Chetan N. Patel ’84: Growing Business by Cutting Time to Market
Cofounder and CEO of SMC Ltd. Leads His Company through Changing Times
By Jill Gambon
When Chetan N. Patel ’84 arrived at UMass Lowell to begin his graduate studies, he had never before stepped foot on campus. Everything he knew about the plastics engineering program and the university he had heard from friends or read in a college catalog at the American Consulate’s office in what was then Bombay. But he was intent on studying plastics engineering at UML, so he traveled the 7,600 miles and immersed himself in his classes and research projects.
It did not take him long to feel completely at home.
“Looking back, for me, Lowell is my happy place,” says Patel, the CEO of SMC Ltd., a global contract manufacturer of medical devices based in Somerset, Wisconsin. “The Plastics Department was tight. It was like a family.”
Patel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Mumbai, says he benefited from the hands-on experience in UML’s labs and from the supportive faculty. His professors were there not only to help with academics and research, but also with career and life advice.
He, in turn, made a lasting impression on his professors.
“He was a very good student: studious, focused and hardworking,” says Plastics Engineering Prof. Stephen Driscoll, who had Patel as a student and is still in touch with him all these years later.
Patel says the skills he developed while at UMass Lowell, from learning how to write code to developing a professional network, have been instrumental in his success.
Reducing Time to Market
When he left UMass Lowell, Patel took a job with a manufacturer of automotive parts in the Minneapolis area. While many of his peers were pursuing jobs with large corporations, he wanted to work at a smaller company, where engineering was not so far removed from the business side of things.
“I have always been interested in business,” he says.
After a few years, he teamed up with his boss and they began kicking around an idea for their own company. They were driven by the possibility of shaving weeks off the time it took to get products to the market. To test out their ideas, they started tinkering with equipment in his boss’ barn.
“It was as primitive as you could get,” Patel recalls.
In 1988, with an investment of $500, they launched SMC, offering contract manufacturing services to a wide range of industries. They succeeded in reducing time to market and their customer base grew. In its first year, the company posted $1 million in sales. Early customers included Kirby vacuums, Pitney Bowes and Cardinal Health.
Over the years, the company has continued to evolve, pushing into new lines of business and responding to changing market conditions.
“We are kind of a perpetual startup,” Patel says.
Since 2001, SMC has focused on the health care market, with customers in the drug delivery, diagnostic and medical device businesses. It offers end-to-end services that include design, engineering, thermoplastic molding and device assembly. The privately held firm employs 2,000 people in the United States, Costa Rica, England and India.
Responding to the Pandemic
Like businesses across the globe, SMC had to move fast when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The company, which produces everything from components for ventilators to specimen collection kits, was affected in multiple ways by the impact of the virus on the health care market.
“We do a lot of products in elective surgery. That market crashed,” Patel says. The challenge was winding down production of those products while accelerating the production of ventilator components and other products for which demand was skyrocketing.
“It worked out. We knew how to adjust,” he says.
At the same time, SMC had to ensure a safe and secure workplace for employees. The company implemented safety protocols and adjusted shifts to give workers flexibility. It went into overdrive to secure protective gear for employees, many of whom work in clean rooms.
“We are doing all we can to minimize risk,” Patel says. “We have had an army of people buying masks, gloves and gowns. Our procurement team is quite good. We have never run out of PPE.”
While many businesses have had to lay off or furlough employees in the wake of COVID-19, SMC has been hiring. In fact, Patel says filling the vacancies is one of the company’s biggest challenges as the pandemic grinds on. In October, there were more than 200 openings at the company.
SMC also stepped up to help front-line workers combating the pandemic. In the spring, the company collaborated with three other businesses to design and produce face shields that were donated to first responders. SMC’s engineering and tooling department designed and built the tooling for the face shields in 72 hours, then molded 10,000 headband frames, which were donated to Massachusetts hospitals.
Giving back is nothing new for SMC — or for Patel.
SMC was one of the original supporters of the university’s Professional Cooperative Education Program, which was launched in 2009 as a pilot project in the Plastics Engineering Department. The program has grown and flourished, providing students across 16 majors with résumé-building career experiences. Over the years, 31 students have landed co-op positions at SMC’s plant in Devens, Massachusetts.
“Chetan has been a loyal supporter of the Plastics Engineering program,” Driscoll says. “He has hired a lot of our graduates.”
SMC’s personnel roster is loaded with River Hawks in a variety of engineering and management roles. Several alumni are on the executive leadership team, including Rohit Tandon ’85, vice president and general manager of the company’s Wisconsin facility, Mike Fritschy ’87, vice president of engineering and product development, and Brian Payson ’82, vice president and general manager of the company’s Devens facility.
What advice would Patel offer to students who are on the cusp of launching their own engineering careers? First, when interviewing for jobs, he suggests looking for a boss from whom you can learn and with whom you can form a productive, professional relationship. And second, no matter what you accomplish, always be open to learning new things, even when they are outside your comfort zone.
“Don’t ever give up on learning. The learning process is lifelong,” Patel advises. “Take risks and find a mentor, rather than a boss. That mindset has helped me run a technology-driven company.”