When a husband and a wife decide to go into business together, it can go a myriad of ways. But sometimes, when the stars align, both the business and the marriage grow together. After humble beginnings, this bootstrapped, family-run manufacturing company, Winton Machine, now produces machines for clients as varied as Raytheon and the United States Army.
This journey began 24 years ago in the basement of the Winton household. George Winton is a manufacturing engineer and his wife, Lisa, has graduated from several business programs and has experience in finance. Their combined backgrounds made their partnership “complimentary” from the start.
George was tasked with finding a specific hand bender for a machine, but it didn’t exist. Tinkering in the basement led to a solution, and both Lisa and George quickly realized that “there might be a market for this.”
This coincided with George having published an article in The Fabricator on hand tube bending. A reader (who happened to own a bicycle manufacturing plant in the United States) wondered if George could manufacture a specific machine to build customized bicycle parts.
Recognizing this as an opportunity to establish Winton Machine’s reputation, they said yes, even though they didn’t have the materials in place to build the machine. Lisa says, “Talk about bootstrapped. We had nothing. We had no way of making it with the little money that we had.” They had to get resourceful, and fast.
A Machine Shop in the Couple’s Basement
George and Lisa sold all of the stocks that they owned and decided to gamble on an investment that could have gone either way. When AirTran crashed in Miami, they bet on the airline’s swift recovery – a risky move that ultimately proved fruitful.
Lisa explains, “It was all or nothing. We got really lucky and it paid off and we bought our first machine.” The basement of their house became a machine shop. It was a crazy time for the family because all of this coincided with the birth of their first child and George’s decision to quit his stable job to focus on the business full-time.
Lisa says, “I had a job so I worked on the business at night. I did the books and helped with marketing. The first website was built using PHP.” Her husband designed a simple logo which they now laugh at. Lisa says, “I went to school for business and no one taught you how to run and manage one. There were none of these entrepreneurial programs back then.”
The Value of VHS
Lisa had to quickly arm herself with business acumen. She explains, “I took out all of the VHS tapes. I sat there and watched all of these videos on how to start a business. I took a class at the local SBDC to learn the structure and everything related to running a business. We had to learn about insurance and how to incorporate and create an LLC. I hadn’t even thought of LLCs before that.” After they set up the structure, they hired their first part-time employee. Then they had to move the business out of the basement. But with that comes the risk of signing a lease and “crossing your fingers” that the business will be able to pay for it.
In the early days of the company, Lisa and George “said yes to everything.” The couple were flattered and excited when big companies found Winton Machine. They didn’t always read the fine print in contracts because they were naive and excited. This left George with an insane amount of work and a limited amount of hours in a day.
Worse, it impacted cash flow. They agreed to build expensive machines without requiring deposits. If a customer was unhappy, they wouldn’t pay, and because the machines were customized, they weren’t worth anything to anyone else and couldn’t be resold. Lisa’s business tapes had advised using credit cards to fund business expenses, but with debt racking up and a persistent cashflow problem, they began to worry about repayments.
In the early aughts, the couple attempted to get an SBA loan to help grow the business. It was far from an easy sell. Lisa says, “It was a huge challenge because, at the time, banks didn’t support manufacturing.” Lisa and George were persistent and kept going through their contacts until they finally landed on a bank in metro Atlanta that helped them secure that first SBA loan.
The loan helped them stay afloat. They paid their outstanding credit card bills. The recession hit soon after, however, making everything more challenging. But they had survived and cash flow became less of a problem.
The couple decided to spring for printed advertisements to run monthly in magazines as a way to find more customers. This later morphed into digital advertisements in digital’s very first iteration. This was the tail end of the 1990s, land of the dial-up modem and AOL. After three years, the couple landed their first international customer.
A South Korean company needed a customized machine built and sent to its warehouse. Lisa says, “We were still so new in business and even understanding shipping in the United States. How in the world are we even going to ship this machine to South Korea? It was a really big project for us.”
