When Kosmo Machine Inc. was founded in 1976, brothers Pat and Ted Smook operated the business — a maker of machine components — in a 2,000-square-foot building just a few miles south of Ashland.
An aerial photograph of the original site hangs in the company’s office, now located in a former U.S. Postal Service sorting facility in eastern Henrico County.
“Back in the old days, it was just Ted and I,” recalled Smook, 57, the company’s vice president of sales.
Now, after a series of expansions over four decades, the company employs nearly 60 people and has a 62,000-square-foot office and manufacturing plant near Richmond International Airport.
On the factory floor, the company’s staff of skilled machinists produce precision components for customers in diverse industries, locally and all over the world. The plant has made parts for companies in Japan and Germany.
“We are neighborhood boys who have done fairly well,” Smook said. “It has been 40 years, and we are a world-class producer of machine parts now.”
Kosmo Machine — the name is an anagram of Smook — is now in the midst of another expansion. In August, the company announced plans to invest $1 million in new equipment while adding more than 30 jobs to increase production at its plant.
When the company was founded, its work was closely tied to the region’s tobacco industry — supplying parts that helped keep cigarette factories operating. It later moved into supplying parts for the packaging industry.
Since then, “we have really grown into whatever the market needs,” Smook said. “We have made a lot of technological advances.”
The latest expansion comes as Kosmo Machine has added new customers and earned certifications enabling it to make a wider range of machine components, such as for the aerospace industry.
When the company moved into the eastern Henrico plant four years ago, “about 90 percent of our work came from four customers,” Smook said. “Now, 30 percent of the pie is split 12 ways.”
Much of the work done by Kosmo Machine’s machinists involves operating computer numerically controlled, or CNC, machines, large pieces of high-tech equipment that can produce machine parts with microscopic precision.
Among the new pieces of equipment acquired as part of the $1 million investment are two electrical discharge machines, or EDMs, one of which — a wire EDM — uses an electrical discharge from a thin wire to craft metal parts at about one-30th the width of a human hair.
Quality management is vital. “Quality is what we sell, really,” Smook said. “We learned early on that anybody can buy a building and a bunch of machines, but it is the people that matter.”
“We have a culture of constant improvement, and it shows in our work,” he said.
As part of its expansion, Kosmo Machine also has added a machine parts cleaning service. The company buys dry ice pellets and compresses them into blocks. The staff built blasting equipment that uses dry ice to clean machine parts sent by customers.
“It does not hurt the parts at all,” Smook said. “There is no water. There is no sand. It is the greenest form of cleaning on the planet.”
While the company does not disclose its customers, it does work for such industries as electric power generation, electric motor components and shipbuilding.
The aerospace industry, especially the emerging aerial drone industry, is a relatively new client base the company is cultivating.
The company has limited its own growth to focus on getting the right skilled workers in place, Smook said over a lunch of baked salmon, vegetables and peach cobbler at the plant — the company has a professional chef who prepares lunch four days a week for the entire staff.
The lunches are free. “It’s a great benefit financially, and healthy options are always available,” Smook said. “It saves employees time and money. The company benefits because our equipment gets back in production mode quicker. The best part is the fact it’s a team-builder and always a relaxing atmosphere. Everyone wins.”
Smook’s older brother, Ted, 66, who founded the company, is phasing his career toward retirement. He now manages the kitchen at the plant.
The high-tech manufacturing sector remains a key job sector for the Richmond region, and Kosmo Machine is one example of the companies in that sector.
Distribution and manufacturing are expected to create about 19,000 jobs in the region in the next 10 years, said Barry Matherly, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership, a regional economic development group.
“We are steadily hiring,” Pat Smook said. “Our biggest challenge is finding people to complete the training program.”
The company has an in-house apprenticeship training program, which involves on-the-job training and an online training curriculum, said Mike Redden, a 38-year employee of the company and its vice president of manufacturing. It can take three to five years to fully train a machinist.
“It takes all different skill sets to run the business, but the hardest positions we have to fill are the machinist positions — they are a rare breed,” Redden said. “It is starting to get better now that high school counselors are steering the appropriate kids toward the skilled trades.”
The company works with community colleges to find workers. It also has hired some military veterans soon after their discharge from service.
“We interview people of all walks of life,” Redden said. “We have hired people straight out of high school, and it worked out. The highest success rate, so far, are the veterans. They can hit the ground running They are mature and know what they want to do with their lives.”
One of the company’s recent veteran hires is Gavin Keisling, who joined Kosmo Machine in November 2016 after four years of service in the U.S. Army.
“It was a seamless transition,” said Keisling, a native of Arizona who studied philosophy at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
When considering what to do after leaving the Army, “I talked to my father — he has been a welder his whole life — and he said machining is a great trade.”
Keisling sped through an apprenticeship program at Kosmo in less than a year and is also studying mechanical engineering technology at John Tyler Community College. He now works in the production planning department at Kosmo.
“It is good honest work,” Keisling said. “It is the backbone of the country. I think the technology and metal working is fascinating, and I like the quality management aspect of it.”
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