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Doug Clark: MacKay Manufacturing a well-kept Spokane secret

Mike MacKay, of MacKay Manufacturing, left, has bought and reunited a company from Roy Dugger, center, and Jay Adkins. The original company was started by a pair of friends 71 years ago before splitting and competing. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Today’s tale proves you don’t always know as much as you think you know about the place where you grew up.

Being a lilac lifer, I assumed I had my home turf cataloged from the Crescent Clock to the House of Hose.

Just ask. I’ll tell you all about the Spokane area – in grand detail.

Then comes this email. Next thing you know, I’m like some wide-eyed kid on a field trip to Spokane Valley, where I learned about the truly amazing things being built inside a couple of buildings I’ve driven past without notice at least a dozen times.

MacKay Manufacturing can be found at 10011 E. Montgomery Drive, a short hop east of the landmark Longhorn Restaurant. It’s easy to overlook since the company has no retail trade or walk-in business.

Last Friday morning, I found an empty parking space and soon shook the hand of my emailer and tour guide, company President Mike MacKay, age 66.

The manufacturing facility that bears his name is an architecturally striking beige and gray-trimmed building that, from the street, hides the mammoth 53,000 square feet of working space where 135 skilled employees earn a paycheck.

Several minutes later found me eyeballing rows of complex and expensive-looking machines as well as some of the products made here.

Like gleaming canisters that are used to mount forward-looking infrared cameras on planes and helicopters.

Rifle stocks. Surgical devices used in arthroscopic and endoscopic procedures. Vacuum chambers for scanning electron microscopes …

The list is impressive and goes on and on.

Bruce Szember, the general manager, told me that “at any given time,” MacKay is busy filling 4,000 open work orders.

Being president of Men Who Cannot Build means I’m always in awe of anyone who can successfully operate a tape measure.

But the work being done at MacKay? This involves a level of craftsmanship that makes my head do the tilt-a-whirl.

Szember pointed to a woman peering into a nearby microscope. “Everybody talks about the width of a human hair as being a small common measurement,” he said, adding that the tolerances being worked with here amount to splitting that hair 20 times.

That’s one-tenth of one-thousandth of an inch, for those of you keeping score at home.

“A human hair is a lot of room,” MacKay interjected.

On me it’s also an endangered species.

Szember credited his boss’s “MacKay spirit” for the company’s phenomenal growth and for not settling for the status quo.

I’ll buy that. Getting back to his original email: MacKay had a valid reason for seeking some ink for his Inc.

On July 1, MacKay Manufacturing finalized its acquisition of Wilson Tool, a smaller business located about a block to the east yet much closer in a shared history.

“What do the Blues Brothers have in common with us you might ask?” wrote MacKay in a recent company newsletter. “Well, nothing except we’re putting the band back together.”

Meaning the purchase of Wilson Tool is as much family reunion as adding a business.

The two firms actually began as one enterprise way back in 1946. That’s when two machinists, Harry Wilson and Earnie Sprow, pooled their ambitions and resources and formed the Wilson and Sprow Machine Shop.

The enterprise continued until 1968, MacKay explained, when the owners separated and “individually created Wilson Tool and E.A. Sprow Inc.”

Though independent, both businesses did well performing various machine jobs for Kaiser Aluminum and a number of other companies.

Enter MacKay into the equation.

In 1986, after working four years at Sprow, he and his wife, Debra, “hocked everything we owned and … bought the 17-person company,” changing its official name two years later.

At about the same time all this was going on, two workers at Wilson, Jay Adkins and Roy Dugger, purchased their place of employment.

After touring MacKay, we took the short hike to Wilson Tool. The 18,000-square-foot shop still enjoys its link with Kaiser, repairing and making production parts as well as performing strength tests on metal samples.

Adkins, 67, has been a part of Wilson for 49 years and has seen plenty of change.

In the old days, he said, machines were all belt-driven. Jets of light oil were used in the cutting of metal, so sawdust was spread onto the wood floors to soak up the oily residue.

What could possibly go wrong?

“One day it went kapoof!” Adkins said with a laugh. “The whole inside was full of flames.”

Manufacturing processes, he assured me, are much safer in this modern age.

As long as I don’t touch anything, that is.

Adkins and Dugger, 59, are pleased with selling Wilson Tool to MacKay. “Everybody wins,” Dugger said. “We’ve been neighbors almost 30 years.”

And Wilson will continue making some fascinating stuff, too.

The Bagby Bone Basket, say. I slipped one of the stainless steel cages over a finger and listened as Adkins and Dugger gave me a history lesson.

Invented by Dr. George Bagby, a Spokane orthopedic surgeon who died last year, the device gained worldwide fame when it was successfully implanted into the neck of Triple Crown-winning Seattle Slew to prolong the racehorse’s life. The baskets are used to help humans, as well.

Wilson Tool, they told me, also makes the compartments used by a Post Falls firm to grow hundreds of millions of, ugh, dust mites. The microscopic creepy crawlies go to the allergy research industry.

Fortunately, there were no dust mite samples for me to examine. Even so, I could barely keep myself from scratching.

Field trip finished, I headed back to the parking lot after shaking the hand of MacKay’s daughter, Katie MacKay, who is vice president and in line to lead the company into the future.

I asked if she had any goals.

She didn’t hesitate. “The typical MacKay way is bigger and better,” she said.

On the way home, I thought about something Dugger had told me before I left.

“People have a tendency to think that there’s not a lot going on” in the area, he said. But “there is a lot of manufacturing in Spokane.”

Color me a believer.

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