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Mining repair specialists uses technology to compete

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An older, wiser Ronnie Barnette might have thought twice about sinking his savings into a tiny metal fabricating shop at the brink of closing.

But at 24, Barnette didn't figure he had anything to lose. So he bought the company, Mining Repair Specialists, and in 1987 set out to turn the struggling operation around. 

"I stuck my neck out, took a risk and hoped for the best," said Barnette, who'd been working as the shop foreman at the time of the purchase. "At the time I didn't have anything, really. I just thought I could do it if I watched the bottom line, counted every penny; every little piece adds up."

In those early days, MRS worked out of about a 2,000- square foot space in the Logan County town of Holden with about a dozen employees and a customer base dependent on a healthy local mining industry. 

"Those were tough times, but with coal you see tough times all the time," he said. "Every two or three years you see tough times, but I thought it should do better, so we expanded out. 

"We sold in Illinois, western Kentucky and Alabama. We expanded, but mostly we watched the money, every little penny."

About five years ago the company made a push to modernize, adding a new, 20,000-square foot building — its fifth, for a total of 40,000 square feet — along with state-of-the-art robotic welders, a plasma gas torch and an engineering center that collectively give the company the ability to reverse-engineer any part into a 3D model so it can use computer-controlled machining equipment to reproduce parts. The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing assisted MRS with its training and equipment choices.

"Our strategy was two-fold: to be more competitive in the mining industry, but also to branch out beyond mining and get into more industrial-type manufacturing," said George Lukacs, who is Barnette's nephew and MRS's technology director. "It was really a necessity from our perspective because of the decline in the mining industry — it's become extra-competitive and narrow when it comes to the customer base. 

"Unless you're able to set yourself apart, you're going to get left out. (Expanding) has allowed us to come in line with being able to manufacture on an industrial level. We have some of the same equipment now that the industrial manufacturers have, and it allows us to compete in a new segment."

Lukacs figures it was the right move at the right time. 

"We definitely seem to be doing better, and we're making contacts in other industries," he said. "It's looking promising. It takes a while to build new contacts but we're definitely working towards that."

He said the upgrade wasn't cheap — they've spent about $5 million to date — but it "makes things easier."

"Your facility, your work and your abilities pretty much sell themselves," Lukacs said. "Companies are a lot more eager to jump on board with you.

"Believe me, we had people that told Ronnie and Diana (Ronnie's wife) that they thought it was a little bit of a gamble, but we're pretty confident it will work out. It appears to be doing pretty well."

Barnette said the company really didn't have a choice.

"We believe mines are going to consolidate, and as they get bigger, they'll get more detailed in quality and what they expect from a shop," he said. "With all the little shops around nobody actually stood out. We wanted to be the leader; we thought we would have a better chance of surviving, the way the industry is now, if we were the leader. 

"We could have stayed the way we were and faded away with everybody else or we could have changed — this opens the door for us with more opportunities in other areas. In the mining industry, no one has more technology and capabilities than we have now. I think that gives us a leg up on other shops."

He concedes it's a bit of a gamble, "but you can't just sit back and shrivel up. You've got to go for it." 

"We decided to go for the technology and expand into the oil and gas industry and whatever else we can do," Barnette said. "It's opened a lot more doors for us in terms of capabilities and doing things. 

"We can actually manufacture new parts now, and we can design and engineer new things for people — we just have a wide range of options now."

And while circumstances have changed and he has a lot more to lose these days, Barnette said he never considered not expanding.

"It's my life," he said. "I don't need it now; I have several other businesses, but this is still my baby. From it, from what we have right here, we've expanded out … now we have a gob pile and reclaim the coal out of it; we own Fountain Place in Logan, a theater and a pizza shop."

The couple also developed an upscale subdivision.

"We've done a little bit of everything, and it all stemmed from (MRS)," he said. "It was a failing business back then, but I knew we could turn it around. 

"We've had our ups and our downs, but I've never regretted it. I love doing it, and that makes a big difference."

MRS has about 32 employees now with another 70 or so at Barnette's other operations.

"If you want to stay in business, you have to be at the business every day," he said. "So many owners leave it to someone else, but I don't believe in that. I go to work every single day I'm in this town."