Northbridge wire mesh product manufacturer Riverdale Mills has had a busy few years, expanding its business to new markets and throwing their name into the ring to be part of President Donald Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. CEO James M. Knott, Jr. was named as WBJ’s Large Business Leader of the Year for 2018. Below his part of his interview with the WBJ.

How does a traditional manufacturer stay relevant in 2018?
It’s a fairly simple recipe. You have you keep your labor cost low by innovating and investing in cutting-edge technology and by producing a product that’s very superior compared to China, Mexico or other companies we compete with.
Another advantage we have is we export about 45 percent of what we make. We aren’t serving a domestic market. We’re serving a global market.

What is some of the technology the company has invested in?
We incrementally invest in equipment year over year. We’re putting in a combined-heat-and-power project, and we’ll be making all our own electricity and using waste heat to heat the building. When that’s complete we’ll be about 85 percent efficient. As a result of that, our carbon footprint will hold and our costs will go down.

What are the challenges for a traditional manufacturer like Riverdale?
We have about 185 employees, but one of the challenges of course is hiring. These jobs aren’t always considered sexy or fancy jobs. The skillset in some regions of Massachusetts is disappearing, and there’s not a lot of manufacturing or engineering talent.

Has the growth in the medical device or biotech sector hurt traditional makers?
We’re selling a different type of product. We’re not selling software or medical devices. We’re selling an industrial product, and that requires a different skill set than for selling products for computer or software companies.

Has the company added or subtracted jobs through the years?
Our employee count has increased, as we’ve been growing at about 15 to 20 percent since 2011. As a result, we’ve had to add people every year. One of the keys to success there is keeping productivity up while holding labor costs down by adding proper technology. Jobs are becoming a little more complicated, and they require a more skilled labor force than they would 50 years ago.

How has Riverdale been able to manage 15 to 20 percent growth? Is the wire mesh business really that big?
We make a high quality product and we’ve populated that throughout most of North America. We’re exporting to other countries like Panama, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand and Europe on a regular basis.

You operate a mill building strikingly similar to many other mill buildings throughout Central Mass. that are either crumbling or being redeveloped for a different purpose. What does it mean to the company to be one of the last manufacturers working out of a historic building?
We respect the past, including companies like Whitin Machine Works. We operate a manufacturing facility just as they did, but in a very different manner by applying current technology. Wire mesh was founded in Worcester in the 1820s, and the area had some of the largest wire drawing companies in the world until the 1950s. We’re one of the few left in Worcester County.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Zachary Comeau.