Manufacturing Month is an opportunity to highlight the work of some of the region’s best manufacturing companies. AIS, Inc. is undoubtedly one of the best – a successful Massachusetts-grown company that is a generous corporate citizen as well as an advocate for the region and its people.
Bruce Platzman, CEO of AIS – which stands for Affordable Interior Systems – co-founded the company with current Chairman Arthur Maxwell back in 1989. They originally started as entrepreneurs in reconditioning or repairing damaged or old office cubicle panels for reuse.
Today, AIS is an office furniture and workspace manufacturer with more than 800 employees at a 600,000 square foot facility in Leominster. They have a national presence and annual sales of over $200 million a year. AIS even has a contract with the federal government, meaning they also manufacture for military bases overseas.
To Mr. Platzman, a successful company is the number one priority — but not for the bottom line of profit. “It’s all about the 800 employees we have,” said Mr. Platzman. “If we’re not successful, how it affects 800 people is very compelling, and we don’t take that lightly.”
AIS has proven that placing people first is not just talk. In 2012, AIS was ready to expand past its headquarters in Hudson. The board recommended to Mr. Platzman that the company relocate abroad where labor costs are cheap. Mr. Platzman, recognizing that moving out of Central Massachusetts would hurt the workers who had been with him for years, asked the board for 30 days to identify a new location in the region.
He worked with then Governor Deval Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, who is now the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, to keep AIS in Massachusetts. AIS moved to Leominster in 2017, a city hurt by offshoring which led to a relatively high unemployment rate.
Mr. Platzman is thankful that he was able to keep AIS local. “Central Mass has a really good manufacturing workforce – it’s known that our roots go back to the industrial revolution,” he said of the local workers. “I wasn’t going to tell my employees that we were moving to Mexico,” he said.
After settling down with the new headquarters in Leominster, AIS began to find ways to support the community. Mr. Platzman joined the board of the United Way of North Central Massachusetts and told the mayor of Leominster, “We will be the number one supporter of every charitable initiative you have.” AIS has since kept its word, donating to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and running toy drives for the children of military service members.
The pandemic changed many things, but one thing it did not change was AIS’ commitment to community. Like many manufacturers facing uncertainty in supply chains and customer bases, AIS needed to pivot. The furniture manufacturer began producing antimicrobial, adjustable face masks using excess fabric in their inventory. Many of these masks ended up being donated around Massachusetts.
In the spirit of mobilizing the manufacturing industry to help combat the pandemic, AIS found approximately 1,000 volunteers — mostly older women at home at the start of the pandemic — to help sew and donate 650,000 high quality masks. They were called “Rosies,” as in Rosie the Riveter from WWII.
AIS donated masks made in their facility to fire departments, police departments, homeless shelters, and hospitals in the region. They also provided 22,000 masks to 235 municipalities in Massachusetts to give to poll workers in November of 2020.
Diversity and inclusion are also important metrics for AIS. Over 300 AIS employees are women, and 40 different countries are represented among the workers. Most of the floor workers are Hispanic, and Mr. Platzman says the company sponsors English Language Learning (ELL) courses for those who take them.
Sustainability is another important goal for AIS. The roof of their headquarters features 10,000 solar panels, which is one of the largest freestanding panel arrays in the state and offsets about 60% of the facility’s power needs. They also sell excess fabric and particle boards for recycling, materials which would otherwise sit in landfills. Moreover, another initiative is in the works to recapture heat from machines to put into offsetting heating costs.
Mr. Platzman says that despite a great year for AIS, increased unemployment benefits are creating challenges for the company in finding and retaining talent. Workforce is of course a significant obstacle for the manufacturing industry at large, and Mr. Platzman says AIS is “getting creative” by working with Seven Hills Foundation in Worcester to upskill workers who previously worked as cleaning staff during the pandemic to train them to be on the production line. There is also an ongoing effort to hire Afghan evacuees once their work status is set by the federal government.
AIS was named Manufacturer of the Year by the Worcester Business Journal in 2018, recognized for a Corporate Citizenship Award by Boston Business Journal the past three years, and has been selected as the national Office Furniture Dealers Alliance Manufacturer of the Year nine times since 2008. They are proud members of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
David Sullivan is the Economic Development & Business Recruitment Associate at the Worcester Chamber. He can be reached by email here.
This story was originally published in the November 2021 edition of Chamber Exchange: The Newspaper, a quarterly publication of the Chamber. All newspaper editions are archived here.