Necessity is the mother of invention. No one understands this more than Rock Ferrone, much-touted owner of Pittsburgh’s Rock-Built, Inc.
It was necessity that turned this former auto mechanic and high school dropout into SBN’s 1 of 55 Pacesetters for the New Millennium. It was necessity that turned a printer into a manufacturing entrepreneur and guided him to buy his own airport. For Rock Ferrone, necessity spells the key to success.
While Rock toiled as an auto mechanic, his parents were publishing Motor Mart Magazine, a local auto trader. When they decided to farm out the printing, Rock volunteered with the attitude of “how hard could it be?” A trip to Connecticut bought Ferrone his first web press. When his assistants, employees of the garage, mistakenly identified the ink as grease, he knew he was in trouble. Nonetheless, they were up and running in 30 days. Over the next five years, the commercial printing operation “captured a lot of work in the local area”, including such clients as the University of Pittsburgh.
A detachable mailing card system, a.k.a. marriage mail, created Rock’s next “necessity”. This system, adopted by the US Postal Service, consists of a packet of information with a detachable mailing card. The card is detached and once the recipient is identified, the package can be delivered. Ferrone’s company was printing such an order when a glitch occurred. The cards were finished, but the rest of the package was behind schedule. Since one piece without the other is useless, something had to be done to speed up the finishing process. According to Ferrone, “I quickly designed a machine to go on the end of the web press – held together with bubble gum, duct tape, and wire”. This machine, which he refers to as “this Rube Goldberg looking thing”, soon became the Unitrim 1000, Ferrone’s first of thirteen patents. Rock-Built was on its way.
After the birth of the Unitrim 1000, Rock-Built began manufacturing other finishing machines. Soon companies were taking stock in Ferrone’s inventiveness. Today, Rock-Built manufactures an extensive array of finishing equipment including in-line trimmers, trim removal systems, stackers, glue systems, and conveyors. One trimmer in particular offers an astounding 300% in labor savings. This reduction in labor and production time is what attracts clients to Rock-Built. The day we spoke, The New York Times had made a purchase. Other clients include RRDonnelly, the Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and “other major newspapers all over the country”. Rock-Built also exports its equipment to Europe, Canada, Australia, and China.
Along with manufacturing comes extensive travel. While installing a stacker at a Philadelphia printing company, Ferrone hit a wall. He drove back to Sharpsburg to design a solution, then returned to make the adjustments. After making five trips to Philadelphia within four days, a 4-5 hour trip one way, Ferrone was tired. Too much time was being spent on the road. The other option was to fly. Yet, airlines were expensive and difficult to schedule. During his final trip to Philadelphia, Rock noticed an airport only minutes away. That’s when he decided to take flying lessons. He hired a flight instructor and purchased his first plane, a Cessna Skylane 182. Flying enabled him to arrive on site in a fraction of the time. He also logged almost 500 hours flight time before taking his licensing test, for which the FAA requires 40 hours. This new passion also landed him in a position as a member of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Aviation.
Eventually, Ferrone grew weary of the 45-minute drive from Rock-Built to the Butler County Airport where he kept his plane. Oftentimes, the drive took longer than the actual flight. Ferrone needed to be closer to home. During one flight, he utilized the Global Positioning System, a safety feature that allows a pilot to locate the nearest public-use airport. What he discovered was West Penn Airport, located 15 minutes from Rock-Built headquarters. So Rock landed there. What he found was a pot of gold and an owner willing to sell. The hangars, which could house 40 planes and 53 aircraft, were in rough shape. But that didn’t deter him. Along with the airstrip came 144 acres of land and a fueling operation. (Today, the fuel service pumps approximately 20,000 gallons a month, a dramatic increase from its previous 15,000 gallons per year.) The property, which Ferrone later expanded, was the perfect place to relocate Rock-Built. In August 1998, he bought the airport for $575,000.
With newly titled Rock Airport in his grasp, there was no stopping Ferrone. With access to Route 28 and a nearby railroad line, it seemed that Rock-Built was destined to thrive. Utilizing a law passed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, Rock Airport was slated to become a Keystone Opportunity Zone. The law, which allows businesses a limited time in which to operate tax-free, passed one month after the purchase of Rock Airport. It would prove to be the first step in building the Rockpointe Airpark, a premium location for high-tech businesses, fostering vital economic growth and development. Rockpointe, consisting of 207 acres would also provide approximately 4,000 jobs. As with most great ideas, there was a catch. In order to qualify, Ferrone had sixty days to convince the state and local authorities to waive all taxes for the next 12 years. Rock, known for his impatience, states, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The Rockpointe Airpark is currently under construction, scheduled to be complete in the summer of 2000. Ferrone will eventually turn over ownership of the airstrip to a public entity, in order to become eligible for government funds. The finished cost is estimated at $20-30 million.
Ferrone, the 1999 winner of Pennsylvania’s Most Improved Safety Award, sums up his philosophy. “I like designing…..and using aviation.”
But never fear. Even with the completion of Rock Airport, Rockpointe Airpark, and the continued growth of Rock-Built, Rock Ferrone will continue flying high.
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