It was a fun time in his life, mending spokes and scrounging for parts at junkyards from New Mexico to Arkansas, all the while staying true to what just seemed to come naturally to him.
Today, as a family man with a wife and two children of his own, Washington is still the go-to guy in his hometown of Water Valley, albeit for a much broader base of customers who rely on his Valley Tool Inc. expertise to support industries and manufacturing as wide-ranging as aerospace, automotive, ATVs, medical, heavy equipment, firearms, heating and cooling and oil and gas.
“We build the parts they use to build their parts,” said Washington, whose 147-employee-driven machine shop was listed among American Machinist magazine’s 2009 ranking of Best Machine Shops in the country – the only such custom tooling, die, gauge and component parts manufacturer in the Southeast to be so honored. The tribute was particularly meaningful to Washington, coming off the bank failures and deep economic recession of 2008, when he defied the odds and did not lay off a single VTI employee.
In the little more than two decades since he left his steady job at a local grocery store and went to work in a machine shop across town in 1994, rising to the position of shop foreman after a few years and outright ownership of the company in 1997, Washington has done his part to take the “Made in Northeast Mississippi” brand national and even global.
All the while building his reputation for meeting or exceeding customer standards in his own back yard with work for companies such as Winchester firearms in Oxford, furniture manufacturers in the Golden Triangle and other Mississippi enterprises such as one Delta company that specializes in the building of the prop airplane engines that support the burgeoning agribusiness sector there.
“We also make the mold that a Texas medical facility uses to manufacture a heart catheter that can save the life of newborns,” Washington said.
Even in an international business climate in which much of the machining and tooling and parts making is offshored, Washington said there is good reason for any Mississippi and American company to have a solid, domestic machine shop in the production mix.
“Countries have different holidays, and there are planned shutdowns that can and do have an impact on manufacturing schedules,” he said. “You don’t need a machine shop every day, but when you need one, you need one.”
At the sprawling Valley Tool Inc. operation in Water Valley that is equipped with some of the most modern and up to date tooling, die and gauge making machinery to be found anywhere, VTI employees are proficient at turning out components for global brands such as Snap-On Tools, with productions runs of 5,000 pieces and less. But the cutting edge machine shop that Washington proudly says has made money from day one may be at its best when asked to re-engineer or build a part for a company in crisis mode.
In December 2015, a little more than a month before a major new model rollout by a global automobile maker, VTI was contacted by the company and asked to solve a design flaw with an actuator washer used on the vehicle model that was putting the entire model introduction in jeopardy.
“The company’s own life-cycle testing revealed that the part would not hold up in the simulator in the 100,000 to 200,000 mile range.
“It was a test for all of us,” said Washington, noting that getting to a successful outcome for a client when the odds are stacked against you brings out the very best in his team of loyal and highly skilled employees.
By compressing a part development schedule that might normally have taken up to six months to complete, Washington said VTI was able to turn the newly designed part around in a matter of weeks.
And, he added, “The auto maker was able to meet its launch date.”
As recently as last month, Valley Tool proved itself up to the challenge again when approached by a well known Northeast Mississippi manufacturing company that had seen its entire output halted by the breakage of a critical antiquated part.
“The company’s own people had virtually given up on the problem,” Washington said. “But we were able to reverse-engineer the part, taking careful measurements and looking at the function of the piece of equipment, and we had them back going again in three days.”
Whether the task before his company is for a client in Colorado, Illinois or one closer to home, and whether the deadline is routine or rushed, Washington attributes his success and competitive advantage to the work ethic and the rural sense of place among employees that sets Northeast Mississippi apart from other regions of the country.
“It’s good to be in the country,” notes Washington. “Our rural setting and work atmosphere contribute to a continuity among a core group of people. We treat our employees right, pay a fair wage and respond to their needs. They, in turn, are expected to be here every day, on time and to do their jobs. But, most importantly, we do put families first, and our employees don’t take advantage of that.”
For all his company’s accomplishments to date, Washington has his eye on the future.
“We are a young company, and we aspire to continue to grow in Northeast Mississippi to provide opportunities for this generation and others and make a difference in the world. And we are able to do it right here.”