Are Shop Owners Born or Made?

Owning an independent machine shop is different from working in machining from within a larger company. Here are some thoughts about the differences.


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The readership of Modern Machine Shop includes both owners of independent shops and managers of machining groups within larger companies. Recently, while MMS’s circulation manager and I were talking about our different types of readers, he asked me where shop owners come from ... and whether it was natural for one of these types of metalworking leaders to migrate into becoming the other type.

It’s an interesting topic. My response comes from anecdotal impressions, based entirely on my own contacts and observations. What would you add to the points I offer below? Here are my thoughts:
1. Manufacturing managers sometimes do strike out to become shop owners. However, the move is not necessarily natural. Maneuvering through the culture and politics of a large organization is a very different matter from reconciling the competing challenges of cash flow, customers and employees.
2. Those two types of challenges are so different that many corporate employees who become shop owners discover they have to cultivate different abilities to make this transition. They may have to change their personal makeup somewhat. The change is not instantaneous—it may involve a period of discomfort and disorientation.
3. When a person does leave a corporate environment to found an independent shop, the reason is sometimes that this person has a certain attribute. The attribute might be called “independent mindedness” or it might be called “bull-headedness,” depending on who is doing the labeling.
4. Sometimes a person leaves a corporate environment because of an idea that simply will not be realized unless he or she does it personally. The idea might involve a better way to build a manufacturing enterprise or a better way to serve a certain type of customer. The person with this idea might also have the attribute described in point 3, or he or she might make due with only the idea or the attribute, but not both.
5. The most frequent place today’s shop owners have come from is not from the corporate world, but from shop-owner families. A shop owner today is likely to have built on the experience of a parent who also owned a shop (maybe the same one). I do not know if family machining businesses are now coming to an end more quickly than new ones are being founded, but this seems a fair assumption. If true, then this source for raising new shop owners will decline.
6. I do not recall ever having met a person who went the opposite way. That is, I don’t recall a person abandoning ownership of an independent shop in order to take a corporate manufacturing position. I do not say this doesn’t happen, but it’s uncommon enough that perhaps I have never encountered an example. 
7. Sometimes a job loss kick-starts a new shop. A laid-off manufacturing professional might feel that founding his own shop is the best option left. This is scary, and the predicament is not necessarily a foundation for success. However, some businesses that are solid today can look back proudly to tell this story of their beginning.
What points would you add? What have you seen or experienced about the reality of owning a machining business, managing a manufacturing group or making the transition from one of these worlds to the other? Please share your comments below.