Fort Worth manufacturer keeps military rolling along

Betty Dillard

It’s hard to imagine a modern military without battle tanks, reconnaissance and infantry transporters, and all-terrain vehicles to keep troops and myriad equipment and supplies on the march. Fort Worth native Ross Hyde has spent his entire professional life serving the U.S. defense industry, helping keep military equipment maintained and in perfect working order. Hyde, 58, is the owner and president of Vista Machining Co. Inc., a manufacturer of made-to-order spare and replacement parts for military vehicles and systems from government drawings and specifications. A full-service general machine shop in far west Fort Worth, the company boasts an extensive drawing library of more than three million drawings.

Vista, a prime contractor for the U.S. government, predominantly sells to the major procurement centers in Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., and also supplies various Army and Navy bases. The company also does some designing and is the sole source on some government equipment. Hyde, a business graduate of the University of Texas, followed his father in the defense manufacturing industry, which is worth $170 billion, according to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. The industry involves the manufacture of defense goods, including information systems, watercraft, aircraft and weaponry. Vista Machining primarily supplies parts for U.S. military ground vehicles, especially the Bradley tank and the M113 armored personnel carrier. “I take a patriotic pride in this business. We’re making parts for our national defense. It gives you a sense of pride,” Hyde said. “I try to envision our troops being out somewhere and they’re buying parts here and it’s my job to get those parts to them.” Hyde recently spoke to the Fort Worth Business Press about his role in the defense industry.

You’re a second-generation military supplier. How did your father get started in this business? My father worked for a hardware supplier. My dad went to the owner and asked if they could start getting some government contracts. So my father started doing that and became the top salesman in the company. When he was 26 he left that company and started his own company, Ordnance Parts & Engineering, not only supplying hardware but manufacturing also. He was a pioneer in the fact that there were few small contractors doing that at that time. That was the late ‘50s, early ‘60s.

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Did you grow up helping him in the business? I have fond memories of being with my father. He was my best friend. He died just three years ago. Every single Saturday from when I was 5 or 6 years old I went to the office with him. He’d work half a day. It was our ritual that we’d always go to Angelo’s every single Saturday for lunch. We did that until I went to college. Those were my favorite days. When I started in high school, I worked after school and in the summers and on holidays. I learned all aspects of the business. I started sweeping floors first when I was 8 or 9 and went into government packaging, which is a big part of the business. I got exposed to that at 10 or 11. At 14, I made my first big step and started working the machine shop, operating Bridgeport Mills and Warner & Swasey lathes. In high school, I moved into the office and was the manager after I graduated from Texas until I left at 29 and started my own company.

When did you start Vista Machining? It’s only four or five years old. I had started some other companies but all in the same industry.

What does Vista Machining do? Everything. I really love this job. I work seven days a week. What I spend most of my time on is the quoting of the jobs, looking at the blueprints, estimating how much it’s going to cost, looking at the competition and seeing how we’re going to get the job. That’s the art of the business in a nutshell. It’s like everything else in the government now. All the bids are done electronically, all the bills – everything is electronic now.

What products do you make? We do general machine shop work, turning and milling to government blueprints and specifications. We manufacture specific parts for the M1 tank, the Bradley tank, the Stryker and the M113 armored personnel carrier. Those are 90 percent of our business, making parts for those vehicles. The procurement business is so much better than it used to be. The government has done a really good job on that. Of course, everything is computerized. For the first time in all these years, maybe the last seven or eight years, it’s a true business relationship with the government. We do work hand in hand together. We have better parts and the government gets them faster. The quality is way up because they’ve gotten very stringent, very strict. We’ve always tried to make good parts but the government is stricter now. They’ve really made a big change.

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How does the military order and purchase parts from you? It’s all done by open bid. We bid on fixed-cost contracts. Anybody can bid on them. Where we get such a competitive advantage now is that we supply so much to them we have a 99.1 quality rating, which is the top. We’re in the top 62 in the country. One thing, I think, that does make us unique is that most government contractors supply either a certain part or maybe two dozen parts, but what we do is we supply a diverse range of equipment. We do things as simple as modifying standard hardware, such as nuts and bolts, to manufacturing of firing mechanisms, which is very complex. We’ll supply one piece when most companies wouldn’t think of doing that. That sets us apart. We’ve gotten fortunate in that the government has started to sole source us on items, especially on critical items. They’ve seen the quality of our work, they’ve seen the price and the delivery. It’s quite an honor to be a sole source.

What drives your business? Just plain old know-how. We’re very competitive. We work harder. I’ve made an observation – I haven’t read or seen it anywhere – but this is what I’ve seen. Whenever they announce a government cutback on military spending our business goes way up, every single time. What happens is they’re not buying expensive airplanes, for example, but are buying spare parts to overhaul and fix them up. With the latest sequestration it’s amazing how much our business has gone up.

How much? It’s doubled in the last three years.

And this year, how has business been going? The first two quarters are our biggest yet. I’m real proud of that. Another thing, it’s amazing how much equipment [that] the government uses goes back to the 1950s. So much is used over and over again. That’s a testament to how well things are made in America. They did a heck of a job 60 years ago. I’d say about 20 percent of the blueprints I see were drawn in the ‘50s. They may have 20 revisions on them but it’s the same stuff. The engineers then knew what they were doing. A true machinist was an artist in his day. There are no machinists anymore. Machining is a lost art. I’m from that era but it’s all a new era now.

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What other changes have you seen in this industry over the years? The major thing I’ve seen is that there used to be a tremendous amount of mom and pop shops, myself included. I’ve run this company with two or three people about 20 years ago. There used to be a lot of companies out there. But with the new way the government is buying and the new regulations on the contractors, the sheer number of companies has gone down, 10 times less.