MACFAB THEN AND NOW: Part One of a 2-part feature
In early 2016, as Macfab gets settled in with its new location and expanded facilities and resources, founder David Macmorine and current president, David’s son, Chris, look back to the company’s humble beginnings and discuss their plans for the future.
In Part One, David and Chris describe some of the ups and downs that preceded the official formation of Macfab Manufacturing. In Part Two, they give an overview of the company’s growth since then.
PART ONE: THE GOOD (AND THE NOT-SO-GOOD) OLD DAYS
Macfab’s “official” startup year was 1987, but its actual roots go back fifty years and then some. In 1960, David Macmorine was fresh out of high school when he got his first job, as a lab technician at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine’s Experimental Pathology division. He did then what he would do throughout his career: Take on the jobs that others couldn’t figure out. For students and faculty alike, David became the go-to guy, what he calls “the facilitator.” “I would buy the equipment, I would buy the chemicals, I would show them how to use them.”
For David the job got really interesting when the available equipment wasn’t adequate to the task at hand, and had to either be modified or built from scratch. “I was the one that had to figure out how to make things and communicate it to the machine shop.”
“There’s a communication problem between doctors and machinists. Machinists can decipher blueprints and they can make parts. Well, a doctor may come down with a piece of paper and a sketch on it – ‘I want this and this and this’ – and it didn’t always connect. I started doing devices for our lab and before you knew it, my boss would say, ‘Dr. So-and-So over at the Princess Margaret or Sick Kids Hospital needs something.’ I would go over and talk to them and I would think about it and make my sketch on yellow paper, a little hand sketch. So what I was doing in essence was bypassing the engineering.”
– David Macmorine
David continued to take a few courses “here and there,” usually staying only long enough to find exactly the answers he was looking for so he could get on with one of his projects. But offsetting his lack of formal education with a combination of inventiveness and technical savvy, David was soon working alongside some of Canada’s most distinguished scientists; during this period, apart from building or modifying their equipment, he was also credited as a co-author of eight major research papers.
Building a business from (below) the ground up
In 1966, ten years before leaving U of T, David moved with his young family from an apartment to their first house, and it was here that the seeds of what would eventually become Macfab were planted. “I started with a machine in the basement of the house. I ended up with two mills, two lathes, a drill press and a table saw, and I just made things.” By 1976, with the business starting to look promising, he came to a crossroads: “I was offered the position of chief technician for the Faculty’s Experimental Pathology division, and I had to make a decision. And I thought…. ‘Well, I’d like to be my own boss….’”
From 1976 to 1982, the company had a good run: “I’d made hundreds of different research items for Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto General, Mount Sinai, and after I started the business in 1976, that circle broadened. I spent all my time running back and forth at the same time I was developing these things.” David recalls getting his first sizeable order – for 4,500 tester racks – from the Canadian Red Cross. “We worked on it all summer…. I had our babysitter, he was a 15-year-old genius who was an experimenter and ended up working for me. I would cut the pieces of acrylic and I would set him up in the basement of his house with a drill press. And I would take them to the Red Cross in the station wagon, with inverted beer boxes turned inside out, full of these tester racks.” This project might well have been one of the many that young Chris, son number three, worked on, too.
“One thing I remember is always having a summer job, or part-time jobs, making a little bit of cash on the weekends, assembling a screw into some sort of part, or removing screws from a part – and working on a drill press probably far younger than I should have. Overall, it was a really good experience for me, having the mechanical background to help me in my career later.”
– Chris Macmorine
Going “gangbusters”, going bust, and starting all over
As David’s reputation began to spread, the orders began to grow and the business “was just going gangbusters.” “I had 16 employees and our sales back then would have been three or four hundred thousand dollars per year. We bought one of the first CNC machine tools in Canada, when there were only a couple of machine shops that had them.”
Some of the products designed and produced in the mid- to late-1970s
Recognizing his strengths but also his shortcomings, David saw that he’d been growing the company “by the seat of my pants.” The next logical step would be to share the workload, preferably with people who brought different or better skills to the table. In 1982, he merged his company with a competitor, expecting naturally enough to double their capacity and customer base. Things started off well, but most of the growth seemed to come from David’s customers. This imbalance, along with sharp, and increasingly apparent differences in management style and values, led inevitably to a serious clash.
When David proposed a buy-out in 1986, his partner shut the door, quite literally, and locked him out. As a result, with no equipment, no plans, no business records and no money, David was back to square one. “I had absolutely no income for the first five years. My wife got a job within a week of me being kicked out of the company – and at the time we had one kid in college, one in university and two in high school. And we struggled through.” For Chris, and indeed for the whole family, Dad’s lock-out was an early introduction to the harsher side of the business world. “
“At that point, I was in my last year of high school, and the savings he had set aside for all of the kids, including me, was gone, because they had to put it back into surviving. So I put myself through college, with their assistance of course, whenever they could help. It was a good lesson for me, because I learned there’s no free ride. But that was an emotional time for the whole family.”
– Chris Macmorine
That lawsuit, as David recalls, was to drag out for ten full years. “After that I spent ten years basically as a machinist and did whatever jobs I could.” It was a huge setback, but not insurmountable. Just a year after the lockout, in 1987, the new company, now called Macfab Manufacturing, was back in business. “I started with a little fourteen-hundred square-foot unit with friends that had about five thousand dollars in the business, and another friend that bought a little lathe for me, and I just started, step by step by step.”
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To view Part Two of Macfab Then and Now, click here