Brett Lister

Sep 26, 2023 hireCNC

My CNC Story - Brett Lister

Brett's CNC Story

Now 1.5 years into launching a machine shop (B&B Dynamic Machining), Brett Lister reflects on his 20+ years of experience in machining, including insights on starting a career, and what’s important when launching a new machine shop.  


hireCNC: What made you decide to start a career in CNC machining?

Brett: I went to Lincoln Tech for drafting after high school. I had drafting through four years in high school. After that, I tried landscape architecture out of college for about three weeks. It took me about three weeks to decide that I didn't want to learn every scientific name for every plant out there. Lincoln Tech was more suited for me. And at Lincoln Tech, at three months in, you make a decision whether or not you want to go mechanical drafting or architectural drafting. I told my teacher – architectural drafting. He basically shook his head and told me, “no… go into mechanical drafting.” So that was that. I then got my start at a company named Brenner Tool and Die. 

I thought I wanted to get into architectural drafting because I like blueprints. But the teacher made me realize that you need a lot of connections to be an architect. I like machining. I look at it as a form of art. You're taking a chunk of steel and you're making something out of it. If that's not art, I don't know what is.

I started at Brenner, and I learned as much as I could there. I started off in the program design department. I wasn't even on the shop floor or anything. Unfortunately when 9-11 happened, Brenner slowly started going under. So I said, all right, let me go and learn how to run one of these machines. Hopefully, it might help me find a job when Brenner shuts the door. Brenner ended up going from, I want to say over 100 people down to 20. Luckily, I was one of the 20 that got called back. I kept rolling with what I learned, and I didn't just want to be in the office. I like running the machine. I started learning how to run the mills, and then a spot opened up in the Lathe department so I volunteered to go over there. 

I just like any machine. I lived close enough that I was also the backup for the guy in the wire EDM department. “Hey, Brett, we need you to come in and change out a wire on the weekend.” “Sure, no problem. I can do that.”  I knew the guy in the EDM department, so I'd go in there for 45 minutes on the weekend and say “hey, Rick, how does this work?” He was actually pretty good because he would make the machine mess up on purpose without scrapping the part, and then show me how to get out of that situation. I've always been lucky enough to have good mentors around me. Good people to learn from. I know not everyone has that. I've been lucky enough to have that. 


hireCNC: Was it intimidating getting on the machines? For somebody that didn't really have experience operating that type of equipment. 

Brett: Without a doubt. You're obviously using tools that are dangerous. I tell young kids when I'm training them, “hey this machine will kill you, and go right back to work. It does not care.” There are definitely a couple of times I remember dropping an Allen Key in the lathe, and it wasn't one of the ones that had the door switches. It would run, and I went in and reached, I had no idea how close my head got to that chuck, but that chuck was spinning, and I got very lucky if I had to take a guess. That was definitely intimidating at first. Luckily, over the years you get a little bit more used to it. 


hireCNC: Do you hire without experience often? 

Brett: I've always taken someone under my wing at any company I've gone to. Whether you want to call him an apprentice or a protege, there's always someone younger that wants to learn more and needs to learn more. But, I've literally seen guys not train anyone. There's one guy – he'd go up and set up the machine with all the hard stuff, and then the other guy would come up and program with his hand covering the control (to hide what he was doing). I'm like, “come on man, he's doing all the hard work. Show him.” 


hireCNC: Have you noticed any trends in terms of what typically makes a good Machinist? Is it simply that they're quick learners? Is it that they have strong math skills? Is it that they just really love working with their hands? 

Brett: Definitely strong math. If you're in machining, you should definitely have strong math skills. I tell Daniel (new hire) all the time, I don't want him trying to do math in his head. Not when you're doing two or three tenths adding on to seven and five tenths. That type of math I don’t want you to do in your head. Eventually ten years from now you'll be like me, just plugging numbers in because you can do it in your head. But at first, no, I don’t want you doing that. 

You learn completely different in mathematics and now you're in a machine shop. Don't come up to me and say “eighty”. There is no “eight”.  .008 is “eight thousandths”. .0008 is “eight tenths”. I want you to be very specific in what you tell me because in machining it matters. 


hireCNC: We do recruiting for companies that are hiring CNC machinists, and sometimes they'll say “I need somebody with Okuma lathe experience.” How important is it if you are a shop with a bunch of Okuma lathes that somebody has to have Okuma lathe experience? Or if they have a different machine brand with a similar machine configuration, should that suffice?

Brett: I can understand that would be a bonus if someone has that experience. But the way I describe it to people, “it's like going from a Samsung phone to an iPhone.” You're going to learn it. You're going to pick it up. I've ran Okuma lathes. Sure they are a little bit different. To start in the middle of a program, you got to have like a go to statement in the beginning of the program. To even set up the machine you basically have to design your tools. The Okuma setup is a little bit more complicated, but again, I've ran Mazak, Fanuc controls, Siemens controls, Okuma controls, Haas controls. In my opinion, once you learn one, you're going to pick up another one rather quickly. 

I think that's a silly request for an owner to have. You could lose out on someone that's very skilled. Just because he's never ran an Okuma. He could be a top-notch machinist. But because he's never ran an Okuma you're not going to hire him? That seems silly. 


hireCNC: Would you have any advice for somebody coming out of a machining program? They're about to start their career. Any advice you would give them in terms of the type of job they should be looking for? The type of company they should be looking for? 

