It costs six times as much to get a new customer as to keep a customer you already have.

— Unknown
Elkins Machine Detroit

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Elkins Machine & Tool founder Ray Swoish is a uncomplicated man who turned the uncomplicated lessons of his rural upbringing into long-term business success. And the fact that his work is focused in the screw machine business is a little more than ironic.

“I never really liked screw machines,” the 82-year-old recently admitted with a smile on his face as he remembered his early days in the industry. “I bought a couple of old ones back then, the four-spindle models. But I really hated them at the time. Never wanted them. But I knew I needed them and tried to learn on how to work on them … eventually, I hired someone who was really good at working on them.”

Swoish’s strengths lie in his roots. Elkins remains a family-owned and operated business, which is no surprise, given the fact that Ray was one of 19 children to John and Anna Swoish of North Branch, MI. An old Detroit News newspaper article once celebrated the family – lined up, side by side, across the top of the page in classic black and white. What do you do with all those children? Ray’s mother Anna peeled three bushels of potatoes to go along with the 75 pounds of flour the family went through weekly.

When you are one of 19 children growing up on a rural central Michigan farm, you learn something about the importance of a good work ethic. But Swoish’s business success came from a lot of different angles. There was no visionary business model involved. Growing up on a farm, a member of such a huge family, taught him of hard work, long days and a sense of humility. Eventually, his work with now-defunct American Screw (9 Mile and Farmington roads) began some industrial connections that would help him start his own business and see it flourish through the next four decades. A conservative spender, he never stretched his finances too far as he developed his company – and therefore, never went into large debt. To Ray Swoish, being a success came through hard work, long hours and a lot of minor adjustments along the way.

Not that it was easy. When he was employed by the long-defunct American Screw in the late ‘60s, “they said the industry wouldn’t be around in another 10 years. But those screw machines were built during the war to make bullets, and 40 years later, they are still running. Heck, 90 percent of the work we’re doing is still being done on screw machines. That tells you something.”

In the 1960s, Swoish started building business relationships that would stand the test of time. One former partner, Ren Swope, would turn a company called North Star into a premiere developer of paint fittings and valves. It would eventually be obtained by Hose Specialties and then sold to ITW Devilbiss, some of the biggest names in the paint finishing system components’ field. Larry Ellis, a fellow worker at American Screw, was a major driving force behind Ace Controls. Ace bought a company called Flairline, which became a highly successful division specializing in pneumatic and low-pressure hydraulic actuators for all industries. Ironically, Hydronic Corporation now owns Flairline – and Steve Ellis, Larry’s son, now heads up Hydronic.

Through the ensuing decades, Elkins would remain a key supplier to those companies, and many others. Times changes. Names changed. Ownerships changed … but Elkins remained a constant.

“You know, we’re doing a lot of the same parts today that we did back then.” Swoish said. “The secondary (capabilities) are different now, but the parts, many are still the same thing.”

A large part of Elkins success lies in its tool making abilities. “That’s the key,” he said. “We can make ‘em here and make ‘em overnight. Others have to get them done (through outside sources). That takes a lot of time. People came to us and we made them quickly. We worked long days to get the job done. That makes for a lot of success. We may work long and hard to get the job done, but then it’s done and the next day you can relax a little. Of course, you also need good help. That is always a key.”

One of the biggest changes in Elkins Machine & Tool came as Ray’s family began to take over the day-to-day business operations. “Tim came along and wanted to do some things differently,” Ray said of his son. “He had some good ideas. Now, when I’m away from Elkins, I don’t worry about the business. Tim actually grew up in the screw machining business. And the people that we’ve hired have really picked it up. They do fine work.”

If you speak to enough people around the Elkins facility, Ray Swoish’s persona remains at the business’s soul. He still loves working and is often seen on the operations floor, working on machines and discussing projects with associates. And, if you talk to those same people again, they promote the same type of work ethic that helped Ray develop his business.

“I never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” said his son Tim Swoish, now president of the company.

It’s a simple philosophy.

“You know, I served in the Air Force,” Ray Swoish said. “Some of the greatest times in my life. And I was never particular about jobs that I did. If they asked me to do something, I did it. If they handed me a mop, I moped the floor. Other guys, they’d get upset about doing certain jobs. But I wasn’t brought up that way.

“I always thought: ‘No matter what you do, do it well. If you do that, someone will notice.”

That type of work ethic lives on at Elkins Machine & Tool, because customers have be “noticing” for over four decades.

Where did the Elkins name come from?

Many people wonder where the Elkins’ name comes from. Ray Swoish knows the story because he lived it.

“I started working for a fence company in town, Elkins Fence,” he said. “I put up fences as a part-time job back then. I needed the money. Eventually, the owner left town and he left everything with me. I kept the name because it was already established. We moved around a little and then finally bought this building in Romulus when it became available. I never wanted to buy again. I didn’t want to move again.”

And so Elkins Machine & Tool still stands at 27510 Northline Road.