VITA IN THE BOSTON GLOBE

Time Stands Still At Vita Needle Company

Old-fashioned approach suits Bay State firm well

By Jon Marcus
The Associated Press

Needham, Mass. - As this year's 65th anniversary of the Vita Needle Co. drew near, employees climbed into the dusty attic and dug out some faded black-and-white photos from the 1950s.

Other than the date on the calendar behind the smiling people in the pictures, little at the company has changed.

Time stands still at Vita Needle.

The hollow pins, tubes, wires and gauges manufactured by the company are state of the art and bring in $3 million a year in revenue. But from the furniture to the employees, the business is as old-fashioned as they come.

A cheerful work force whose average age is 73 toils over decades-old but carefully maintained equipment in a mahogany-trimmed, second-floor ballroom that was converted to a factory in 1939 and has not been updated since.

There's no computer, no copy machine. Orders hang on clipboards from the wall, and invoices are prepared one at a time on a typewriter.

The 72-year-old chairman fetches the mail every day, the wooden stairs creaking beneath his Hush Puppies; there's no elevator from the street level below, where the company is identified only by a tiny sign on a metal door in the retail district of this suburban Boston town.

"It's a step back in time, there's no question," said Frederick Hartman, the 45-year-old president of the business, which was founded by his great-grandfather in 1932. "There's great comfort in the routine, in the character."

There's also logic, said Hartman, who has degrees in engineering and business administration but admits he applies few lessons from the economics textbooks to his company.

"The processes we've always used here are remarkably simple, but they're effective. They work," he said. "Our equipment and approach have stayed relatively constant. Our work force is very loyal, very dependable and highly motivated."

Paperwork is kept in accordion files on a crooked shelf in the common office shared by the president, the chairman and the few other executives.

The same wooden roll-top desks, white stucco walls, ceiling fans and frosted glass light fixtures have been there since the 1930s. Overhead is low, and there is no debt. Supplies are stored in the ballroom's onetime ticket booth.

Vita Needle's only secretary, Mary Bianchi, is horrified that the company may soon invest in a computer. "I'm 76 years old," she said. "I'm supposed to learn something new?"

Dealing with the company makes for "warm feelings," said Ron Orr, president of Four Slide Products in Nazareth, Pa. Four Slide is one of Vita's customers and is itself a manufacturer of tubular products.

"If you have a complaint or something to talk about, you talk to the boss," Orr said. "Another company, you never get to talk to the boss. Never."

The company originally focused on reusable hypodermic needles. But demand for reusable needles plummeted in the age of AIDS, and the company diversified into such things as tips for dart guns, embroidery needles, pressure gauges for aircraft tires, needles used to blow up basketballs and other inflatable equipment, glue applicators, even tubes for particle research in nuclear physics.

Some are as slender as a human hair. Others are used in cardiac surgery or to inject foam into car seats or dispense solder onto computer chips.

Hartman, would not give figures but said the privately held company has made a profit every year during the 1990s, and the amount has risen every year.

Retired industrial managers, machinists, chemists and engineers are on the payroll. So are a former baker and a one-time circus performer. The oldest is 89, the youngest 39. There is no mandatory retirement age.

"We were the beneficiary of the great downsizing" at major corporations around Boston in the late 1980s and early '90s, hiring experienced older workers who had lost their jobs, Hartman, said.

He would not disclose how much his employees are paid except to say that they make as much as or more than those in other manufacturing jobs in the Boston area. Nearly all of his employees are on Medicare, so Vita Needle doesn't need to pay them health benefits.

Employees set their own hours, and about a third live close enough to walk to work. Everybody has a key. One takes Tuesdays off to see a matinee, another spends his summers at a cabin in the Berkshires. Yet another likes to start his days at 4:30 a.m. The first to arrive flicks on the lights and turns up the heat.

Marion Archibald makes tiny nozzles for dispensing glue from squeeze tubes. She works on an ancient metal press at one end of the "80s bench," where all the employees are in their 80s.

"We're all serious and responsible people, and conscientious," said Ms. Archibald, 85, who previously worked addressing envelopes until her then employer "went modern and got a computer that could do what I was doing.

"I didn't want to sit around at home and watch the dust collect," she said.

Bill Ferson, 79, who worked for 39 years in a machine shop, managed to stay retired for only about six months "with my wife getting after me." He came to Vita Needle 11 years ago.

"Retirement isn't good for anybody," Ferson said.

Above: Employees assembling products at Vita Needle Company