Life on the Razor’s Edge: How B&R Custom Machining Continues to Defy the Odds

two Okuma machines at B&R Custom Machining in Cambridge, Ontario

How B&R Custom Machining Continues to Defy the Odds

For more than two decades, a remarkable story of resilience, resourcefulness, and the power of relationships has been unfolding in Cambridge, Ontario – 55 miles (90 km) outside of Toronto. From fires and setbacks to gritty resolve and out-of-this-world success, this is the story of B&R Custom Machining. At its center are brothers Brad and Ryan Jantzi, who will be the first to tell you it’s not about them. It’s about the will of their employees, an entrepreneurial mindset, a little luck, and strong partnerships with machine tool partners – Okuma and EMEC, Okuma’s distributor in Eastern Canada.

Chapter 1: Fleeting Success

The story begins in 2001 when the Jantzi brothers joined a small, struggling machine shop and tried to help turn it around. Brad was a talented machinist and Ryan provided the business acumen. Despite their efforts, the shop soon filed for bankruptcy and the Jantzi brothers decided to buy the remaining assets from the bank. Brad was 21 and Ryan, 20. They began by making parts for the pulp and paper industry. With the help of a handful of employees, the company managed to bring in about $550,000 in its first year.

Based largely on their growing reputation for machining complex, tight-tolerance parts, B&R continued to increase sales year after year. By 2008, the company was on stable ground and was looking to explore other markets.

“We started a side company to service a piece of business we picked up from Safety Clean. We took used oil filters from cars and trucks, crushed them, then separated and recycled the oil and steel,” Ryan explained.

Around the same time, B&R also decided to jump into the tire recycling business, breaking down the rubber to extract steel belts and sending them to the mills to be reused. It wasn’t a new idea, but, in what would become the company’s hallmark, B&R found a way to do it better. They developed a unique process that allowed them to remove 99% of the embedded nylon and rubber from the steel, compared to about 75% for other processors. This enabled the steel mills to run cleaner and realize higher margins on the re-manufactured steel.

Then, one Thursday evening in 2011, after everyone had cleaned up and left the shop, a pile of rubber crumbs spontaneously ignited. The fire spread quickly and by morning, the tire recycling facility had burnt to the ground. A few weeks later, to add insult to injury, Brad and Ryan got a call from Safety Clean letting them know they were moving the oil recycling business in-house. Suddenly, the brothers were back to square one, millions of dollars in the hole with their business at a crossroads.

“I remember being at the shop the morning after the fire; we were all there cleaning up, putting tarps over the equipment trying to salvage what we could. I remember thinking how much I loved this business and the people I worked with,” Brad recalled.

Ryan must have been thinking the same thing because, at some point, he turned to his brother and said resolutely: “You know what we need? We need a great 5-axis machine because we’re not throwing in the towel. We may not be in the tire recycling business or the oil recycling business anymore, but we’re in business.”

Chapter 2: Re-Beginning, Better

Soon after the fire, B&R purchased its first 5-axis machine and immediately got to work rebuilding the business. That’s when a chance encounter with an aerospace contractor changed everything. In 2007, a gentleman walked into the shop and asked to use one of the small mills to make a telescope he was working on. Brad agreed, showed him the mill, and explained how it worked. The gentleman was with COM DEV International (now a division of Honeywell), a leading Canadian satellite technology, space sciences, and telecommunications company.

“A few days later, he brings his manager to the shop, and just like that, we were in the aerospace business, milling high-tolerance fixtures and jigs,” Ryan recalls.

Soon after, another opportunity arose with MDA Ltd. (MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates), a company developing components for the ExoMars rover. They were looking for someone to produce a series of high-tolerance titanium pieces for the rover’s wheel assembly. Titanium is notoriously difficult to machine, as it has a 50% lower modulus of elasticity and approximately 80% lower thermal conductivity than steel.1

A week later, B&R presented a set of samples to the MDA Ltd. team, which met the tight tolerance specifications and held to tenths. “Between our process and our Okuma Captain L370MW, we had no problem holding those tolerances,” Brad added.

Lifted by the success with COM DEV and MDA Ltd., B&R soon picked up more aerospace projects, including work with Héroux-Devtek to make grappling assemblies for the International Space Station, and Nikon Metrology, which performs high-precision optical inspection of parts. B&R had turned another corner, and both Brad and Ryan credit the company’s relationship with Okuma and EMEC Machine Tools, B&R’s Okuma distributor, for aiding in the turnaround.

“Do you remember the movie, Saving Private Ryan?” Ryan asked. “There’s a guy in that movie, Corporal Upham. His job was to deliver ammunition to his buddies in the machine gun nest so they could keep going. That’s Okuma and EMEC. They’re really good at supplying us with the ammo we need to be successful,” he said.

Part of that reliability is in the machines B&R uses. For over a decade, they’ve mainly used Okumas. Three reasons are the service and support from EMEC and Okuma, dimensional stability, and thermal dynamics for which the brand is well known.

