John Sammut - Firstronic LLC - 2019 John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year (Small Tier)

In a hyper-competitive industry with competition in every city, across the country and around the world, the successful manufacturer is a confident manufacturer. Few leaders exude the confidence in their team’s capabilities like John Sammut.

Since taking over Firstronic LLC eight years ago, Sammut’s leadership has allowed the company to quadruple its Michigan jobs to 200, transition from a business with nearly all domestic sales to one exporting more than 50 percent of its production, and invest more than $5 million into the Grand Rapids-based electronic assembly operation.

“You can never set the bar too high. If you want to hit the moon, you have to shoot for the stars. You need a high level of goals, expectation and vision,” explained Sammut. “You’re always going to have challenges and they may even look insurmountable as you face them, but if you are looking at the end goal and focusing on what you want to achieve and not the obstacles in your way, you’ll eventually overcome it. The challenges don’t last forever.”

Among the challenges facing Sammut when he took over was the company’s high reliance on its automotive sector customer base, the huge gap in size and scope between them and even their nearest competition — many of its competitors being 10 or even 100 times its size — and the need to balance technology and automation with manufacturing’s continuing need for skilled talent.

By diversifying into the industrial, medical and LED lighting sectors, Firstronic reduced its dependence on the automotive sector by one-third.

“We are regularly up against very large competitors and, in order to stay competitive in manufacturing, you really have to be driving for diversification, continuous improvement and overall excellence,” said Sammut. “We’re constantly looking for ways to achieve higher efficiencies, better quality, lower costs, creative ways to solve problems and, at the end of the day, it creates so many opportunities for growth here.”

By putting everything they are into everything they do, Firstronic remains on the cutting edge and is developing trend-setting technologies along the way.

And the world is noticing.

Firstronic has received a litany of awards including an Industry Week Best Plant award, EMS Company of the Year by leading industry publication Circuit Assembly Magazine, Global Trader of the Year by Automation Alley, one of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s “Michigan 50 Companies to Watch,” the Small Business Administration’s Regional Exporter of the Year and a finalist for the Automotive News PACE Award for new technology — all the while fighting in a land of giants.

To ensure, continued success and continued growth, Sammut surrounds himself with a top-tier team — his “A-players” — skilled, young workers with a passion and drive to be the best.

“At the end of the day, this industry is all about people. What differentiates us is having really excellent people in all areas,” Sammut reiterated. “We want self-starters who think out of the box, who are driven to the highest level of quality and performance and, despite maybe less experience, they will push the envelope and pave the way for us to do things that no one else has done.”

To understand Sammut’s search for talent, one needs to look at where the industry was when he took over. During the last two decades, the North American electronic manufacturing industry was a fraction of what it once was as virtually all consumer and high-volume electronic products moved overseas. This left the trained, qualified employees in Michigan to leave the state in search of new jobs. In order to survive, Sammut maximizes the use of highly automated processes along with well-trained employees with a high degree of flexibility. By cross-training employees to achieve as many industry certifications as possible, Sammut has a team whose flexibility is second-to-none.

“I’d put my team up against anyone else in the industry. They are high performers who can keep us competitive,” said Sammut. “As we enter the next decade, I expect Firstronic to be a leader in Industry 4.0 and that means having a fully integrated, automated assembly process. In an industry that is very large, we remain relatively small compared to our peers but we are confident. It’s all about being confident. We can lead the way.”

The John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year Award honors the important, positive and tangible contributions individual manufacturers make to their employees, customers and communities. The award is presented at the annual MFG Excellence Awards in November.