BRIDGMAN — Ken Schiffer is nothing like the precision robots he sells. That’s because Schiffer’s daily schedule is anything but repetitive or routine, as one gradually appreciates during a conversation with him.
Schiffer and his son, Rick, are the exclusive dealers for Apollo Seiko, the Japan-based worldwide leader of robotic soldering systems. They own this distinction due to their reputation for understanding their customers’ needs for precise, repetitive operations, designing unique solutions to fill those needs and following through with training and service.
“Service is the key,” Schiffer said, as he explains how he has made his mark as a third-tier supplier to the medical, military and automotive industries, with automotive being about 60 to 75 percent of his business. The robots range from desktop models to stand-alone units requiring specialized safety enclosures. The robots range in price from $10,000 to $170,000.
Schiffer spends a lot of his time traveling to electronic and automation trade shows, where he gets to know his prospective customers. After working with his staff and the Apollo Seiko crew on a uniquely tailored design, customers from around the world are invited to Schiffer’s demo room, where the robotic solution is demonstrated and videotaped for the customer.
Schiffer says he often has school children visit, expecting to see robots like the ones on television. Schiffer enjoys introducing them to his robots and explaining how his robots help make all the small controls behind today’s conveniences, such as the under-the-dashboard unit that regulates windshield wipers. He explains that his robots are the workers connected by conveyor belts on today’s assembly line.
It was the need for additional space for the trade show exhibits and demo equipment, as well shipping room for the customized units, that led to this spring’s two-story addition to the plant. Schiffer also is an exclusive distributor for a line of automotive splicing products.
“When we moved here, we grew from 2,500- to 10,000 square feet, and now we just added another 7,000 square feet,” Schiffer said. The number of employees has grown from six to 17, and will probably soon grow by another three.
Schiffer took care to design the new addition to look the same as the existing building that sits in the trees well off of Lemon Creek Road behind a well-stocked fish pond. He proudly cites the ecologically friendly design of the building, from a geothermal heating-cooling system to reflective windows and roofing, along with heated sidewalks to eliminate the use of salt and chemicals to melt snow.
A salesman by nature, Schiffer began as an electrical engineering student at Illinois Institute of Technology, not far from his childhood home in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. From there, he became a manufacturer’s representative for various automotive and manufacturing equipment suppliers. As his business grew, Schiffer began his eastward migration, first to near Chicago’s Midway Airport, then moving to Alsip, Ill., then Portage, Ind., and finally to the Lake Township location in 2007.
“Here we were able to invest and own property, more than postage-stamp size,” Schiffer said, citing the area’s trained workforce, plus close proximity to highways and Chicago airports. Then there was the fact that both he and his son live in Sawyer.
Schiffer was long familiar with the area, having visited his uncle’s farm in Sawyer as a child in pre-expressway days when it was a three-hour, one-way trip. Today, he and his wife, Jean, own 80 acres down the road from his uncle’s farm.
People from all over the world visit the Lake Township facility. In fact, it was the site of Apollo Seiko’s global meeting this May, when Schiffer entertained his fellow international distributors and corporate executives from Japan, China, Korea, the Netherlands, Singapore, Mexico and Thailand.
One of the most popular attractions during the visit to the area were the cheeseburgers found at Lake Street Eats in Bridgman. By the way, Schiffer and his son also own that restaurant, a “grassroots” planning effort that included long-time employee Stacey Barajas, who felt the area could use another place to eat, especially at lunchtime.
Lake Street Eats, opened in 2015, has become a favorite spot for a diverse group, from grandparents stopping in after church on Sundays to date-night couples and family pizza nights. Schiffer says he purchased the two adjoining storefronts and restored much of the vintage building, including the original terrazzo flooring and exposed brick walls. The bar that dominates the main room is made from a fallen ash tree from his farm.
To complete the circle, about 10 acres of Schiffer’s farm is a vineyard supplying Baroda Founders. The rest of the farm is leased out for corn and soybeans or for hay for the Schiffers’ five horses.