Advantis Medical Inc. finds niche making orthopedic supplies

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What started out as a sideline for a Greenwood manufacturing firm has become a bread-and-butter specialty with a sunny future.

Advantis Medical Inc. manufactures custom trays and cases for orthopedic surgical devices. That core product line brought Advantis some $5.2 million in revenue last year, double the amount for 2003, said Advantis President Jim Spencer.

This particular line of work wasn't on the radar screen when Spencer's father, Steve, founded the company in 1996. Steve's idea was to manufacture various plastic trays, cases and so on for the dental office market. These items were pretty standardized and easy to make, so it seemed a logical choice.

But convincing distributors to pick up the Advantis line proved difficult, since there were a number of established firms already. Advantis tried to overcome this by selling directly to individual dentists, but that promised to be a long slog.

That first year, however, a company asked Advantis to manufacture some metal orthopedic supplies to meet a customer order.

"They only could do plastic, but we could do metal," Jim said. That project went well and everyone was happy.

Word quickly spread that Advantis could handle that kind of precision work, and other orders started coming in. It didn't take the company long to realize where the opportunity was.

"What settled it for us was the realization that the revenue from one orthopedic order equaled the revenue from six months' worth of dental supply orders," Jim said.

That decision set Advantis on a fast-growing course. After starting out in Greenwood in 1996, the company moved to a 10,000-square-foot facility on the west side of Indianapolis in 1999. Business continued to grow so quickly that last year, Advantis moved to its current 41,000-square-foot location in Greenwood.

Growth, in fact, remains the key issue facing the company, Jim said. "We want to avoid growing too fast or choking back on the growth too much," he said. Of course, those are good problems to have, he added.

Getting Advantis started was a trying process. It was difficult to attract the necessary investment capital, Steve said. As is the case with many Indiana startups, Steve ended up doing it mostly out of his own pocket. "I liquidated everything except my home, and I took a second mortgage out on that," he said.

"Now we're established," Jim said. "We've got a good reputation for quality and accuracy."

Mike Stephens, president of Cornerstone Metal Fabricators Inc. in Danville, has been a supplier to Advantis since 1997. Advantis' success has benefited Cornerstone, which started out at about the same time, Stephens said.

He had high praise for the quality of Advantis' products. "They make the Cadillac of medical supply cases," Stephens said.

Advantis' growth is what made it appealing enough for Jim to join his father's company. Jim had spent 13 years in management for New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson's sales and marketing division, many of them at the company's Indianapolis complex. In 2001, however, Jim learned he was being transferred to New Jersey. He said he liked Indianapolis and didn't want to move.

He had also been helping his father with Advantis since it was founded. The idea of his joining the business had been floating around for a while.

"I saw an opportunity," Jim said. "There really wasn't a lot of discussion that was needed." He took over from his father last year. Steve is not as active in the business now, but he does run the company's Steri-Pack division, which produces hospital supplies.

Advantis' goal is to keep growth at its current strong-but-manageable rate. Ten years from now, Jim foresees annual revenue of at least $10 million to $20 million.

Advantis has customers around the world. One possible expansion would be to open a branch in Europe.

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