Brett: Right now there's such a shortage, you don't want to take any job. I would interview at several jobs because someone's going to pay you a decent amount of money. There's such a shortage out there right now that many shops are willing to pay quite well while also providing training opportunities.

And don't be over arrogant. Every guy there has more experience than you. Listen to them. Learn what you can from them. And just be a good human being. I didn't know 25 years ago that I was going to start my own business. But now all those contacts that I've made over the 25 years, I want them to look at B&B and think “yeah we know Brett, he's a good guy. I'm willing to give him work.” Just being a good human being is important.

I think in general it sounds stupid, but I claim a lot of our success to the fact that we put out good karma. Our belief is that we're not in competition with other machine shops. In my opinion, there's enough work to go around. If you have a machine shop and want to send us a shirt, I'll go on YouTube and I'll give you a shout out. We'll wear your shirt, say what you're about, where you're located, and we'll give you a shout out. 

Drive around your area, any shop that's hiring… well if they're looking to hire, that means they have work. Maybe they can give you the work until they find someone. We're up to almost $400,000 in sales and I see other startup shops that are struggling. Or I saw guys posting that they were shutting down their shop because they didn't have enough work.

Here we're a startup shop and we put everything back into the company. Me and Blaine have nothing to show for it personally. The only thing we have to show is a successful company. We started with a VF2, we added a VF4 with a 4th axis. We added a CNC Lathe. 

We're huge fans of visualization and the power of attraction. When we first got in the building, on one wall I literally duct taped the words “VF3”. On the other wall I duct taped “lathe”. I wanted to come in every day and see that. That's my motivation.

Again, it's just like I said, it's good karma because the people that we bought the lathe from, it was a younger kid that’s slowly taking the business over from his dad. They're still using high speed steel. Not a lot of carbide. So I said “do you want to come over and see what we use in our shop?” I have no problem showing you. I actually reached out to him yesterday. He's says, “our new machine comes on Monday. If you don't mind, I would love to stop by just to talk to you about tooling. I said “absolutely, man. Anything I know you're more than welcome to know as well”. 


hireCNC: How did you land your first job/work?

Brett: A lot of our jobs have been on social media… LinkedIn. Our main customer the first year… if I had to take a guess, they were probably a machine shop that was three to six months behind schedule. They were literally in the same industrial park. We've moved since then, but they're still right across the railroad tracks. We did $250,000 our first year. They were a good $175k to $200k of it. Before we got the VF4 (the second machine), I actually went over to them and asked, “hey guys, I'm thinking about getting a machine… lathe or mill?” They said “well, Brett, we don't really sub out a lot of lathe work, but we do have plenty of mill work.” And when the Vf4 came in, we got 8 POs for $75,000. I'm like, “okay, you have my attention now.” 


hireCNC: Would that be your advice? If somebody's starting a new shop, should they start by looking for overflow work from a local machine shop?

Brett: It's a great place to start. Doing work for other machine shops can be very lucrative. Most of them are found on LinkedIn. There's been some word of mouth because over the 25 years, we’ve developed a network. I actually have any one of my tooling reps who will gladly hand my card out. We’re lucky to have a lot of friends in the industry.

I would advise to learn on someone else's dime. Don't graduate school and start a shop. I wouldn't recommend that. Learn on someone else's dime. I've been in different shops. One shop all we did was vertical machining. Another shop everything was horizontal, so everything was from center of rotation. Then another shop was casting so you learned how to do everything on three points of contact. I recommend learning on someone else's dime. 


hireCNC: Is there any other advice for somebody wanting to start their own machine shop?

Brett: My credit wasn't the greatest. Make sure you get your credit up. We had to go with Haas. They were the only one that would finance us. If you want options, get your credit above 700. 

Blaine and I started with $40,000 in our business. I would make sure you have at least $20,000 in your personal. I went through $15,000 to $20,000 and emptied my personal savings account. And I'm still empty. Blaine and I finally just gave ourselves raises, but we're still both making less than what we made before. 

I made six figures when I was a programmer. I don't make anywhere near that right now.  But I can see the future. If I can't see the future, then why the hell did I start a business making less? Every morning I get up and I write five things that I want (personal things). Somewhere else I have goals for the company. I was listening to Jim Rohn one day, and I heard him say something. “Write down everything you want on a list of paper. Write one year, three years, five years, ten years.” And no one really had a ten next to their thing because no one was really planning ten years out. So I actually tried to give it some thought and plan ten years out. I have a vision of where I want this thing to be.


hireCNC: Is there something that you wish more technical machining programs focused on that would serve students well coming into industry? 

Brett: Everything is great when you learn on a new machine. Well, what happens when you get on that lathe that's off center now and you have to tweak a couple of things? What if the machine has crashed a couple times? There’s nothing you can do about it. The machine is 10-15 years old. 10 different guys have been on this machine. But now your boring bar is getting chattered. Well, how do you stop that?

That would be my one thing about schooling, is just what happens when things don't go right. I don't know how much of that is taught in school. 


hireCNC: Any preconceived notions we should set straight regarding the CNC trade?

Brett: Just the fact that it exists. I don't even know how many kids in high school know CNC machining exists. Andrew Crowe, the Renaissance man on LinkedIn…that's his passion. I had a conversation with him one day because his whole thing is getting the young kids interested. Getting Mastercam in a school that wouldn’t have had it before. It doesn't do any good to preach about machining but having nowhere for the kids to go and learn about it and see it. Not enough kids know about it.

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