MECHANIC FALLS — From its early beginnings on the second floor of the town library, Auburn Manufacturing has grown from one product line and two employees to two facilities and 50 workers.

President and CEO Kathie Leonard said the key is making things and never giving up.

“Innovation follows manufacturing,” Leonard said. “You have to make something. You just don’t think of something in your bathtub, have it made in China and make a gazillion dollars.”

The company is still innovating and still growing.

Auburn Manufacturing will break ground next month on a 22,500-square-foot, $1.4 million expansion that nearly doubles the size of its Auburn Kittyhawk Industrial Park location. Leonard also expects to hire four more employees.

In late March, the company got word of a new $2 million, three-year federal contract for high-temperature silica fabric. And it recently printed its first glossy Spanish-language brochure in advance of a Mexican trade show later this month.

Leonard co-founded Auburn Manufacturing in 1979.

“I feel like I’m just getting good at it, to tell you the truth,” she said during a recent tour. “Because this business is ever-changing, I don’t leave well-enough alone. I like to keep changing. I think you need to stay vibrant.”

Auburn Manufacturing makes rope, tape, thermal barriers and any number of different extreme-temperature fabrics. The company started out offering industrial alternatives to asbestos. That’s still its specialty.

Every product starts out with fiberglass yarn, some of it on 2,500-pound spools, spun on one of 35 looms.

At 45,000 square feet, its Mechanic Falls headquarters is at full capacity. So the company added the Auburn industrial park location in 1996, buying 12 acres and building a 30,000-square-foot factory.

Earlier plans for an expansion had to be shelved, Leonard said, largely due to the economy.

“We’ve managed to survive, but the growth curve hasn’t been pretty,” she said. “We have just been cramming ourselves into our footprint all these years.”

Right now, product moves back and forth in different stages between the two factories; that’s less than efficient, Leonard said. After the new expansion she hopes to start work here and finish it in Auburn.

Leonard’s U.S. competitors don’t weave their own material anymore, she said. Instead, they have it made wholly or in part offshore.

“It never made sense to me,” Leonard said. “I don’t believe in giving away any of my recipes.”

She’s always looking for new ideas or uses for the custom material. One of the newer products sprang from a petroleum industry trade show at which Leonard heard about the need for fire-retardant material to catch sparks and slag during “hot work” (welding, grinding) at oil refineries.

Workers are often up high on scaffolding.

“They pretty much build these little habitats (around themselves,)” she said.

Auburn Manufacturing already offered a material like that in the color gray. Job foremen wanted it to be translucent so they could tell when someone was working. So Auburn Manufacturing redeveloped the fabric, coating it in silicone.

And then, Auburn Manufacturing found a second use: Computer data centers. Those companies also need translucent, fire retardant, hot and cold barriers.

“We see this as a major market for us,” Leonard said. “There’s only 150 refineries in the country, and if there are 40,000 data centers . . .”

Despite the new government contract, Leonard said the military is never more than 10 percent of Auburn Manufacturing’s total sales. Twenty-five percent of sales are for export.

The top three industries the company sells to are shipbuilding, power generation and refineries.

Until Leonard nabs more data centers.

The new expansion should wrap in August. She’s already looking ahead to the next, another 30,000 square feet, in three to five years.

Making It is an occasional series on manufacturing in Maine, who’s making it and where the industry is headed. Send comments to [email protected]

Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing Inc. in Mechanic Falls and Auburn

In your own words, briefly describe:

Your market: Our markets are facilities and industries where heat is encountered and where heat needs to be controlled, either for energy efficiency purposes or production efficiency.

Your biggest challenges: The biggest challenges revolve around staying fresh and moving forward and innovating.

In the last 12 months, your biggest success: Implementing a three-year strategic plan for the company, which includes all of our operations and changing the way we measure our success, measure our productivity and our efficiencies. We’re still in a transition phase, but it’s very, very interesting to . . . see everybody kicking in. I’m seeing a better level of excitement around what we do and a much better understanding of what we do and where we’re going, so that in turn leads to a better sense of security for the folks who work here.

Any suggestions regarding government regulation: As long as government remembers that they talk a lot about small business being the backbone of our economy, I urge them not to forget that when they’re considering any legislation. Usually the big guys have the resources to comply more easily — or work around them — and the little guys end up paying the price.

Plan on hiring in the next year? Yes

Where do you see the company in 2022? I think we will still be essentially the same business, but we might be selling products to new industries that might evolve with regard to energy efficiency and alternative energy. We’ll still be protecting people, plants and equipment from heat.

Responses edited for length.

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