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HomeIllinois NewsMasters of Manufacturing: Ace Metal Crafts’ Jean Pitzo and Deb Benning

Masters of Manufacturing: Ace Metal Crafts’ Jean Pitzo and Deb Benning



Award-winning Ace Metal Crafts’ V Pres of Sales & Marketing Deb Benning with CEO Jean Pitzo

BENSENVILLE – Besides making customers happy and meeting deadlines with high quality products, at Ace Metal Crafts in Bensenville, “It’s all about the company culture," says CEO Jean Pitzo.

“We’re culture people, we’re all about the people that work for us,” Pitzo said during a recent company visit. “We can talk about metal fabrication, or we can talk about our company culture, whichever you want.”

Not only is Ace Metal Crafts’ culture unique, so is the fact that while the vast majority of manufacturers struggled to get through the 2008-2009 recession, Ace Metal Crafts nearly doubled.

“We grew 70 percent in the last recession,” Pitzo said.

So why and how did that happen? 

“One of the things that has been a key to our success is Deb Benning,” Jean said.

When Benning, Ace Metal’s vice-president of sales and marketing, joined the company, she took on many of Jean Pitzo’s responsibilities and quickly doubled the size of the company, then grew it by 50 percent again.

Benning’s experience in the steel industry prior to Ace Metal proved invaluable, but her being a key part of the leadership team during the 2008 recession was also crucial. 

Ace Metal Crafts’ metal work skyrocketed during the recession because two of their clients – the fast food industry and the single serving coffee phenomena – were hitting high demand levels in 2008 and 2009, along with environmental and pharmaceutical customers.

“During that time, people ate more fast food, and we make components for meat processing machines that supply that industry.  We were also making frames for a company that puts the coffee in those little cups,” Pitzo said. “It was exploding at the same time. While other companies had their foot off the accelerator, we were going full board.”

And because they were so busy, Ace needed more space to meet their customers’ demands. That’s when they moved to Bensenville from Franklin Park, where the company had been located for 51 years.

“It worked out perfectly. We had to get bigger space because we were jammed into 40,000 square feet. Now we’re in 82,000 square feet,” Pitzo said. “In 2011, the buildings were plentiful and less expensive.”

It was eight years before the 2009 recession that Ace Metal Crafts had their tough times, Pitzo said.

“In 2001, we were losing $5000 every day we opened the door,” she said. “It was the mad cow disease, and meat processing took a major hit. Then September 11, 2001 happened, and the bottom dropped out.”

“Everyone took a pay cut and sadly, we had to do some layoffs,” Benning said.

Still, despite all the ups and downs, Jean Pitzo says she loves every second as Ace Metal Crafts' CEO. Pitzo took over as a 31-year-old president in 1989, six years after her father, Jack Lichter, bought the business that was started in 1960 by 16 sheet metal workers.

In 1991, with an undergraduate degree in marketing and an MBA in finance from Northern Illinois University, Jean bought the company from her father and became the company’s CEO, and her sister Mary became the human resources manager.

Now in 2015, Ace Metal Crafts is thriving – and it’s partially because of the company’s unique “trust” culture.

“My father didn’t start the company, he bought it. He was a businessman – and very quickly it turned over into my hands,” Pitzo said. “I was 31, so I didn’t know how to do anything in the shop.  I still don’t know how to turn the equipment on, but I can buy it and finance it.  So, from day one I had to trust our workforce.

“There were many very good people that had been at Ace Metal Crafts for many years, and they had helped start the company. They helped me along the way, so all along I’ve always been about the trust,” she said.

“It was a unique situation,” she said. “I admire my father for turning it over to me, and I admire the men that helped me along the way to make this company successful.”

When Pitzo and Benning are asked by others why the company exists, they say, “To inspire and connect with people to have them unleash their potential and be free to express themselves.”

“We want people to be their best selves,” Benning said.

And when people are happy working, they are productive and are happier when they go home, Pitzo said.

Both Pitzo and Benning advocate “lean manufacturing,” a movement that has gained momentum over the past decade. Ace Metal Crafts has been selected by Toyota’s philanthropic arm to be one of three companies in the Chicago area to implement Toyota’s successful “lean manufacturing” strategy.

Ms. Benning is using the skills she’s acquired to serve on TMA’s Business Management Council, which is working to mentor a younger generation on leadership skills.

At the same time, the American Psychological Association bestowed Ace Metal Crafts with an award for psychologically safe work for the state of Illinois that they’ve cultivated for their 116 employees.

But Pitzo doesn’t want to give the wrong impression about Ace Metal Crafts being so caring of their team that they don’t push for deadlines to be met. Encouraging others to meet expectations builds a positive work experience, too.

“You can meet any challenges with the right attitudes and the right belief system,” she said.

Will a third generation succeed Pitzo at Ace Metal Crafts’ helm? 

Her daughter Angela, 26, is learning the business from the shop floor up, and Pitzo says she plans to hand her daughter the keys to the company just as her father did – when the time is right.

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Ace Metal Crafts is located in 484 Thomas Drive in Bensenville, Illinois or at www.acemetal.com .

Story first published in Technology & Manufacturing Association's monthly newsletter. Used by permission.


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