When Andy Arnold founded Precision Control Systems Inc. in 1980, the United States was heading into a deep recession—not a great time to start a business, in theory at least. Thirty years later, Arnold is steering his company through an even worse recession, and it’s no worse for the wear.
Precision Control Systems—based in Griffith and affiliated with identically named sister companies in Chicago and Indianapolis—contracts with area institutions and businesses to install temperature control systems and retrofit buildings for more efficient energy use.
The key to survival in Northwest Indiana’s fast-changing business environment, he says, is building long-lasting customer relationships and a highly skilled employee base. “Because we are more stable with our customers, we tend to provide better quality than our competitors,” says Arnold, a native of Lombard, Ill., who now lives in Chesterton. Many of the company’s customers, like hospitals and school districts, have long-term contracts that enable Precision to easily maintain and quickly repair systems. “We have a pretty loyal and skilled and competent employee base. Everybody in our company builds relationships with our customers. In Northwest Indiana, that really works well.”
Although Precision has been hurt by the sharp decline of the region’s construction industry during the recession, it has made up for that loss of business by increasing what Arnold calls “performance contracting.” Many organizations, especially public schools being squeezed by tightening budgets, want to reduce their energy costs. Some hire Precision to provide “guaranteed energy-saving retrofits” by updating air conditioning and heating equipment.
“We’ve been able to maintain pretty effectively through the recession,” Arnold says. He learned how to survive downturns the hard way when he started the company at age 26, four years after graduating from Brown University with an engineering degree. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he says. “A certain confidence and naïveté helped us, we didn’t know all the problems and pitfalls.”
That early recession taught Arnold and his growing company to stay efficient. When interest rates were at historically high levels—they topped 20 percent in 1981—you learned to “stay living within your means,” he says. “Things do change, and they change quickly.”
Arnold has certainly been able to master changing circumstances. He’s seen plenty of change in the region’s business climate over the years, as he co-founded the affiliated Precision Control offices covering territory to the west and south. Northwest Indiana’s economy has diversified, moving away from steel and toward the health care industry, which has helped Precision Control. (Hospitals need robust temperature control systems.)
“Being a smaller company,” he says, “we’re able to react to the change and move quickly.”
(About 60 people work in the Griffith office, while another 90 people are split between the Chicago and Indianapolis offices.) The company’s latest adaptation is to move into the security systems market. Two years ago, it began helping schools and commercial enterprises improve their ability to control access to buildings. For school administrators, that means protecting kids. “Everyone’s making a more formal effort to control access to their buildings,” Arnold says. “It’s a natural fit for us.”
Arnold does have interests beyond guiding Precision through the next bump or bend in the region’s economy. Five years ago, he joined the board of directors of the Crisis Center, a nonprofit in Gary’s Miller Beach that provides counseling services and an “Alternative House” for females 6-18, among other services. “When you meet the staff of the crisis center and you see the work they’re doing,” Arnold says, “it seems like a no-brainer to help them out.” The center late last year began a highly anticipated $2.5 million expansion project to alleviate overcrowding at the facility.
That money was raised, in no small part, through the annual Crisis Center Wine Fest & Auction fund-raiser, which is scheduled for June 10 at the Sand Creek Country Club, and will feature donated auction items like Cubs and White Sox tickets, artwork, and a five-day fishing expedition. “This is kind of the best charity fund-raiser around,” he says.
Arnold also sits on the board of South Shore Arts, the Munster-based nonprofit supporting arts and culture in the region for more than 70 years. Corporate consolidation has often meant less support for the arts in communities, he says, making it even tougher for community nonprofits to survive. The arts “are important to the community and increasingly hard to sustain in the difficult economic times,” he says.
Arnold plans on staying in the community long after Precision makes it through the current recession. “We enjoy working in the community . . . We were in Hammond for ten years as we got off the ground, and have been in Chesterton for twenty. It’s all been good.”