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I recently sat down with industry veteran and friend Kim O’Neil to learn more about his story. From his two tours in Vietnam to his time in our industry, Kim has always been a solid contributor wherever he has served. Having known and worked with Kim for several years, I knew that this was an interesting story to be told.
Dan Beaulieu: Kim, it’s good to finally get to tell your story. I have wanted to do this for some time. For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself.
Kim O’Neil: My pleasure. I am originally from Muskego, Wisconsin, which is west of Milwaukee and where I joined the Navy at 18. I served on two cruises in Vietnam, but also traveled throughout the Southern Pacific during my time overseas. After being discharged, I moved to Phoenix, where my brother had relocated. They have much better winters there than in Wisconsin.
Beaulieu: Having lived in both Wisconsin and Maine, where I live now, I would agree. So how did you get started in this business?
O’Neil: In 1976, a friend told me that Sperry Flight Systems was hiring, and I should apply. Since my name is Kim, the hiring supervisor saw my name, thought I was a woman, and would fit an inspection opening. When he saw me—and my size—he said, “Lamination. Lift those caul plates.” So, that is where I started.
Beaulieu: I find it fascinating that, somehow, we all sort of backed into this industry. I have never met anyone who said when they were a kid, “I want to work in the PCB industry when I grow up.” How did you end up at Prototron in Tucson?
O’Neil: I had been working at Teradyne in San Diego when the 2001 recession began. The company closed the shop and I moved back to Arizona. I got a call from a former manager who was working at Prototron and looking to fill a position. My first job there was engineering manager, and it encompassed several different jobs throughout the shop. I have been the general manager of Prototron for the past 13 years.
Beaulieu: Tell me about Prototron from your point of view.
O’Neil: Prototron has been on a course of steady growth and improvement. It is the type of company that you enjoy getting up each day and going to work for. It is a personal type of company, where customer service is not a slogan but built into everything we do, not just in the quality of our products.
Beaulieu: And what makes it a good company?
O’Neil: Integrity, people, and focus of purpose. Prototron’s integrity is built from the top down. Owner and President Dave Ryder instills integrity as one of the most important—if not the most important—traits for the company. Once that is established, the people you work with encompass that as the focus of purpose. People are treated fairly at all times no matter what the situation is. That includes customers as well as our team. Whenever there is a decision to be made, we at Prototron will always consider what is best for the other guy. How can we be fair? How can we do the right thing? It makes for a very productive and pleasant work environment. No one at Prototron has ever gotten in trouble for supporting our customers.
Beaulieu: Yes, I agree, that is something that your company is known for.
O’Neil: We pride ourselves on having great communication skills with our customers. The understanding that our customers are not just purchasing a circuit board, but a complete Prototron experience. We focus on unrivaled on-time delivery, knowledgeable technical customer service, and quality through continual improvement of the QMS. No matter what, we take the promises we make very seriously which is why we have an over 98% on-time delivery and quality performance; this is not easy for a company that primarily offers quick-turn services.
Beaulieu: Speaking of quick-turn services, many companies offer that but, in truth, are not great at it. Please talk more about that.
O’Neil: Prototron offers quick turns, or “expediates” as we call them, in as little as 24 hours and most of them in 48 to 72 hours. But the real important thing is these are production quality boards. We don’t cut corners; we certainly do not adhere to the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) philosophy. We take the time to do it right every time. We actually advise our customers on their design and their data packages. And because we do not take large volume orders, we can give them a truly unbiased opinion on how to design their boards.
Beaulieu: What is your sweet spot? What do you guys do best?
O’Neil: Quick turns and prototypes, low quantities/high mix. A third of our monthly orders are on RF/microwave materials from two to eight layers, non-conductive via fill, and we have several different surface finishes in house—leaded HAL, ENIG, electrolytic gold, and immersion silver.
Beaulieu: How about new product development? Will you be bringing more of that in?
O’Neil: As we continue our expansion in Tucson, direct imaging will play a key part by increasing our capabilities. Since registration plays a major role in the special materials world, we look forward to the new opportunities that DI will bring.
Beaulieu: What markets do you compete in?
O’Neil: Besides the commercial, industrial, and medical markets, we also work in the aerospace and defense industries. Prototron has been certified for the past four years to AS9100 Rev D/ISO9001-2015 and qualified to MIL-PRF-31032/MIL-PRF-55110. We also serve markets that have ITAR as a requirement. Prototron has been qualified to MIL-PRF-55110 since I have been here, which is at least 18 years.
Beaulieu: What are the challenges in competing in the Mil-Aero market?
O’Neil: Technology will always be a challenge in this market. With the pandemic, there have been challenges that we have seen in the past, but not to the extent that we are seeing now. There are some challenges that we have never seen. For example, several customers are redesigning boards because of component availability.
Beaulieu: Where do you see technology going in the future?
O’Neil: I am not really a crystal ball kind of person. I believe current trends will stay the same—faster, smaller, more use of specialty materials. However, with raw materials being diverted into other industries, processing of the PCB may change radically.
Beaulieu: What do you consider good service?
O’Neil: I truly believe that anyone who is in business today can claim “good customer service,” and they would probably be right. It is great customer service I want when I am buying something. Great customer service is establishing a true business relationship with your customer or your supplier by being out in front when things are not going well. It is very easy to have a business relationship when all is well. But when the relationship is strained, are you going to be with your customer or supplier and do whatever it takes to get through together? Have a relationship with your customers and suppliers.
Beaulieu: What do you think your customers are looking for when it comes to service?
O’Neil: Like with everything else, they get what they pay for. They want consistent, on-time deliveries; knowledgeable service; to be quick with everything, such as quotes, PO confirmations, and releasing to manufacturing; and get technical questions answered fast.
Beaulieu: Why are you outstanding when it comes to service?
O’Neil: Prototron believes there is real value in great service. We strive every day to have that business relationship that ensures they keep coming back. This is why we have had some customers with us for almost 30 years. When we start with a customer, our goal is to have them with us for life.
Beaulieu: How have you done during the pandemic?
O’Neil: Just like some others, we’ve had challenges. This past January through February, at least half of the shop came down with the virus. We have come out of the pandemic with a much more appreciative attitude with everyday life. Although some employees and families were affected by the virus more than others, we are glad it was not worse.
Beaulieu: Yes, I agree. It feels like a true privilege to be able to go to a store or a restaurant now. Speaking of which, how do you see the industry doing now that we are nearly post-COVID?
O’Neil: I see it starting to open. However, I do have real concerns about the supply chain. It has been an issue for a while but the more everyone comes back online, I believe it will get worse before it gets better.
Beaulieu: Definitely. I think everyone is feeling that right now. Let’s hope it will turn around soon. Do you have any final comments?
O’Neil: I do. I’ve never had a format like this so I’m going to take this opportunity. In my 45-year career, I have met, worked with, and been mentored by some incredible people. I truly feel blessed to have had that experience and I want to thank those folks for what they have passed on to me.
Beaulieu: And that is a very nice way to end this. Thank you, Kim, for your time and for your service.