Longform

A LAME DUCK IN HOT WATER

John Thul walks to the back of his nearly completed $8 million sheet-metal-stamping plant and gazes at the undeveloped rangeland stretching for miles to the north.

His face fills with the distressed look of a man who's been had. Thul points to a lone creosote bush, about 150 feet away from the loading docks, where tractor trailers soon will gun their engines around the clock. He glances over to the adjacent air-conditioning pad, where two noise-blasting chiller units will be installed.

He looks back at the vacant desert and shakes his head. "That's where they want to build the houses," he says, pointing at the shrub a stone's throw away. For all sorts of reasons, Thul wanted to be sure his new Arizona Precision Sheet Metal Inc. factory would be located far from residential neighborhoods. His company has been dogged by noise complaints for years at its present location in north Phoenix, forcing him to shut down manufacturing at nights and any time he opens his loading-dock doors.

More important, he wanted to have room to expand his burgeoning business, expected to grow to 1,000 employees with $100 million in sales over the next five years. Any nearby residential development would severely hamper expansion, he says.

Phoenix economic development officials assured Thul the site he eventually picked--the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and Pinnacle Peak Road--was in the heart of a vast industrial reserve just beginning to take off. His new plant would be a welcome change from the junkyards that litter the surrounding area, they said. Homeowner complaints would be a thing of the past.

"One of the things we liked about this property was that we're surrounded by industrial zoning," Thul says.

The city was so hot to keep the family-owned company and its 318 employees in Phoenix that it even helped secure tax-free financing--the first such city-sponsored lending in years.

But that was before Phoenix interim mayor Thelda Williams decided she wanted something different for the area. Something like a 377-unit Continental Homes subdivision right next door to Thul's sheet-metal-stamping plant. Williams' support for the subdivision has shocked and angered nearby landowners, who believe the homes will destroy any hopes of developing a major industrial area north of Deer Valley Airport. It also goes against the advice of Phoenix planning, airport and economic development officials.

Amplifying the angry discourse over the subdivision are Williams' close ties to the real estate agent trying to swing the deal. A Williams friend and political confidant, Phoenix real estate broker Michael Wm. Longstreth, is the man with the housing plan--a plan that, if all goes well, will fatten his wallet by at least $200,000.

Williams dismisses staff's concerns about the residential development as overwrought and biased. She claims the Thul family likes the idea of homes next door to the new sheet-metal-stamping plant.

"I've talked to the Thuls and they are delighted with it," says Williams.
Not exactly, says Tim Thul, the company's general manager. In fact, not even close.

"I think delighted is a poor choice of words," he says. "We have spent $80,000 fighting this thing."
@rule:
@body:John Thul takes a decidedly nonstandard approach to running his business--from treatment of employees to selection of a site for his new factory.

While many large companies are avoiding quality-of-life issues--opting instead for the "temporary work force"--Thul wants Arizona Precision Sheet Metal workers to have a permanent stake in the company.

"We are dead serious about having my grandchildren and the employees' children being involved with the company years down the road," he says.

He already is pushing his company into an arena in which the Valley's largest employers dare not go--on-site child care.

While Arizona Public Service Company, Intel Corporation, American Express, Motorola Inc. and Bank One Arizona all shun the notion of children at work, Thul believes providing quality child care at a reasonable cost is essential to achieving his ultimate goal--a perfect product every time.

The 56-year-old Thul has a reason to be more in tune with the needs of children than many Valley executives. He's started a second family and is the father of a 1-year-old child, with a second due any minute. But personal experience aside, Thul is convinced that amenities like on-site child care make for a happier and more productive work force.

"In our factory of the future, we have tried to address all of our employees' needs," Thul says. Arizona Precision Sheet Metal's new 150,000-square-foot assembly plant, which opens August 22, will have an extensive indoor weight room, locker rooms and outdoor basketball, volleyball and handball courts. An on-site cafeteria will provide low-fat, high-vegetable meals that employees can order to go.

"I'm really pushing workouts and proper diets," he says before challenging an associate to a 5,000-meter race.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty