A Hard Name to Live Up To, But This Hardware Manufacturer has Done It
Somehow, a dynamic group of individuals who passionately love what they do and are free-spirited and innovative have put themselves, both internationally and in the U.S., at the very forefront of their industry. And the ‘somehow’ is all about outdoing the competition.
Mike Schreiber, owner and founder of A+ Group in Marlboro, New Jersey, started the business 27 years ago in Brooklyn, New York. With a background in sales and manufacturing metal and plastic components, but working for a company that he felt wasn’t concerned about its employees’ well-being, he struck out on his own.
Schreiber was determined that his venture would be ethical, honest, and hold itself to the highest standards. After six months things were moving. He began hiring staff, and A+ took off.
“When I started my business, my focus was on producing American quality products in China and selling them to the American market,” Schreiber says. “As the company started growing, we opened up an office in China and acted as a trading company to our customers, in addition to selling them components and hardware.”
Going the A+ route
The name ‘A+ Products’ was chosen for three very specific reasons.
“It always had to be ‘A+’ because, number one, I’m going to be the best employer, best customer, best vendor,” Schreiber says. “Two, I get first dibs in the phone book and trade shows – everybody always looks at the A’s first. And thirdly, it’s what I always wanted to get in school. I never got one, so I named my company A+.”
The products that the company manufactures are customizable and range from cut-and-sew items and hooks to lanyards and magnetic fasteners. Its customers are located all over the world, including Europe and Asia, but it focuses primarily on the U.S., Canada, and South America.
Schreiber moved the business to its present location in Marlboro 16 years ago, and also has a warehouse in Utah and offices in Shanghai and Montreal. A+ has grown to a staff of 50, five of whom came with the company from its original location in New York. Turnover is commendably low with fully half the staff having been with the company for 10 years or more.
A culture of business and more
“My original goal for the business was to create a company with an environment where people want to come into work every day, where people can work together, play together, respect each other but understand that the goal and objective of the work is to create a better home life,” explained Schreiber.
It’s clear, from comments from members of this team, that that original goal has been achieved. And that the company’s success is due to finding the right people – and keeping them.
“We have a really good working culture,” says Elizabeth (Betty) Matlaga, CEO of A+ Group, “not just in the traditional sense of the word – [that is] to say work-life integration and balance. Everybody says that, but we live it really well. Our mantra is to build people’s resumes – but treat them good enough [for them] not to use them. We like to give employees the opportunity to grow, personally and professionally.”
Staff are encouraged to be creative, and fearless in coming to management with their ideas – but essentially to fly on their own. Company employees utilize a ‘360-degree’ model of thinking that formalizes and sustains the high standards they have for themselves, together with a policy of empowerment and respect for everyone – including customers, vendors, suppliers, and consultants.
“We don’t just say it, we spend a lot of time understanding the culture of our customers, and our vendors so we can deliver,” says Matlaga.
The company’s products are diverse and over the years it has manufactured everything from a pin to stop suspenders from slipping down to a Systemmag® line zipper strip used on the International Space Station.
“It’s the scope of what we can do more than just one product,” says Bryan Collins, Director of Sales. “From the medical industry to sporting goods, we do so much and deal with so many industries – and that’s what makes the job fun.”
One of the company’s most innovative product lines is Fidlock® – which provides fasteners and bike accessories based on magnetic forces and mechanical latches. This product line became a stepping stone to selling patented components that are also technologies.
Fidlock is based in Germany but A+ works with them as a partner to the company’s North American infrastructure, and helped them develop their U.S. market. This partnership model is one that A+ employs with all its vendors and suppliers.
“A+ doesn’t want to be your vendor, we want to be your partner,” says Wayne Laul, A+’s Marketing Manager. “We want to sell you hardware, we want to handle the logistics, we want to help you develop a new product, we want to help you in every aspect we can. And that flexibility that we have with our employees, we also have with our customer, where a lot of our competitors don’t have that flexibility,” he says.
“If you need something that’s not in our wheelhouse and it makes sense, we’ll do it for you. We have no problem with that. It’s that partnership mentality. We want to make sure you succeed, because if you succeed, we succeed.”
There is a lot of competition in the industry, as you would expect, but in some ways, the people at A+ feel that their approach has differentiated them to the point where they have no competition at all. Such is their focus on custom source projects that they hired a mechanical engineer in New Jersey to work directly with domestic customers, eliminating the need to go offshore to work with factory engineers.
“We push the envelope even further,” Collins says. “Our competitors want to sell what they have on the shelf at high volumes, regardless of what it’s being used on and if it’s the perfect fit. We really want to understand who they are, what they do, and make sure we get them the right hardware – or the perfect hardware – for their application.”
“Instead of reacting to what our customers are looking for we’re trying to bring them ideas, we’re proactively selling rather than reactively,” added Matlaga.
Many of its customers/vendors have been with the company for over 25 years, largely due to the ability of A+ to be so flexible, and to have a properly managed and available inventory for when customers require it.
To further cement relationships, A+ has a preferred vendor program. This includes taking customers to the manufacturing factories in China in the interests of completely transparency to the work being done.
“When you’re dealing with a commodity that anybody can sell, we have to add value to it with our knowledge and educating our customers and living it,” says Schreiber.
It’s that attitude that Schreiber has maintained over the past 27 years which continues to set them apart.
Changing and innovating
“We do have a lot of competition, but a lot of competition that is reluctant to change,” Collins adds. “What makes us unique is the entrepreneurial spirit, which really starts from Mike. We want to change and we want to be innovators in our industry. We supply cut-and-sew manufacturers with O-Rings, D-Rings, plastic buckles. All of our competition has been doing that for years, but that’s all they want to continue to do.
“Instead of just selling commodity to our customers, we are actively sourcing unique components from around the globe and bringing this innovation right to their doorstep. That’s a value-add that no one else in the U.S. is doing – at least that we compete with – so that puts us steps ahead of them.”
Looking to the future of the business, the declared ambition at A+ is to continue to innovate and challenge themselves. One way the team is doing that is by working on a five-year plan that is focused on doing even better, with fewer people and less overhead.
“Our goal is to have less people, so we cut off any waste,” says Matlaga. “We want to have no layers and just take really good care of the people we have. We’re putting the money back into the team.”
That team is the future, and right now it’s what Schreiber and Matlaga consider to be their dream team – hard working, motivated, and excited by what they do.
“Working with Mike and Betty, they support all of our ideas and nothing’s too far-fetched, nothing’s outside of the box,” Collins says. “We’re really transparent. We have open conversations about different channels we can develop, different products we can source. Everything’s considered, and they’re always supportive of our ideas, so it’s a great place to work. We can essentially do whatever we want.”
Several years ago, A+ had a marketing slogan that said “We deliver simplicity to our customers.” Today, “Simply the best” would be just as true and relevant.