Old-fashioned Manufacturing Is Vancouver Firm's Badge of Honour (with Video)

VANCOUVER - Greg Trammell's clear-eyed equanimity is hard to beat.

Perhaps it's the wisdom of experience.

Pressed Metal Products has been making police badges in Vancouver for more than 80 years - since before Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, before low-cost Asian factories stole much of Vancouver's manufacturing business, and long, long before ecommerce changed the face of retail.

Others may scramble to keep up with the times, but Pressed Metal is an old company that knows what it is, understands what it does and does it very well. And if continuing to do that means not changing with the times, so be it.

"The equipment is older than I am," quipped Greg's father and business partner Alan Trammell, 75. Alan bought the company from its original owners in 1976. "We've still got a lot of the original equipment from the '40s, '50s and '60s because it works," Alan said.

It's a startling way to run a business in today's world. But Alan, who has engineering, architecture and an MBA in his background, and Greg, 41, a former golf pro, are clear about staying their path.

"We would prefer to keep people employed than go to the expensive automated route, which is a different skill-set and might affect positions," Greg said.

When Pressed Metal's 19 employees make badges and insignia for police departments as far apart as Victoria, B.C., and Truro, N.S., they start by hand, sculpting designs in Plasticine.

They use a 75-year-old punch press - basically a giant green cookie cutter - to stamp out each badge shape in metal. Then comes the 50-year-old pneumatic drop hammer. Its 600-pound head forces each cold metal badge cut-out into its mould. It's a slow and noisy process, but the ridges on the badge design come out crisp and detailed.

Polishing each police badge takes 10 to 15 minutes per piece. Finally, when a badge is gleaming like a piece of fine jewelry, the sharpest-eyed, most nimble-fingered of the staff painstakingly tip in minuscule bits of epoxy or enamel colour. The bits of colour are so tiny, there's no point dropping in the colour before polishing - the colour might get polished right out.

A typical police badge is made of solid brass, although some are gold-plated, and is expected to last 25 to 30 years. After that, it is refurbished as a keepsake for the police officer who carried it, Vancouver Police Union president Tom Stamatakis said.

Each badge costs about $50, but the police don't begrudge the price. There's "an element of pride and honour," Stamatakis said.

Pressed Metal even makes badges for Vancouver Police Department dogs.

There's no doubt that doing things the old-fashioned way has its toll. Rising labour costs and increased competition from overseas is a persistent concern.

"When somebody can buy a lapel pin for 10 cents that we have to charge $4 for, where do you think they are going to go?" Alan said. "With the Internet, they can advertise and penetrate markets all over the world for pennies." The last couple of years have been tough, Greg said. When potential clients walk in the door, "sometimes, we can't even begin talking." He's not resistant to change, but believes the best move in economic uncertainty is to rely on your strengths.

"Rather than going and purchasing a piece of equipment for $100,000 or $200,000, you stick with what you're doing," Greg said. Introducing automation or computer-aided design necessitates staff with a different skill set and that changes the complexity and dynamic of the business.

"We're still here and we're profitable. We're doing something right. That sometimes means looking inward. How do we cut expenses? If somebody leaves or retires, do we rehire for that position?" Staffing, once up to 60, hovered at 20 to 30 for the last 20 years and is now at 19.

Pressed Metal focuses on quality work and service for those who appreciate it.

That includes fire, customs, ambulance and sheriff departments that need badges, belt buckles, buttons and other insignia. There's the Order of Canada (made by Pressed Metal for most of the last two decades), the Order of B.C., the Order of Manitoba, custom rings and pins for Birks' corporate clients, and 25 years of commemorative coins for the Lake Superior Coin Club.

Jobs for newer clients include the Gastown Grand Prix medals, 75 miniature bronze axes for the movie War Games, and all the pins and badges worn by cast members for Battlestar Galactica.

Part of Greg's equanimity comes from knowing that Pressed Metals' higher-end offshore competitors, at least, aren't really doing anything much different from him.

"I've seen the inside of some Chinese factories and they are doing exactly what we're doing," Alan said. "The difference is the cost of the labour." But Greg is keenly aware that public tastes change.

"A company all of a sudden says 'We're not going to do lapel pins from Pressed Metal for our employees. We're going to give them vouchers for their families for Costco or a corporate program.' I'll tell you right now, a 25-year-old, is he or she going to want the signet ring or the five-person tent (from a corporate rewards catalogue)?" And so Greg knows his 10,000-square-foot shop "has an expiry date." He just doesn't know when that will be. "It's not like a carton of milk." "We may be the last company in North America that does what it does. This company in 10 years? Maybe it flourishes, maybe it doesn't. You have to be okay with that." In the meantime, he enjoys seeing Pressed Metals' old-fashioned work out in the modern world.

"I like all the fire and police stuff we do," Greg said. "When I watch the news at night, invariably I will see five or six items that we made. Pins for the Canadian senate through Birks, pins for the province of B.C. that the MLAs wear. You see the police chief talking. You'll see your products and that's kind of nice."

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