Cutting-tool maker Micro 100 grows into Meridian’s biggest manufacturer

The $15 million-a-year business sells from a catalog of 12,000 carbide tools to more than 600 U.S. distributors and others in 40 countries.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Dale Newberry remembers his father persuading him to be his business partner at a family birthday party in Lawndale, Calif.

It was 1969. Newberry had heard the pitch before. His father, Jack Newberry, was a master machinist. He wanted his son to help him mill some of the ultra-hard cutting tools for which he had hatched ideas. Father and son would sell them to machine shops in Southern California to use as cutting instruments.

At age 24, Newberry had just returned from his third tour of military duty. He served as an electrician on an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War. He was intrigued by his father’s invitation, but skeptical.

“We were talking about it at my folks’ house, and I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a try,’” Newberry recalled in August. “Dad was very ebullient. He could charm a snake. I always had to ask myself, ‘Is this on the up and up? Is this really true?’ I told myself I’d give it five years.”

So father and son went into business with two machines in Jack Newberry’s carport. He parked his displaced Toyota pickup in front.

The venture that began 44 years ago has evolved into Micro 100 Tool Corp. at 1410 E. Pine Ave., Meridian. The $15 million-a-year business sells from a catalog of 12,000 carbide tools to more than 600 U.S. distributors and others in 40 countries. The company has 110 employees and has been profitable since 1977.

Most of the man-made stuff in our lives was once cut by carbide tools from a chunk of metal or from plastic poured into a mold. Airplane wings, watch parts, telephone receivers, car-door handles, appliances and innumerable other common products are manufactured using carbide tools.

Carbide is 90 percent tungsten, one of the hardest metals on the planet. Micro 100 has dozens of machines — Dale Newberry says it’s more like hundreds, but he’s lost count — most with grinding wheels coated in industrial diamond, the only substance known that will cut tungsten. The result is a cutting tool that Newberry says will stay sharp 10 or 20 times longer than steel.

Micro 100 makes a miniature end mill the diameter of a human hair for manufacturing optical and medical equipment. Its most expensive custom tools sell for more than $1,000.

Newberry gestures toward his twice-expanded shop stuffed wall-to-wall with machines, some worth nearly a half-million dollars. He smiles.

“We’re a long way from the carport now,” he says.

IDAHO-BOUND

Dale Newberry’s younger brothers, Wayne and Ron Newberry, joined a year after he did. The company moved out of the carport and into the back room of a machine shop. Later, they moved to a 3,000-square-foot shop in Gardena, Calif.

A turning point for Micro 100 came in 1971 when a salesman named Mike Bruhwiler took over marketing. Bruhwiler bought 10 percent of the company and set his team of five salesmen loose hawking carbide tools all over Southern California. Bruhwiler, who had some international business experience, helped Micro 100 dip its toe into the world of exporting. He left the company in 2005.

“He allowed us to concentrate on making tools, because we had someone else to handle the sales side,” Newberry says. “It was a great marriage for many years.”

When the time came to expand again in 1980, the family decided they were fed up with Southern California.

“I was sick of California, and the rest of us were, too,” Dale Newberry says. “Everything you do, you stand in line. There was the high rent. And the California state government is just ridiculous with a huge amount of onerous laws they put on businesses.”

He and his wife took a tour through the Northwest looking for potential destinations. The Treasure Valley was their first choice. Spokane, Wash., was second.

Other family members took trips to Idaho before the group decided to move here. Four employees relocated, too. One was Joe Lam, who started working at the company in 1977. “At the time I thought, ‘It’s a good company. It’s growing. And I’d sure like to get out of California,’” Lam says.

“Moving here was a terrific decision,” Dale Newberry says.

The company operated in a 6,000-square-foot building in Garden City for five years. When it outgrew that building, Micro 100 bought five acres in Meridian from the Cherry Lane Christian Church, which Dale Newberry attended. The church is now Ten Mile Christian.

Micro 100 received some help from the city of Meridian — three industrial revenue bonds totaling $3.5 million. The first of those bonds helped the company finance the property purchase and build a 12,000-square-foot headquarters and shop. Newberry says banks wouldn’t have made the loan because the company still owed too much money on its machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

“There’s no other way we could have bought the land and put the building on it without the bond,” he says.

The headquarters has expanded over the years, first to 24,000 square feet and later to 52,000 square feet.

JACK’S LEGACY

Dale Newberry bought out his father’s share of the company in 1994 on one condition: that he buy a milling machine that his father could play with in the shop. Always an early riser, Jack Newberry came to work as if he were on the payroll and tinkered with his machine, testing out new tools to add to the company arsenal, until shortly before his death in 2004. “His whole life was wrapped up in this business,” his son says. “He couldn’t stay away.”

The Great Recession led to layoffs. Sales dropped 40 percent in 2009, prompting Newberry to let 10 percent of his staff go and to implement top-to-bottom pay cuts. The employee roster has since rebounded. Sales hit a new high last year.

Continuity has helped the company’s longevity. In 2011, 44 of Micro 100’s 98 employees had worked there for at least a decade. Two of the workers who moved from California, Lam and Pablo Colntreras, are still with the company.

Lam, 62, says he will stay with the company until he retires. “It’s a good company,” Lam says. “I feel more like family, not an employee. You can feel it in the shop.”

Today, Micro 100 sells to thousands of customers, including General Electric, Westinghouse and Boeing. Almost none of the company’s business is local. An exception is Aire, a Meridian whitewater raft-maker less than a mile away.

Aire uses Micro 100 carbide drag knives in machines that cut the PVC-coated polyester the company uses to make its boats. A steel blade wouldn’t last a day on the job, Aire Sales Manager Brad Roberson says. Instead, Aire uses 50 to 60 blades a year, and Roberson drives to Micro 100 to have them resharpened. “They work great,” he says.

Micro 100 has gone out of its way to network with Meridian businesses despite doing business with almost none of them, says Anne Little Roberts, executive director of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce. Newberry was a chamber director from 2006 to 2010. Micro 100’s chief financial officer, Mick Armstrong, currently sits on the board.

“Their involvement is impressive, because they don’t need to be,” Little Roberts says. “They aren’t just considering what’s in it for them.”

Micro 100 has helped efforts to recruit more manufacturers to Meridian. Those haven’t succeeded, though Little Roberts says the attempts are important because manufacturing jobs are in decline.

“This is what everybody wants,” Newberry says. “U.S. manufacturing jobs.”

THE FUTURE

Now 68, Newberry won’t say how long he plans to work or if he’s grooming a successor.

His son, Scott Newberry, 40, is the production control manager. His brother Wayne, 66, is vice president. Brother Ron Newberry, 65, retired recently after running the company’s offshoot, knife-sharpener maker Speedy Sharp, which is housed in the same building. Dale Newberry remains Micro 100’s majority owner; his brothers are minority owners.

He hopes to reach $20 million in sales by 2015.

Newberry says he’s come up with most of the firm’s new designs over the past 15 years, picking up where his father left off.

“We’re both bullheaded,” Dale Newberry says. “He was a driver, and I’m a driver. We butted heads with each other over the years. But at the same time, we complemented each other, because of our different talents.

“I could run the business. He had a lot of ideas to bring to the table. Those ideas were the base of the business.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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