether brackets for a playground in Lansing or molds for making two-by-fours out of plastic and old clothes, Jenney said. They supply molds for a company in Auburn, where “a guy goes around the world and sets up plants for foreign companies.”

Other components are shipped to a company in Marathon to paint. “We do molds, make molds, all kinds of things,” Jenney said.

CNC machining uses computer controls to remove layers of material from a stock piece and produces a custom-designed part, reports, an organization that connects industrial buyers and engineers with manufacturers. CNC machining can be used in automotive, aerospace, construction and agricultural industries, to make anything from car frames, surgical equipment, gears, airplane engines, to hand and garden tools.

“We start out sometimes with a chunk of steel, like here. When it’s done, it will be something (completely) different,” Jenney said.

He doesn’t have a favorite job. “Anything that I can make money on,” he said.

Holcomb talked Jenney into the use of computer operated machines. “He’s good at it. We started out. Jeff has learned as we go.”

Now the pair’s parts go to Syracuse, New Jersey, Auburn and McGraw.

The warehouse has large boxy machining centers that hold blocks of plastic or metal in place by screws or bolts. Sharp tools are lowered down by a lever to make precise cuts, guided by computers.

“This is our plasma table, where we cut all different shapes and sizes,” said Jenney, on a Feb. 14 tour. “It’s a 5- by 10-foot table. It cuts up to 5/8 inches of steel.”

His lathe: “It’s just phenomenal what it can do,” he said. The lathe can make parts to 0.001 of an inch, thread internally or externally plastic or metal or drill out shafts.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Jeff Holcomb organizes plastic blocks that will be made into a part Feb. 14 on a Haas machining center at Empire Welding Fabricating Co., in Virgil.

Small-business resources

“Take a second look at what we have here,” said Eric Mulvihill, economic development and community relations specialist at the Cortland County Business Development Corp. “A lot of times the community tends to put itself down, and not take advantage of the resources here.”

The BDC has funding available for facades, downtown business and small business programs, he said.

“Right now, we are in the process of administering a $300,000 business grant program Cortland County received from an American Rescue grant for small businesses,” Mulvihill said. “We are getting applications from small business start-ups.”

He is working with businesses to improve marketing, customer bases and expanding websites. “With the pandemic, people are looking to buy local and access products (remotely),” he said.

“We assist folks to identify needs for small business plans or write small business plans,” he said. “People may say, ‘now is the time to do it. How to invest in my dream.’ That’s where we come in, with resources.”

Expanding business

Jenney has branched out through the years. Fabricating is one limb.

“We have a patent on a product, the All Terrain Res-Q trailer,” Jenney said.

The trailer can carry sick or injured people off trails or densely wooded areas, towed by ATVs or snowmobiles, for search and rescue crews.

Jenney also added 75 storage units in the back of his warehouse available for rent. That’s doing well. He also rents U-Haul trailers and trucks.

“Years ago, when I worked at Brockway Motors, and they closed up, I learned not to put all my eggs in one basket,” Jenney said. “When one part of the business (slows up), another part can hold it up. That’s my philosophy in life, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Richard Jenney is the owner of Empire Welding Fabricating, which has been in business more than 40 years. He’s learned not to put all his eggs in one basket. He rents U-Haul trailers, offers storage space and sells 6-foot cookers and all-terrain rescue trailers from his business.

The work

Holcomb worked at a CNC machining center on a recent February day. If its vices are not installed to keep blocks in place, he might need an hour and a half to set it up. But for this particular job, for a Syracuse company, everything was in the machine, so it would need maybe a half-hour to put instructions in the computer and tools in place.

“Now I have 400-plus parts to do,” he said.

The pair can use a manufacturer’s print of a part, install it into the computer and then simulate the manufacture, giving the customer a quote before the part is made.

Holcomb said he didn’t have a favorite part of the job. “It’s all work, pretty much.”

He enjoys having to figure out a problem. “You might have to do reverse engineering,” he said.

“You have to be proficient in math, that’s the main thing,” Holcomb said. “You have to have a mindset: when you see a problem, you can correct it.”

Holcomb is adept at repairing the machines.

“I’ve always fixed things. I learned from my dad,” he said. “I have most of his woodworking equipment at home. It’s one of those things, you are a jack of all trades and master at none.”

He’s handy at electronics, telephones, wood working and plumbing. He says he’s learned mostly on his own, although he did take CAD drafting at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services for two years. Machining he learned from a friend.

Jenney said people ask him why he hasn’t retired yet.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.

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