Marlin Steel was a small, low-tech company making wire baskets for bagel shops, when the Chinese started undercutting them, and they needed to innovate:
The job that rescued Marlin Steel was small — 20 baskets, a $500 order. Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to — with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,’” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?’”
What got Greenblatt’s attention in that phone call wasn’t the need for speed or even the quality standards. It was that Boeing was completely unconcerned about price. “I’m trying to sell a basket for $12, the bagel shops are saying, ‘I’m not paying more than $6.’ I’m ready to jump off a bridge, and here’s a guy who just shrugs at the outrageous sum of $24. I was like, Wow. He’s price insensitive.”
That epiphany marked Marlin’s rebirth. The company would keep bending heavy-gauge wire to make baskets, but instead of going to Bruegger’s to hold bagels, the baskets would go to the factories of Toyota and Caterpillar, Merck and GE to hold everything from microchips to turbine blades.
Greenblatt almost didn’t make the leap. “Actually,” says Andy Ratner, one of Greenblatt’s office staff, “Drew’s first reaction was: This is totally not what we do.” Greenblatt adds: “The Boeing guy needed a plus-or-minus tolerance on the wires. We weren’t used to that at all. We just used a tape measure.”