Calidad owner Eric Kuschel (left) with Gabriel Soto Bahamonde of Santiago, Chile-based Termofrio Climatizacion and Michael Zimmer, Engel Industries (right).
POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - "Calidad" (pronounced call-lee-dah-d) is Spanish for "quality." And to Eric Kuschel, owner of Calidad Machinery and Equipment in Pompano Beach, Fla., it's more than just a name; it's a philosophy that extends to all aspects of the five-year-old firm. "It's the way we like to handle ourselves and the way we like to do business," Kuschel says.

It seems to be working. With $2-3 million in annual sales, business is good enough to prompt Kuschel to open a new 65,000 sq. ft. facility in the former home of an auto body repair shop. He held an open house in April and invited customers to meet with representatives from Engel Industries, Tormec, Advanced Cutting Systems, Roto Die, Trumpf, Talarico, Roper Whitney, Comeq and Best Brake Die to discuss their latest fabrication products.

Dozens of customers attended the event. "The majority of the stuff that was here sold," Kuschel says, including a Compact III Coil Line from Engel Industries, an Adira 10 Quarter Shear from Comeq, the Duct Master 510 and Duct Cutter 510 plasma cutters from Advanced Cutting Systems and two Autobrakes from Roper Whitney.

Most manufacturer representatives on hand were also pleased with the quality of prospective customers attending the open house. "There was a lot of activity," says Stephen Lazinsky of Comeq, a Maryland-based distributor of sheet metal and fabricating machinery. Comeq was displaying PrimeLine and Adira press brakes, Geka ironworkers, Roundo bending rolls and Americor shears.

A relaxed atmosphere at Calidad's open house gave representatives such as Lazinsky plenty of time to educate customers on their products, something he says isn't always possible at the large, crowded trade shows. "We saw people there who came to learn."

An international presence

There was a strong international presence at Calidad's open house, not surprising when you learn about 50% of the company's customers are from Central or South America, Mexico or the Caribbean. Kuschel spends at least a few days each month traveling abroad for business. "I go to where the people are," he says. "I visit their shops. I understand what they need." It also helps that Kuschel is fluent in Spanish.

A look at the open house attendance list shows visitors from Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Fostering relationships with international customers is one of the reasons for Calidad's success, Kuschel says. He has been traveling to Central America since the late-1980s, when he accompanied his father, Thomas Kuschel, on trade missions to Guatemala and Panama for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"You have to understand where they're coming from," Kuschel says of his foreign customers. With the typical shop's profits and wages much lower than those in the U.S., it's not always easy to convince an owner that a several thousand dollar investment in a plasma cutter or press brake will pay for itself.

In most of Central and South America, sheet metal work is still done by hand, with tin snips and shears, or using manual machines. "The technology is not available," says Filiberto Poujol, president of ECA Corp., a large electromechanical firm with operations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (see related story).

Poujol's company is one of a very small number that has modern sheet metal equipment, since Poujol makes regular trips to the U.S. and Calidad to purchase new machinery. "Now is the time to apply (new technology) to our market," he says.

Kuschel got his start in 1979 working for his father's company. As Kuschel recalls, he wasn't simply appointed the heir apparent. "I started working in the back room," he says, "cleaning machines, sweeping, repairing."

Eventually, he moved into sales. After his father sold his company and subsequently retired, Kuschel founded Calidad in 1996. Far from an auspicious beginning, the company's salad days saw Kuschel working out of his house and storing his plasma cutters, power rollers and elbow machines throughout the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. area.

"It was tough for a while," says Christi Kuschel, Eric's wife. "We had stuff all over. Our garage was like ¿ forget it."

Eric puts it this way: "You rent space from a bunch of guys. You have a garage full of machinery. You have a fax in your bedroom. It was tough for a while."

With his company now a success and all machinery and fax machines in their proper places, Kuschel says he is really enjoying his work. "It's different every day."

ECA Corp. President Filiberto Poujol (left) and Fernando Ortiz traveled from Guatemala to attend Calidad's open house.

Visitor from Guatemala purchases plasma cutter

Among the many international visitors to the Calidad open house was Filiberto Poujol of Guatemala. Poujol is the president of ECA Corp., an electromechanical firm with operations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

From modest beginnings in a basement, ECA is now one of the largest electromechanical companies in Central America, with facilities - including a 40,000 sq. ft. sheet metal workshop - that take up a full city block. Since the fairly mild Central American climate limits the need for residential air conditioning, most of ECA's work is commercial and industrial. Major clients have included McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Texaco Oil and the American Embassy in Guatemala. Annual sales for the 32-year-old firm approach $12 million U.S.

Poujol came to Calidad to purchase a $70,000 computerized plasma cutter from Advance Cutting Systems. He said that the purchase would quickly pay for itself in time and labor savings. "Our labor is called 'cheap,' but it's not, really," Poujol says. He explained that while the hourly wage in Guatemala is far less than in the U.S., almost all sheet metal work has to be done by hand. The lack of modern equipment means workers make more errors, reducing efficiency and driving up costs.

"Here (in the U.S.), you pay more by the hour, but you receive better performance," he says, adding that materials costs in Central America are substantially higher, since many materials must be imported.

As modern sheet metal technology is starting to make inroads in Central America, the plasma cutter will be a welcome addition to ECA's education program. The company has a complete training school and technical seminars for new and seasoned employees are held regularly. "We have trained more than 50% of the sheet metal people in our country," Poujol says. Perhaps ECA trains them a little too well. "Once we train them, they leave and start their own businesses," he laughs.

Most of ECA's equipment comes from the U.S., where it was purchased by Poujol during one of his frequent trips to south Florida. While they are not required by local codes to comply with Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors of America (SMACNA) standards, Poujol said the company's work does meet the group's specifications.