The History of New Age Industrial Interview with Tom Sharp

We recently sat down with Tom Sharp, Vice President of New Age Industrial, to learn more about our company’s history from his point of view. He shared some of his favorite memories throughout the years, how New Age got its start, and what the future holds.

Interviewer: How did New Age Industrial start up?
Tom Sharp: In 1966, a gentleman came into Mizell Motors here in Norton, Kansas to buy a car. He had a $50,000 cashier’s check with him. Keep in mind that $50,000 in 1966 was quite a sum of money. They asked him what he was going to use the money for, and he said, “I’m going to build a factory in Alma, Nebraska, and put my extrusion press in it to extrude aluminum and make products for the mobile home industry.”
Interviewer: What made him come to Norton instead?
Tom: The owner of the car dealership immediately called some other local business owners and said, “We’ve got a guy here that wants to put in a factory that will employ people who will give us business. We have to talk him into putting this in Norton instead.” Luckily, they convinced him to build his factory in Norton in 1966!
Interviewer: How well did the factory do in the beginning?
Tom: In 1968, they found out that the extrusion press was used to make bomb casings in World War I. Unfortunately, the press was very slow, so they couldn’t make any money with it. Everyone wanted out of the business, so my father, Bill Sharp, took over the debt and purchased New Age. Bud Kelling, another local business owner, stayed on as well.
Interviewer: What were some of the first products New Age Industrial built?
Tom: We made hog confinement equipment, and that is the product that propelled New Age to survive. We received a $1 million order from China, which was unheard of at the time, since back then we were lucky to get a $10,000 order!
Interviewer: What came next?
Tom: Eventually when that industry slowed down, they built a Dunnage Rack for an ice cream place in Smith Center, Kansas, and my dad thought that product would sell to others. He went to a tradeshow with a Dunnage Rack in his pickup and no booth. He brought people outside to see the Dunnage Rack. There was an independent rep in attendance that said they could help develop and sell products for the foodservice industry. So, they made a deal, and that’s how we got into making foodservice equipment.
Interviewer: What product put New Age on the map?
Tom: The second foodservice product we ever made was a Can Rack for Pizza Hut. There were times that maybe they were going to have to lock the door, but that product is what really saved New Age.
Interviewer: What is the “napkin story” that people always talk about?
Tom: I remember the stories my dad would tell us about sitting in bars with customers, drawing ideas for products on bar napkins, trading them back and forth, changing the designs. They would draw products and modify them right on the napkins. That was the CAD of yesteryear.
Interviewer: How has New Age grown to be the company it is today?
Tom: Back in 1998, we only had one independent rep group located in Texas and 3 other people covering the rest of the entire country. I knew that was a mess. So, I went out and hired independent foodservice and supermarket reps to move things forward. Then we got into buying groups which made us a legitimate company in the buyers’ eyes. That allowed us to get up to the plate and take a swing for a chance at some orders.
In 2002, we got a lucky break. We made a Folding “L” Cart for Meijer Supermarkets. It sold incredibly well, so we decided to put another arm on it. We took that product to a large material handling show. It was literally the only thing in our booth. We ran into a company that we private labeled for there, and sales started taking off after that. Now, the material handling division is the fastest growing part of our business.
Interviewer: What do people across your industries say about you?
Tom: We are a well-respected, high-quality line and have the absolute best reps working with us.
Interviewer: Didn’t you have a fire in the 90’s?
Tom: We had a fire that burnt down 89% of the facility, and Bill Sharp said, “We are NOT closing our doors!” With the help of our employees and community members, the business was back up and running in just 5 weeks. It was truly amazing. The employees and community here are tremendous.
Interviewer: Tell us about your employees.
Tom: I remember my dad always saying that he appreciated the hardworking people in Western Kansas and Nebraska that had chosen to work for him. He always tried hard to give back to them, and I believe we do too. He felt so strongly about New Age and the people that work here, and I hope we can always carry on that feeling to them. We have the most amazing workforce in the country or other countries. New Age Industrial’s biggest strength is its employees. Our location in Northwest Kansas might seem odd or out of touch from a lot of things, but it’s a real advantage for us, because their work ethic is second to none.
Interviewer: Why are you still making products in Norton, KS?
Tom: We always say, “We are Proudly Made in the USA, which we are!” In 2001, I discovered these products coming from China that were cheaply made and priced. I was worried that we would lose a lot of business to them and thought maybe we should import too. Our team didn’t want to sacrifice our reputation and quality standards, just because it would be cheaper. We build it BETTER. We are so proudly Made in the USA!
Interviewer: What does the future hold for New Age?
Tom: To look back over the years and see the evolution of our products is crazy. The products we make now compared to what we used to make have no comparison. I think we will always be a leader in custom aluminum equipment. There will always be a market or industry for us to excel in. We continue to modernize our factory and grow our sales force, and the opportunities are endless. I think we will always have a place.