January/February 2008

Article & photo by Ramona du Houx

On a side street in downtown Winthrop, operating out of a former milk manufacturing building, is one of central Maine’s best-kept global economy business secrets — Alternative Manufacturing, Inc.

In November, suiting up with foot guards that eliminate static, blue coats and safety glasses, visitors — including the honored guest, Governor John Baldacci — geared up for a tour into a the world of precision electronic device manufacturing.

“AMI took an old factory and turned it into a state-of-the-art facility that’s doing back boards for security systems for major corporations in the global economy. They’re doing it right in Winthrop, and are very successful around the world,” said the governor. “It shows people what can be done anywhere in the state of Maine.”

The high-tech components manufacturer has Fortune 500 customers.

“Many of our clients come from Canada and the European Union,” said Winfield Jackson, AMI’s executive officer. “We’ve got customer relationships in four continents. We are definitely a supplier in the global economy.”

As experts in outsourcing circuit boards and other sophisticated electronic technology, AMI has been competing in an ever-growing industry since 1989. The company fulfills electronic manufacturing services requirements from companies like Tyco, Bath Iron Works, and even Harley Davidson.

The contract manufacturing industry looks to AMI for quality, reliability, precision, and cost efficiency, entrusting AMI to manufacture the major components of their electronic designs.

“Quality control is crucial to what we do,” said Hilary White, quality control manager, standing in front of an array of computers that displayed parts currently being manufactured. “We’re constantly looking to improve our systems in any way we can.”

Introducing green standards has been a major transition for the company. These ROH standards are becoming more important to customers looking to minimize their carbon footprint.

“The European Union won’t accept components with lead in them,” said CEO Kim Vandermeulen, as the governor was shown a machine that solders without using lead. The machine was paid for by a grant awarded to AMI by the state and the town of Winthrop. Maine now has the same ROH green standards as the European Union, and so does California.

With an increase in demand for security systems in the world since 911, AMI has obtained business to manufacture parts of swipe-card devices.

“It’s an increasing sector,” said Steve Martin, vice president of technical services. “We continually keep abreast of what new technologies are in demand.”

The company’s growth has been phenomenal.

“We were founded in 1989 with about ten part-time employees and made about $300,000 for a year. Now we have 150 employees and in the last week of September we shipped three quarters of a million in profit — that week. That’s twice as much as we did in a year back in 1992,” said Mark Fortier, Chairman of the Board.

The working relationship between AMI and customers is all-important. Putting the customer’s needs at top of their priorities has proven to be the key. Fortier, a former lawyer who joined AMI ten years ago, keeps the customers happy.

“We give all our attention to customer needs. We’re on the phone every day discussing everything from deliveries to design products. Those conference calls are usually an hour and a half every day,” said Fortier.

In the global economy more and more companies outsource their needs, focusing on businesses aspects.

“We are really just another arm of the customer’s operation,” said Fortier. “The engineering is theirs, they do all the marketing and selling; we are involved in the production and delivery. It truly is a partnership. Fifteen years ago they would have been manufacturing themselves, but when you outsource you can go to people who have more expertise in that area.”

And that is exactly what AMI has, expertise, a quality workforce, and dedication. They fill a growing worldwide outsourcing need, right here in Winthrop.

“We do just this; it is our expertise. We’ve got great people, and we are looking to hire more,” said Fortier. “Our goal in three years is to be twice as big as we are now. We are convinced that the North American electronic manufacturing services market (EMS) isn’t going away. Not all outsourcing will go to Asia. A customer last month may have sold twenty units and this month they are selling a thousand. They need to respond to that increase in demand in a timely way. Because of the distances, outsourcing to Asia (in EMS) isn’t good for customers in this hemisphere. EMS is now a $250 billion business and around 20 percent of that is done in North America. That’s an enormous market. The overall business is growing. We’re just proud to part of it.”

In an extremely competitive business, in the world, AMI has built a solid reputation for quality and efficiency in Maine.