In just about every respect, Phoenix Drum Dryer in South Bend, Ind., is a
It's family-owned and -operated, and it has four employees who work in an unassuming building southwest of downtown.
But the products that Phoenix makes are huge.
The company builds industrial-drying machines that weigh tens of thousands of pounds and are shipped all over the world for use in a variety of industries.
Michael Vance started the business in 1992, striking out on his own after gaining a couple decades' worth of experience at Wheelabrator in Mishawaka and Bud's Machine in South Bend.
Vance built his first machine for a company that makes catalytic converters for automobiles. He said it's still being used 20 years later -- and he still has those original invoices framed with a poem titled "Don't Be Afraid to Fail" that he clipped out of The Wall Street Journal.
"I just kept going after that," Vance said. "Business has been up and down over the years, but we're still rolling along."
Vance drafts plans for the dryers, and he builds them with two employees. His daughter runs the company's office, and his wife does the taxes.
Phoenix also works regularly with I.T. Equipment in Plymouth to build and weld the dryers' bases.
"We've had great experiences working with Phoenix. They've helped us out in hard times and we've helped them out in hard times," said Sam Martin, plant manager at I.T. Equipment, which employs 20 people.
"It's really kind of amazing that a small business such as his can compete with and outdo some of the bigger businesses that are in his field," Martin said of Vance.
Phoenix has built 46 machines during the past 20 years. It's also rebuilt 21 machines made by other companies.
"We've never had any salesmen," Vance said. "It's all off our website and word of mouth."
One of Phoenix's machines in Ohio dries fish into flakes to be used as fish food for aquariums. Another in Colorado processes tea. The U.S. military uses a couple of Phoenix's machines to remove liquid from Vietnam War-era TNT, so the leftover explosives can be used safely.
The company's dryers are used to make powdered milk, cosmetics, additives for medicines and cereal for babies. One machine takes the stale beer from old kegs, cans and bottles, and separates the alcohol from the yeast and other material that can be used as animal feed.
This past winter, Phoenix shipped a 33,000-pound machine to Australia, where it will dry orange pulp to be used as an additive in foods and drinks.
Vance and two employees rolled the machine out of the garage on one of January's coldest, snowiest days, two forklifts raised it onto a semi-truck parked along Indiana Avenue, and off it went to Los Angeles, where it was loaded onto a boat for a 20-day journey to Sydney.
Now the company is in the midst of a five-month project to build a 42,000-pound dryer -- its heaviest ever -- which will process glucose at a Canadian factory.
Phoenix has sent other machines to Malaysia, Mexico and Turkey. The company's dryers are in Africa, Europe and South America as well.
"I have them all over the world," Vance said.
Drum drying works like this: The large drum is steam heated internally, and that heat is transferred to the outside surface of the drum. The liquid in a substance evaporates when it comes in contact with the outside of the drum, and blades inside the drum peel off the remaining solids as it rotates.
"It's as simple as if you took milk and poured it into a warm pan," Vance said. "What evaporated would be the moisture, what would remain would be the solids."
Vance said Phoenix faces competition from companies that make spray-drying systems, but those cost millions of dollars. The machine Phoenix shipped to Australia cost $200,000; the machine the company is building now costs $430,000.
Vance started his business in Mishawaka and moved it six years ago to a 3,000-square-foot building he bought at Indiana and Kemble avenues, on the edge of the former Studebaker manufacturing corridor that city officials are redeveloping as Ignition Park for high-tech companies.
He recently settled a deal with the city to buy some properties adjacent to his building, so he'll have room to expand if necessary.
"I'm glad I'm here," he said. "The people that are going to be around me will be small businesses like me. I don't think you need a Studebaker or some other big business. If we have 20 small businesses, we can do just as well."
Staff writer Kevin Allen:
Phoenix Drum Dryer
Owner: Michael Vance
Address: 1531 Kemble Ave., South Bend
Phone number: 574-251-9040
Business: Makes industrial-drying machines and ships them worldwide.
Number of employees: Four
History of the business: Vance founded it in 1992.
(c)2013 South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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