Success was the only option Brenner, thrown into CEO ROLE following death of her husband, quickly figured out how to survive and thrive.
A year after the trauma of the sudden death of her husband in 2011 — and after seemingly learning a 60-year-old business she never intended to inherit from the ground up — Christine Brenner was left with one indisputable fact:
Brenner Metal Products Corp. was failing.
And Brenner didn’t know why.
She had two choices: “I could either shut it down or revamp and make this business my own,” she said.
In reality, she knew she had only one option.
“My machinists, my warehouse workers — they’ve all been here for decades,” Brenner said. “I needed to take care of them and their families.”
As the new owner and CEO, Brenner made it her business to figure out what needed to be done to turn around the Wallington-based business that manufactured medical, dental and field equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense and Defense Logistics Agency.
“I’m not an engineer, but I’m very intuitive,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘Why is this made like this? … Why is it so heavy? … Why is this clip used?’ Being in the position I am, I could then ask if we could try it another way.”
But it wasn’t until she attended a vendor day for the Defense Department that she would figure out what was wrong.
When the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency altered the specifications for the design of its field hospital beds, its request — sent out during Brenner’s transition to CEO in 2012 — went unanswered.
After this was discovered, Brenner not only resubmitted bids to be the supplier, she helped redesign the product, making it a sustainable, primary focus for the multimillion-dollar manufacturer.
Everything quickly turned around.
“Just when I was ready to let go of the business, I became a sole source manufacturer,” she said. “It was a game-changer for the company.”
Even though it came during a time in which her personal life was still recovering.
Brenner and her husband Sidney had been together for 25 years.
And the woman who had made a successful career as a real estate developer was about to enter a new period in her life.
“Two weeks before my husband passed away, I left my job,” she said. “We wanted to spend more time together.”
Faced with few options after his death, Brenner simply showed up to work as the owner of Brenner Metal Products — the federally contracted manufacturing company her husband’s father, Harold, and his uncle, Fred, had incorporated in 1972 — the following Monday.
“I was lucky enough that our foreman and secretary had been with the company for over 40 years each,” she said. “They helped me run the business that first year as I learned.”
Brenner spent time working in every department to understand exactly what was needed.
“I studied every purchase order and every shipment,” she said. “I would then go work in the machine shop downstairs to learn what was being made and how.”
In 2013, however, Brenner noticed a steep decline in contracts with the Defense Department.
“That’s when I really started asking questions,” she said.
As it turned out, Brenner Metal Products had been the original manufacturer of field hospital beds in the 1960s. But when Brenner didn’t respond when the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency altered the specifications for the design in 2012, the company lost much of its business with the government.
“They settled for an unmodified bed and the contract went into limbo,” Brenner said.
“Then they started buying differently — when the government needed folding hospital beds, they’d simply purchase the 10 that they needed. If they were to ask that of a manufacturer, we couldn’t do it — we needed to build in quantity.”
Brenner was faced with an uphill battle: Not only would she and her team have to re-engineer the product to meet new specifications, but also they’d have to restructure the company’s processes.
“We needed to manufacture products that we could stock on our shelves to be able to sell and ship to the government when they needed them,” she said.
However difficult that might be, Brenner knew it was a major opportunity ripe for the taking.
Brenner viewed the challenge as a way to get closer with her team of 15 employees.
“Taking that product from what it was to what it is now was a process,” she said. “We worked together on it every day to make it perfect.”
Despite running two thriving businesses in completely separate industries, Christine Brenner is never too busy to give back.
Even when asked to help lead and promote a brand new charitable organization.
As vice president of Boots Up, Brenner seeks to help ease transitions back into civilian life for those veterans who have recently been honorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces. The organization intends to help veterans secure employment within the first 12 months via resume and application building, networking, career education and counseling.
“It excites me and keeps me awake and busy and thinking,” Brenner said. “This charity completes my full circle — I literally have everything.”
Perfection (though not exactly by Brenner’s standards, as she continues to tinker to this day) meant the addition of several components to the field hospital beds, including: adjustable side rails; three-inch mattress pads; adjustable leg positions at one-inch increments; interchangeable six-inch castor wheels; and dual-purpose swivel-arm mayo trays.
The components of the 70-pound aluminum-alloy bed would also fit neatly into a nylon bag with Velcro buckles — all manufactured at Brenner Metal Products’ headquarters in Wallington.
The company’s ability to go above and beyond the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency specifications earned it a partnership with ADS Inc. — a Virginia Beach-based solutions provider of one-stop medical solutions for the U.S. State Department — and several additional orders from U.S. Marine Corps medical teams.
“It’s inspiring to know that possibilities do exist,” she said.
Though field hospital beds are now Brenner Metal Product’s primary focus, Brenner would like to re-engineer several of the manufacturer’s other products, too.
“I buy competitors’ products, and I think about what I would change,” she said.
Bottom line: It’s never going to be enough.
Brenner even just recently attended the New Jersey Emergency Preparedness Association Conference in Atlantic City to seek potential contracts with organizations such as FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the New Jersey Task Force One.
“I want to get more involved at a county and state level to be able to supply my state and work with other agencies,” she said.
Her only concern would be the potential lack of technology.
“Our machines are all nearly 40 years old or older and manual,” Brenner said. “At some point, our equipment will need to be updated. I’ll need computerized equipment that will help us produce faster.”
More accurately, however, is that there may not be a workforce to properly operate the manufacturer’s more than 30-something Bridgeport machines — which Brenner credits for their longevity.
“The fact that we’re still manufacturing the old-school way and surviving in today’s world of tech is a sure testament to the strength of our company,” Brenner said.
Brenner Metal Products is proud to be a Made in the U.S. manufacturer — and makes sure that each of its suppliers are, too.
“I really believe in small businesses helping each other because that’s what we come to work for,” Brenner said. “Things may be cheaper if you buy elsewhere, but we need to keep manufacturing in this country.”
And in the state of New Jersey.
“I never think about moving this business out of state,” Brenner said. “In fact, within the next three years, I want to have an even bigger facility here.”
Though she never expected to be a part of this business, Brenner is certainly never letting go.
“I worked hard to get here and I look forward to a future here,” she said. “I have only myself; I will not fail.”