For Rick Discher, it all started with a Corvette.
“I had a Corvette and wanted to customize it, but I didn’t know anything about fiberglass,” he said. “So, I thought I’d get a job at a fiberglass company and learn how to work with fiberglass.”
The Germantown native found a job doing just that at a company in Milwaukee.
Little did he know that he would soon make a move and start his own business.
During his drive to work one morning, Discher was listening to Paul Harvey on the radio. Among the topics of the syndicated commentator on that particular day was how “kids get caught in the concrete jungle,” Discher said.
He said Harvey talked about how young people get their first job, car and apartment, and before they know it, are stuck and cannot leave.
Discher thought about that and while later looking through ads in a newspaper, he saw a job opening that peaked his interest. The position was in the fiberglass bathroom unit of a Waupaca company. He applied for and got the job. That was in 1976.
While Discher was working there, he got a call from someone in Milwaukee, asking him if he would be interested in making car bodies. When he had worked at a fiberglass company in Milwaukee, he had also worked part time in a pattern shop.
He began doing so, and about a year later, started Custom Fiberglass Molding.
“I was 23 when I started my own business,” he said. “I took a gamble. I pretty much worked by myself close to the first year. Then, orders kept coming in and I hired a few people.”
One of the first employees he hired was Jeff Jansen.
“He’s been with me 33 years. We hovered around six employees for a long time,” Discher said. “I think it was the early ’90s when we started doing work for PDQ Manufacturing in Green Bay. They make car wash equipment. We did quite a bit of work for them. It was a big account.”
Others followed, work for Thermal Care in Illinois and for Arion Aircraft in Tennessee.
Discher, who belongs to the Experimental Aircraft Association, said at monthly meetings of the association, members talk about what they are building.
“I said I was working on a ski,” he said. “Someone asked if I’d be interested in making an airplane cowl – in making one of those.”
That resulted in other jobs, including Custom Fiberglass Molding making the new seating and canopies for EAA AirVenture’s trams.
“Part of the reason why I think we’re still here,” Discher said, “is we make fiberglass for a variety of different industries.”
Those industries include aircraft, signs, industrial applications and truck bodies.
“Another thing we do,” he said, “is we can take a model (3-D) from a customer and we can create patterns. We can cut our own patterns and make our own molds. We also build the molds for other fiberglass companies.”
Custom Fiberglass Molding also works with Everbrite.
Everbrite does the exteriors for McDonald’s restaurants. The remodeled stores have new yellow roof cap elements and canopies that go over the drive-through windows.
Guess who makes them.
“They called me up,” Discher said. “We do have a website. They got on our website and said, ‘Can you guys handle this?’ We’re going on three years with these guys.”
Custom Fiberglass Molding has always been located on Little River Road, off of U.S. Highway 10, near Weyauwega.
In business for 34 years, Discher says they can be creative with fiberglass. The company is also creative in other ways.
About three years ago, the employees began working four, 10-hour days instead of five, eight-hour days.
He told them to give it a try for a few months, saying if efficiency dropped, they would return to their five-day work schedule.
“The first month, it slid down a bit. People weren’t used to working 10-hour days,” Discher said. “Then, it came back. We found it to be more efficient with less start-up and stop times.”
He tracks both their efficiencies and their competition.
“To be honest, our biggest competition is China,” he said.
Last December, Discher, his wife, Sandy, and two employees went to China for two weeks.
“Their labor is so cheap. A good job there pays $1.50 per hour, and that’s a good job,” Discher said. “So, if something takes them 10 hours to do, I have to get it done in one hour. Our goal is to retain our jobs here through technology and automation. We really want to keep jobs here.”
Discher said his company has lost contracts with companies who chose to go overseas and that what they need to do is use technology to stay ahead of the game.
Product costs are driven by the cost of the raw materials needed to make them.
While China’s raw material cost is similar, “they beat us up on labor costs,” he said.
Discher said the largest fiberglass manufacturer in the world is located in China and that company invited them there to show them their plant.
“I thought they were going to pressure me to shift some of my high-end work to them,” he said.
However, that was not the case.
Discher said the company showed Custom Fiberglass Molding how the materials it uses are actually manufactured.
He continues to think about how his company can stay competitive in today’s global market.
In 2010, about eight employees were added following a substantial expansion project that added 15,000 square feet. The space was necessary for a new product, expected to begin production this year.
The company’s main building is 55,000 square feet, and Discher said they also have a painting facility located across the road.
“I think for awhile, we should be pretty good. Obviously, we have to use the space we have wisely,” he said.
There are several reasons why Custom Fiberglass Molding has remained at its current location.
“We really do have a good workforce,” he said.
A total of 41 people are employed there, and many have been with the business for a long time.
Discher said their location also allows for access to U.S. 10.
As he talks about growth, he also remembers setbacks.
A fire in 1999 burned the original building to the ground.
“That was a rough time,” he said. “At that time, we had 30 employees. We split everyone up – 10 people on three shifts in that building (Plant 2 had just been built).”
As molds were rebuilt, they started working again.
“One year later, we had 11 of the original 30 people. It was tough,” he said. “We replaced the original 16,000-square-foot building with that same amount. We were in that building the first week of April 2000.”
Discher said it was like starting over again.
“I didn’t think about not rebuilding. To be honest, that never crossed our minds to not continue,” he said.
He worried about his employees and getting parts to his customers. The fire happened not long before Christmas.
Today, Custom Fiberglass Molding is fully sprinkled.
As for Discher, he continues to be surprised by the different directions his business has taken.
“I never thought I would have my own company,” he said. “It just kind of happened by accident.”