Bill Ferson, 94, has worked at Vita Needle for 25 years, ever since he "retired" at 69. Photo by Karen Aho.

Bill Ferson punches in at 4:15 a.m. happy to be at work. He rarely misses a day and brings decades of experience to the job.

Who wouldn't want such a gem in their workforce?

If history is any guide, most companies. For one big reason: Ferson is 94 years old. "Ninety-five in September," he chimes, before springing from his chair with a twist to grab another tool. "They're missing out on a lot of knowledge."

Since Rosa Finnegan quit at the age of 101 last year – her family moved – Ferson has become the oldest worker at Vita Needle, a family-run custom needle and tube manufacturer in Massachusetts that consistently churns out record sales while embracing employees whom many other companies toss aside. Half its 49 workers are over 73.

"It works for us," says Frederick Hartman II, a fifth-generation owner who serves as director of marketing and engineering.

As some U.S. baby boomers approach their 70s, often without the desire or ability to retire, much is riding on whether such a so-called elderforce might work for other companies as well.

Many employers would do well to take note of Vita Needle's small Needham, Mass., shop, where rows of seated, graying workers carefully cut, stamp and sharpen tubes by hand. The hollow needles are sold primarily for use in machine lubrication. The company also makes pins used to inflate balls.

"The irony is that we're selling speed," said the company's president, Frederick Hartman. "Don't be fooled by people who have gray hair. We're operating on a time scale of days. Our competitors are operating on a time scale of weeks."

Hartman has long preached the value of moral capital or, in marketing parlance, social responsibility, in attracting customers. Having a reputation for hiring seniors who want to work – as opposed to using machines – helps. Some economists refer to such practices as "humane capitalism."

But goodwill alone won't get repeat customers, nor will it generate productivity that exceeds labor costs. Vita Needle has to compete on the global level.

"We're not stupid. We know that we're making a conscious decision for workers and the community," says Hartman II. But, he added: "There are a lot of benefits we get."

These include:

  • Loyal workers: Employee turnover is extremely low, zero to one per year. "We were hiring younger people, too. But the young people come and go," says operations manager Michael G. LaRosa.
  • Employees with a strong work ethic: "No one is born with a work ethic. You learn it as you go," LaRosa says. "I think young people should learn a work ethic. I just don't think they should learn it here."
  • Reduced benefits cost: Because workers qualify for Medicare, they do not seek health-care benefits from the company.
  • High-quality work: Nick Poulos, at 20 the youngest employee, says he's learning a valuable lesson from his older colleagues, to "take your time and do it well. Don't rush it. Make sure you get it done right."
  • Reliable workers: It may seem counterintuitive, but older workers take fewer sick days and tend to stay on the job many more years, the company says.

So are these benefits reflected in the bottom line? You bet, says Vita Needle. It experienced record sales in 19 of the past 21 years, with brief dips during two recessions. Sales have quadrupled since the mid '90s.

Could the company achieve high sales with another strategy? Probably. But as LaRosa puts it: "We'd be faced with a different set of problems." He cites as examples higher labor and benefits costs and a less reliable workforce. "And I don't think we'd have 15- to 20-year employees," he says.

While the company offers "market wages" that are not considered outstanding, particularly for unskilled labor, it offers flexibility that's probably unheard of on a shop floor. Workers basically select their own hours and can take time off as needed, even if it means getting up and punching out for a doctor's appointment or a grandchild's school event.

In turn, owners and managers have become adept at managing special health needs, shifting one woman to larger needles when macular degeneration affected her vision, for example, and moving another from accounting to production when early dementia set in.

Employees generally leave on their own when age or health hamper their ability to work, La Rosa said. And while he's had to fire workers – typically younger employees – the company is committed to employment and has not imposed any layoffs since it opened in 1932.

"This is a family business. Its values are people before profit, and yet they still make money," says Warren Chamberlain, 73, who put in a career in welding and spot relief at General Motors until a plant closing forced him into early retirement at 50.

Years later, intrigued by the ever-present "help wanted" sign outside Vita Needle, Chamberlain wandered upstairs to the small shop floor only to think, "This is a daycare center for seniors."

Now he works three- to four-hour shifts in delivering and manufacturing, good exercise and stimulation to supplement his volunteer work.

"When I got here, I wanted to organize everything, make it more efficient. Then I realized that half the people would be gone," he says. "Fred makes a conscientious decision to keep it low-tech and creates an opportunity for seniors to come in and make a living."

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