A half century ago Trenton was a top manufacturing city on its way down. Over the next three decades plants closed and jobs left the city, leaving its once-proud mantra — Trenton makes, the world takes — a punch line.
So how does anyone explain Hutchinson Industries? With 25 years of manufacturing history in Trenton, Hutchinson is one of the city’s longest-standing, most steady, and most successful businesses. Its operations — making runflats, or tires that keep rolling after losing their air — consume 300,000 square feet of the historic Roebling industrial complex along Route 129 and its contracts with military, security, emergency, and transportation clients generate millions of dollars a year.
And it’s about to expand.
On Wednesday, September 3, at 11:30 a.m. Hutchinson will unveil its newest manufacturing space, a 90,000-square-foot warehouse that once was the city bus terminal at 1132 East State Street. The event will be part of a spotlight on area businesses presented by Einstein’s Alley and is free to attend. U.S. Rep. Rush Holt is among the dignitaries expected.
Like all of Hutchinson’s buildings (there are seven in Trenton), the company’s newest space will be leased, not bought. It is a basic strategy for the company, says president Pascal Seradarian — “put the money into the machines.”
Too many businesses, Seradarian says, waste their money on buying large buildings, expanding until the weight of their debts cause the business to implode. Hutchinson, however, leases its buildings because it saves a lot of money that way. And rather than leasing new construction the company favors renovated buildings.
The savings, Seradarian says, go into the product. Ten percent of its revenue is spent on research and development and most of the remainder is spent on day-to-day operations. Hutchinson employs 350 people, 55 of whom are engineers, in Trenton. Worldwide, the company employs 26,000 workers in 27 countries including France, where it is headquartered.
If Hutchinson’s scale today is large, its origins were much more humble. The company was founded in 1853 by an Englishman who settled in France. But though Hutchinson grew across Europe it did not come to the United States for nearly 130 years. In 1980 Seradarian, an Armenian who earned his engineering degree in France and who had been working for Hutchinson there, was asked to come to New York to work on the company’s newest idea — keeping tires running with zero air pressure. Seradarian was supposed to stay for two years, but the idea worked extremely well.
Hutchinson’s relationship with the Goodall tire company brought Seradarian to Trenton. Goodall provided him an office and Hutchinson started in a small, garage-sized space building wheels that, if not indestructible, were at least still functional no matter what. And if the science is complicated the idea is a simple one: “Solid wheels don’t go flat,” Seradarian says. Solid inserts allow a tire to deflate, blow out, or even be shot out, and still get the people relying on them to safer environs.
Hutchinson provides runflats to the U.S. military, which uses the technology in jeeps, Hum-Vs, and other combat vehicles. In war zones, particularly sandy ones, Seradarian says, soldiers cannot risk losing a tire. Moving wheels save lives. But they also save the military money and fuel. By using aluminum and alloys, rather than steel, the overall vehicle weight decreases, saving the vehicle from dragging its heavy self across questionable terrain. The company recently scored a $55 million contract with the U.S. Army to provide more than 56,000 wheel assemblies.
Hutchinson also sells to emergency services, such as ambulance and police units, and transportation companies. One notable client is Newark International Airport, which uses Hutchinson’s runflats in its shuttle. There also is the VIP market — limousines for ambassadors and dignitaries need to withstand attempts to shoot out or blow up the tires — and the off-road/mining market, which helps vehicles navigate sometimes dangerous terrain.
Less is more. One of the reasons Seradarian says makes Hutchinson so successful is that it is a niche market. Rather than expanding into several product lines, the company zeros in on a specific, but very lucrative, market.
Another reason for its success, he says, is that unlike some of the world’s other companies manufacturing runflats, Hutchinson does not consider any job too small. “We can do three vehicles, we can do 1,000 vehicles, we can do 10,000 vehicles,” Seradarian says. All Hutchinson’s jobs are single-source, meaning the company designs, builds, and assembles every aspect of its jobs itself.
Keep it local. Most of Hutchinson’s employees are Trenton residents who come from some of the poorer areas of the city. But being centrally located and only a few blocks from train and bus drops lets people who otherwise would have few places to work earn a paycheck.
This neighborliness is recognized by Trenton officials who have offered Hutchinson generous incentives to continue there, Seradarian says. It also has helped the neighborhoods surrounding its facilities — which not long ago were wastelands of industrial rot — become safer and more attractive. Neighbors, he says, have painted and renovated houses and in some cases have even torn down decayed ones and replaced them with modern homes.
Stay in touch. Seradarian says Hutchinson’s biggest key to success is staying in close contact with its customers. In fact, Seradarian says Hutchinson is more about selling its services than its product line. Products can change and grow, but providing end-to-end service is what keeps clients coming back.
It’s also what keeps business humming in a city clinging jealously to its industrial past.