Reading time ( words)
ACT-USA is one of the best value-added PCB distributors in the country today. Focused on providing their North American customers with boards as well as heavy copper boards they have steadily broadened their vendor base since their inception in 1994. Just last year Jack Gemmell fulfilled his lifelong dream of owning his own company and bought ACT-USA from Jerry Gerard and Sharlene Edlin. I visited Jack in January and we sat down to have a talk about being a new owner, his company, the technology, and the PCB business in general.
Dan Beaulieu: Jack, tell me about the history of the company, and how it has grown.
Jack Gemmell: ACT was founded in 1994 by Jerry Gerard and Peter Chiu. They had identified a need to help OEM and CM companies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to offshore quality bare printed circuit boards. ACT would eliminate the headache of qualifying suppliers, auditing process and production, while maintaining the high level of domestic customer service. Sharlene Edlin later joined the ownership group and created ACT’s original ISO 9001:2000 procedures and certification. We currently are a 9001:2015 registered company.
Beaulieu: And what about you? When did you join the company?
Gemmell: I joined ACT in 2006 as their operations manager. Although I was brand-new to the world of circuit boards, I looked forward to bringing my diverse background in finance and operations to the company. I had the pleasure of working with each owner and learning every function of ACT. During my education here, I have always looked for improvement. This type of culture is embraced at ACT. I quickly found my passion and enjoyment working for a company that shared the same core values of diversity, service and improvement. During my advancement to VP of Global Operations, I expressed my interest in becoming a partner in ACT.
Beaulieu: And now you own the company. How did that come about?
Gemmell: For as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of owning a company. My entrepreneurial spirit came from my grandfather. Over the years, he owned several different businesses and I was lucky enough to work for him when I was a teenager. It was there that my passion for business developed—learning every possible job and how I could perform that function better and with more efficiency. The greatest lesson he passed on to me was “Surround yourself with successful people and you will be successful.” I apply this every day in both my personal and professional life. This is what we have at ACT—a successful team.
Beaulieu: And then just last year you made it happen, right?
Gemmell: Yes, that’s right. In 2017, my dream came true, as I completed my purchase of the company. I wouldn’t have been able to take this next step without the full support of the previous ownership and the entire team we have in place. I can’t express how impressed I am with everyone working here. Everyone owns their position and takes every step to support their partners.
Beaulieu: Jack, you speak a lot about partners and partnership; can you elaborate on that for me?
Gemmell: Sure. When I speak of partners, I’m referring not only to our team at ACT, but of our customers and vendors. We don’t want to be just a supplier of PCBs, we want to be a partner in business. It’s our goal to provide the highest level of value-added service to our customers. If we can help them to become more successful, then we will also become a more successful company. We want to provide value beyond savings. Sometimes the value is simply providing the lowest price on a PCB. More importantly, it’s reviewing each RFQ as an opportunity for improvement, from panel optimization to alternative materials.
We have partnered with a select few quality-first manufacturers to ensure we maintain the highest service levels. All our qualified manufacturing partners are ISO 9001, 14001, TS 16949 and OHSAS 18001 certified. Only UL-approved materials are utilized.
Beaulieu: Do you have people in your vendor partners’ facilities then?
Gemmell: Yes, we have our own ACT engineers and inspectors onsite at each one of our facilities. This partnership is really embraced at all our facilities. We work together to build quality into the board from the start while looking for constant improvement and efficiencies. Our manufacturers continue to reinvest in their facilities, from state-of-the-art water reclaim and reuse systems to new mass laminating equipment.
Beaulieu: I know that ACT has been very specialized over the years. Please discuss your specific technology offerings.
Gemmell: ACT has specialized over the years in delivering low-cost, high-quality single- to six-layer PCBs. However, we have the capabilities to build higher technology PCBs as well. We have been in the lighting industry since ACT opened its doors. A lot has changed since then. LED boards are dominating the market and will continue long into the future. Depending on the application and thermal properties, the laminates range from FR-1, CEM1, CEM3, FR-4 to HT-CEM3 and multiple aluminum substrates. Maintaining clients’ reflectivity ratings is also important to ensure constant quality product. Our partnered plants are manufacturing narrow LED boards up to 44” in length. We are also building heavy copper (10 oz.) PCBs for the automotive industry. Due to very tight control restrictions, our partnered plant developed a process for holding a ±0.002" thickness on 0.093" laminate.
Beaulieu: These are things that only a few companies do, so you have found a need and filled it. How do you stand out over your competition?
Gemmell: How do we stand out? In one word, service! The PCB industry is extremely competitive. If you are not providing quality boards at competitive prices, you won’t be in business long. Our secret sauce is service; well, I guess it’s not a secret anymore. As I mentioned before, we want to help our partners succeed in business and we will help in every way to make that happen.
The service starts with our sales team on the front lines. They develop relationships and truly learn the unique requirements of a customer’s business. We spend time on the assembly lines talking to the techs, speak to the engineers designing future products and communicate with the buyers. Service continues in house with our account managers. They provide constant feedback on POs, accurate WIP, in-transit reports and quotations. They have even been known to provide Disney hotel recommendations! As I mentioned earlier, we are also fully integrated with our partnered manufacturers. This allows ACT to operate as a domestic supplier at competitive offshore prices.
Beaulieu: What do you look for in a customer?
Gemmell: We look for customers who are interested in becoming partners. Our customer base is a mix of small- to medium-size companies but also have global leaders in their industry. We can serve any volume level. We know that finding a reliable PCB source that can provide quality boards on time is difficult. If you already have a solid relationship, then we encourage you to maintain your relationship with that supplier.
Beaulieu: Jack, where do you see your company in five years?
Gemmell: We are positioning ourselves for stable growth over the next five years by identifying those customers that value supplier relationships. We look to understand our clients’ current business needs and their future goals. This allows us to provide the best products and services that fit their production needs. We also follow current market conditions as well as future trends in the industry. This allows our customers to make informed decisions on the design of future projects.
Beaulieu: And how are you growing your business?
Gemmell: We have relied on our own network to drive future business. This has worked well in the past. We have had contacts move on to new companies and subsequently reach out to us again. Others have contacted us because they know we are an OEM of XYZ company. We are currently developing our marketing plan to help get the word out about our company.
Beaulieu: Jack, thanks for spending so much time with me today. Just one more question. How do you see things in our industry right now?
Gemmell: It’s an amazing time in our industry right now, especially with the constant development of LEDs and the electric car! The applications are endless—copper-clad, metal core to flex, among others. With technology constantly evolving, the need for service has never been greater. Suppliers today cannot just be order takers anymore. ACT looks to create synergy by knowing our customers’ business. We meet with design engineers, spend time on the assembly floor and work with the procurement team. This knowledge and understanding is blended with our manufacturers’ capabilities to provide a high-quality PCB with competitive pricing.
Beaulieu: Thank you, Jack. It was great talking with you.