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Illinois Family Achieves American Dream with Jet Edge Waterjet

Twelve years ago, Gary Lee was a purchasing manager for a 100-man Illinois job shop that was growing 30 percent a year.   By all accounts, he was doing well for himself, except for the fact that he was only 35 and already bored out his mind.

Lee was weighing career options when his longtime tooling salesman suggested that he look into precision waterjet technology. At that time, waterjet manufacturers were just beginning to introduce machines with tighter tolerances, and Lee recognized the technology's tremendous potential.  He and his wife LaSondra Lee took their salesman's advice and headed to IMTS to check out a cutting-edge system manufactured by Jet Edge of St. Michael, Minn.

"I immediately fell in love with the Jet Edge when I saw all the things it was capable of doing," LaSondra recalled. "I knew this is what we had to do."

In 1996, the Lees put everything on the line to start up JDA Aqua Cutting, Inc., a custom job shop in the south Chicago suburb of New Lenox. They mortgaged their house, maxed out their credit cards and tightened their belts as they prepared for a make-or-break gamble to become self-sufficient.

"We had four kids, a car payment, a house payment and a kid in college," Gary grinned as he recalled his decision to quit his job and start a business. "I told my wife 'we cannot fail.'"

After looking at all the major waterjet systems on the market, the Lees decided to buy the Jet Edge.

"Coming from a machining background, I felt Jet Edge had the best built machine," Gary said. "I like the way the gantries are built and the way the ball screws are put together and that you can load it easily with a forklift.  I've been running eight to 10 hours a day for 10 years and have never had any major issues. I can get on the phone with their service department and they will stay on the phone for two days if they have to. The support is phenomenal. To this day, I would still buy a Jet Edge because I've had it for so long I know it will last. The check tubes last well over a year without failing and the seals last so long I don't even keep track of how long they last."

A True Family Business

The Lees wanted JDA to be a true family business. In fact, they named it in honor of their sons Joshua, Daniel and Andrew. Their daughter Rachel was born soon afterward and LaSondra is planning a new business venture to be named in her honor.

Joshua was instrumental in getting JDA off the ground. At the start of the business, he was a freshman engineering student at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  During the early years, he attended school full time, worked 40 hours a week at JDA and played center for his college baseball team.  Now 30 years old, he continues to help his father run the business. Daniel, 22, also has joined JDA, and is in charge of welding, CNC milling and part design.

Gary recalled the early lean years, when the family relied on their backyard garden to keep food on the table and he and LaSondra had to say "no" to many of their children's wants.

"We started out with one waterjet, one compressor and miscellaneous tools from my garage. Our first table was a 4X8 Jet Edge High Rail Gantry with a 50-horsepower intensifier pump. The first year we were in business, I made $13,000."

After the first year, word started to get out about JDA's excellent workmanship, and the Lees began to develop a solid customer base cutting everything from rosewood guitar frets to copper electrical parts.

"Every year we grew 25 to 30 percent. Then after four years, we expanded into another bay and bought a CNC mill," Gary recalled. "At the end of the fourth year we bought a second waterjet, a Jet Edge High Rail Gantry with 72 by 120 inches of travel, powered by a 75-horspower intensifier pump. Now we own the entire building. We started with 2,900 square feet, and now we are at 13,000."

Over the years, JDA has become renowned for its work with exotic metals.  In fact, a nuclear power company recently contracted it to cut a 3 ½-inch thick, 48-inch wide, 102-inch long, 4,400-pound piece of inconel valued at $132,000.

The Lees have had the opportunity to work on a number of high-profile projects. They cut the inlay flooring for the skyboxes at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park) in Chicago and cut cores out of encyclopedias for a unique exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.  They made panels for a world globe at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, and have completed numerous creative projects for Las Vegas casinos and high-end retailers. 

The Lees also cut numerous parts for the World Trade Center, only to see their work destroyed on 9-11. During that dreadful time, manufacturing was already experiencing a brutal slowdown, and the terrorist attacks only worsened the prospects for mom-and-pop businesses.

Like most job shops, JDA saw its business drop off, but the self-reliant Lees were not about to remain chained to the ups and downs of job shop work.  Their solution: to develop a product of their own.

For about a year, the family struggled to figure out exactly what their product would be.  Then one day, Joshua decided to make a chain guard for his sport bike.  His friend liked it so much he asked him to make him one too.  Finally, the Lees had their product.  JDA Custom was born.

A Division of JDA Aqua Cutting, JDA Custom makes custom parts for all lines of sport bikes. The company sells most of its parts online at www.jdacustom.com.  It also has 1,100 parts posted on eBay, and has distributors all over the world, including Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain and Canada.  Its success inspired the Lees to open a retail performance parts, accessories and clothing shop inside their business. They are now authorized distributors for several specialty companies, including Parts Unlimited, Lockhart Phillips, Tucker Rockey and Oakley.  JDA Custom now comprises 50 percent of JDA Aqua Cutting's business, and has become a household name among celebrity motorcyclists.

To this day, Gary Lee has no regrets about his family's decision to start up its own business, and he especially has no regrets about his decision to buy a Jet Edge.

"I wouldn't take one of the other waterjet systems for free," Gary said. "I am one of those people who don't like garbage. I don't like cheap things. I could have bought a waterjet for $50,000 less, but I looked at them and thought they were made like crap." 

 More Information

JDA Aqua Cutting
www.jdaaqua.com 
815-485-8028

JDA Custom
www.jdacustom.com
815-485-8028

Jet Edge
1-800-JET-EDGE (538-3343)
763-497-8726
sales@jetedge.com