At the time, Winton Machine was up to two employees and growing (both in terms of employees and earnings) with each new project secured. But they still didn’t have the funds to upgrade their machinery. As a result, it took a lot of time and energy to finish the machine for their South Korean client, which again brought the issue of cashflow into sharp focus.
The $100,000 Menorah
The couple built a physical reminder of their early naivety to help them find the strength and humor to move forward. George took apart the costly machine of a client who backed out of a deal without a deposit and used them to build a menorah. Lisa says, “We always have to remember the mistakes we make. It took us a long time to dig out of that hole. We built that machine and then stripped it and used the parts for other things. But at the end of the day, all of those employee hours and materials and everything else went into that menorah.”
The couple now read through every contract meticulously, and if they have any questions, they know that hiring a lawyer is cheaper in the long run. “I’m not a lawyer. I was trying to save money but it ended up costing us. We need the machine orders, but at the same time, if something goes wrong and I accept the terms, I could kill my company.” Initially, attractive deals with shiny brands aren’t always as glamorous as they seem.
Fast forward roughly twenty years, and Winton Machine is currently in its sixth facility, and outgrowing its current space. They went from building one machine to over 100. The company continues to expand its line of tube fabrication equipment and create custom-engineered solutions for specific manufacturing needs.
Long gone are the days of printed magazine advertisements as the world has shifted from printed paper to the internet. The majority of marketing now comes through internet leads, trade shows and a dedicated sales force. Lisa says, “Most of our orders come from the internet and that’s hard to believe when you’re talking about a machine that costs anywhere from $20,000 to half a million dollars.”
Being married in business and life can be equally challenging, but Lisa says, “For my husband and me, in the beginning, it was easy because he had his lane and I had mine. He was all things manufacturing and technology.” But after a few years, Lisa is encroaching on his lane which can “cause some friction. You speak to your spouse differently than you would speak to an employee. You don’t hold back and a lot of times you should.” Lisa’s best advice to married couples that are also in a business relationship? “Learn the best ways for you and your spouse to communicate effectively.”
Lisa’s advice to fellow bootstrappers is to find as many free educational business resources as possible. One of Lisa’s most impactful connections is the opportunity to collaborate with other business owners. She encourages bootstrappers to seek out other founders because sharing experiences allow you to learn from successes and failures. Lisa says, “As a business owner, you need somewhere to process your issues.”
She also encourages thinking carefully before investing in big-ticket items like new technology or bringing in consultants. Lisa says “You will constantly be contacted by consultants to the millionth degree.” It’s up to owners to decide whether they need help or to put their “best foot forward.”
Lisa and her husband invested early in technology automation. She jokes, “I call us the shoemaker that has no shoes.” Another early investment that Lisa highly recommends is marketing. Winton Machine outsourced its marketing department and is still with the same company that has helped them “since day one.” This company was with Winton Machine long before smartphones made photography easy.
Looking Into the Future
Winton Machine is exploring AI and augmented reality. They pride themselves on their stellar customer service and are always looking for ways to better serve their customers. This new technology will enable Winton Machine to “see” a problem in a machine as it’s happening in real-time.
The facility handles everything in-house. They build out all of the electrical mechanical software, design the products, and have a full machine shop. Everything is done at the warehouse and then shipped worldwide.
There are now roughly 35 employees at Winton Machine. Many of them have been around since the company’s inception. During the recession, when layoffs were inevitable to keep the business afloat, Winton Machine rehired many of their laid-off employees when the market stabilized.
Lisa is passionate about bringing more girls and women into STEM. It’s a male-heavy industry, and Lisa is helping mentor female founders. She’s also vocal about the role that manufacturing plays in the global economy. She explains, “What we have to teach about manufacturing is the depth of employment and the economic impact that comes from manufacturing things. That’s why getting a loan in manufacturing is so hard. People don’t understand the cash flow of a manufacturing company.”
Lisa and George have navigated through 25-plus years of an entirely self-funded operation. Her last piece of advice for those hoping to have the kind of success the duo have experienced is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Much like a very expensive Menorah, having a sense of humor will help sustain you through the inevitable tears.
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