“Most other machines build in a basic algorithm that doesn’t account for temperature changes that occur as the table, frame, and spindle heat up during the day,” Brad explained. Okuma machine tools monitor the ambient temperature, cooling temperature, temperature above the spindle and rate of cooling, and automatically compensate for any changes. “That kind of intuitive, built-in intelligence is absolutely priceless for us,” Brad added.

He also points to Okuma’s unique single-source philosophy in which virtually every component of every machine is designed and built by Okuma. That philosophy is reflected in the machine’s performance. “For example, some other machine tools have noticeable pauses as the spindle lifts, the table rotates and the spindle lowers. You’re thinking, ‘Go already.’ With Okuma, everything is fluid and seamless without any hiccups. Very predictable.”

Okuma MB-4000H
Okuma CNC machine at B&R Custom Machining

Chapter 3: Another Pivot, Another Success

Fast forward to 2020 and COVID-19. In March, B&R’s client’s client filed for bankruptcy, taking 50% of the machine shop’s revenue with it and leaving 60% of B&R’s machines idle. The company faced yet another inflection point. They still had a handful of aerospace customers. And, they had an interest in and knowledge of razors – something they machined on the side.

Brad and his coworker, Kevin, knew they could design a better razor than any three-piece safety razor they had seen. So, Brad approached Ryan, who instantly saw this opportunity and told them to jump on it. Ryan then went to Daniel, their other brother who specialized in e-commerce marketing, to see if he’d be willing to bring the razor with a new brand to market. Brad and Kevin were already in design mode as this unfolded. Relying on their aerospace experience with tight deadlines, they emerged 25 days later with the Henson AL13, an affordable, all-aluminum safety razor. They had a product. The question was: could they produce it at scale?

“The razor sales were there, the support in the shop was there. For us, the key to deciding if we could switch from aerospace to razors relied on our confidence in the machines. The Okumas’ speed, predictability, and usability, and EMEC’s service and support, made our decision much easier,” Brad explained.

Within six months, razor sales far exceeded the most optimistic expectations, and production quickly ramped up under the brand name Henson Shaving. Under the brothers’ partnership, sales continued to climb, and B&R shifted the bulk of its machine capacity from aerospace to razors. Once again, the company was able to successfully reinvent itself with the help of Okuma and EMEC.

Chapter 4: Relationships Are Everything

Ryan is quick to point out that the machines are just one ingredient in B&R’s recipe for success. Another key part is the relationship they’ve developed with Okuma and their local distributor, EMEC. “The beauty in partnering with Okuma and EMEC is that they are willing to get in the dirt with us to go toe-to-toe or solution-to-solution to find the best way forward,” he said.

That’s not to say everyone is always on the same page. Sometimes, there are differences in opinions as to the best way forward. That’s when the value of the relationship pays off.

“Yeah, we have our squabbles, and you know how we solve it? We listen to each other—really listen—and try to come up with something reasonable. If we can't do that, we split the difference, agree to disagree and move on. No different than if we were married,” Ryan said.

That type of active listening and conflict resolution strategy isn’t specific to B&R’s relationship with Okuma and EMEC; it’s in the company’s DNA and is posted on their website for all to see:

"B&R desires to pursue excellence in the context of valuing employees. B&R has an internal document that explains the relationship between performance and valuing employees that gives the employee several ‘tools’ to resolve conflict, express their concerns and relate to others to ensure a culture that is focused on moving forward."

– B&R Custom Machining, website

Chapter 5: To Be Continued

Today, B&R Custom Machining is in breakout mode as sales of Henson continue to grow. If the past three years are any indication, B&R could easily double in size over the next 12-24 months. If not, the company has demonstrated time after time that it has the resilience, resourcefulness, and relationships to continue bouncing back.

As for the company’s relationship with Okuma and EMEC, it’s stronger than ever. B&R is currently running more than 15 Okuma machine tools, with one more on its way. As business continues to increase, that number could increase as well, keeping the Jantzi family, Okuma, and EMEC as busy as they want to be. According to Ryan, that’s a pretty comfortable feeling:

“When you're machining, you want to close your eyes, fall backward, and not hit the ground. Okuma and EMEC provide all the right conditions so we can do that. The machine reliability is there, and so is the accuracy. Parts availability? Check. Service and unbiased guidance? Yep. They just keep feeding us the ammo we need,” he explained.

For more information on Okuma machines and services, contact your local distributor.

1. Niinomi, Mitsuo. “Titanium.” ScienceDirect. 2019.

Okuma Machines at B&R Custom Machining:

  • (4) 2019 MB-4000H
  • (7) 2017 GENOS M560-V 3-Axis VMC
  • (1) 2016 MU-4000V 5-Axis VMC
  • (1) 2012 GENOS M560-V 3-Axis VMC
  • (1) 2006 MB-46 VAE 4-Axis VMC
  • (1) 2007 Okuma Captain L370MW, Dual-Spindle Lathe with Live Tooling
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