The Business Magazine is proud to introduce our new “Risking It All” section, which highlights the entrepreneurs who took risks and made sacrifices to build their businesses in our region. This month, we sat down with Mark Fatica, president of Great Lakes AutomationServices, Inc., to talk about the challenges and opportunities of starting the McKean-based company 10 years ago.
As the economy turned south in the early 2000s, many of the facilities were forced to shutter and it looked like the Erie operations would be moved out of town. Fatica, a former vice president of sales and marketing, and colleague Ken Fisher, an operations manager, had worked there for more than 25 years; another colleague Bryan Brooks, who was a service expert, had worked there for about 10.
“We said to ourselves, ‘ Why don’t we look at starting our own thing?’ We had such a good rapport with customers and a lot of relationships,” Fatica says. “So we decided to start our own business to do service and parts of automated assembly equipment.”
In February 2002, Fatica and his new partners put in their notices and founded Great Lakes Automation Services. It was the three of them, a business plan, and the $20,000 they each kicked in for starting working capital. They worked out of their homes, pretty much round the clock. According to Fatica, the realities of becoming a business owner were harsh. Cash, noncompete litigation, and a subsequent settlement — that wouldn’t allow them to solicit certain customers for two years — made it even more daunting. Still, they pushed ahead.
The company moved to a small office and manufacturing space in Millcreek Township and grew little by little every year. Ironically, in 2004, their former employer asked them if they wanted to buy back the business, and they did — for pennies on the dollar.
Even so, Great Lakes wasn’t very diversified — and closely tied to the automotive market — so any swing in the market hit the business hard. That’s when Fisher, a disabled U.S. military veteran, went looking for business with prime contractors of the government and secured classification as a service-disabled, veteran-owned,small business. He spent about a year introducing Great Lakes to different companies at various trade shows. In 2007, they got “the call” from a company in Rochester, New York that needed to outsource its packaging and kitting.
“With most businesses, in the first five to seven years, you don’t make a lot of money, if any at all, and we didn’t,” explains Fatica. “The amount of business they placed with us and the cash flow it introduced allowed us to catch up, pay off all our debts and start with a clean sheet of paper.”
Great Lakes, which now occupies a 34,000-square-foot facility in McKean, has grown exponentially since then, providing automated assembly and test equipment; packaging and kitting; and precision machining. In 2009, Great Lakes purchased Clifton Machining in Lake City, bringing the total operation to 50 employees across three divisions. The company also started Great Lakes Auto Nation to offer muscle car restoration services and Eagle Auto Services to handle collision work and towing — creating potential for even more growth.
To this day, Fatica is adamant about his decision to go into business for himself. “There is good and bad with everything, but at the end of the day, controlling your destiny and just the satisfaction of taking something when you risked it all, and it worked out for you, it is very rewarding; it is all worth it.”