From American Flags to Plastic Bags: Grand Traverse manufacturers make it all
Life’s not just a bowl of cherries in Grand Traverse.
Manufacturing plays a major role in the area’s economy, employing more than 10,000 people and representing about 13 percent of the workforce in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Kalkaska, Leelanau and Antrim counties, according to the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council.
The region is home to 339 manufacturing companies, some of which fly under the radar and others that make unusual products.
From American flags to plastic bags, check out the range of products made in northern Michigan:
Hayes Manufacturing, Fife Lake
Products: Flywheel couplings, engine housings and a variety of power transmission products for the agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, mining and other industries.
Company history: Started out of a garage in Rochester, Mich. as RayClay Manufacturing by Ray and Betty Hayes, and Ray’s brother, Clay Hayes. The business began as a side business to their full-time jobs.
Clay Hayes later left the business to work full time at Chrysler. Ray and Betty Hayes sold the company in 1973 to their sons, Jim and Jeff Hayes, who moved it north to Manton. When Hayes Manufactuing outgrew its Manton shop, Jim and Jeff Hayes moved the company to a 29-acre site in Fife Lake. Jeff’s wife, Carol, and Jim’s wife, Marilyn, were involved in the business.
Jim and Jeff Hayes sold the company in 2012 to Jeff’s daughters, Holly Miller and Penny Challender; Jim’s daughter, Marie McDougall; and long-time associates Sam Runkel and Mike Lawson. Miller, Challender and McDougall have been working in the mostly family-owned business for a combined 80 years.
Company size: Hayes employs 48 workers and is on track to post sales of $14 million this year, up about 25 percent from 2017. The company credits a strong sales effort and healthy economy for that growth.
The future: Hayes has been working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to help it sell into global markets, including Australia, India and the United Kingdom.
“We’ve established business there that we didn’t have five years ago,” said Miller, the company’s president.
Hayes is working to make its operations more efficient by getting vendors to locate more closely to the company within Michigan and helping them become more efficient using lean systems, said Miller.
“We’re into lean manufacturing and we need our vendors to be lean, as well,” he said.
Products: Wood, gas and electric sauna stoves and room heaters. Prices range from about $900 to about $4,000.
Company history: NIPPA was founded in 1930 by Leo Nippa, a Finnish immigrant who started making his steel sauna stoves in Bruce Crossing in the Upper Peninsula. The company was purchased in 2005 by the then-owner of Classic Dock and Lift and relocated to Beulah. Dean Michael purchased both companies in 2011.
Company size: NIPPA sells about 100 stoves a year and employs five people. The wood and gas stoves and accessories are manufactured in Beulah; the electric stoves are sourced from a manufacturer in Finland. NIPPA stoves are sold throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. It has a dealer in Wisconsin and sells its products on its website: nippa.com. The company also has benefited from a large word-of-mouth network about the quality of its products, said Diane Michael, Dean Michael’s daughter and NIPPA’s general manager.
The business has been growing, possibly because of growing publicity about the claimed health benefits of sweating in the dry heat of a sauna.
“The sauna is coming back,” Diane Michael said. “There’s a sauna world out there. I’ve been here since 2012 and it seems like we keep getting busier and busier.”
The future: NIPPA recently started producing metal art, using its expertise in fabrication.
“We’ve been selling the art mostly to people locally and have done a few art shows,” Diane Michael said. “There are endless possibilities.”
Marsh Industrial, Kalkaska
Products: Various types of specialized tanks for trucks. Some are known as “pressure vessels” that haul certain kinds of liquid, such as gasoline and hazardous waste. Marsh also does general welding fabrication work. Its biggest market segment is building tanks for septic waste hauling trucks for the housing industry and portable restroom trucks.
“The housing market is insane,” said Marsh Vice President Bryan Marsh.
Company history: Marsh Industrial was started 40 years ago in Kalkaska by Don and Debbie Marsh, who still own the company.
“They were chasing business in the oil fields around here,” Bryan Marsh said. “But as oil production began to decline, they started building pressure vessels and tank trucks.”
Don and Debbie Marsh moved here from Port Huron in the 1970s after Don became a certified welder. The Marshes got into the tank manufacturing business after they saw a need in northern Michigan for a Michigan Department of Transportation-certified facility to manufacturer and repair trucks, tanks and trailers that haul industrial waste.
Company size: Eight employees and sales of approximately $1 million a year.
The future: Bryan Marsh said increased U.S. oil production is bringing new activity in the company’s long-depressed oil field business. And the company, which sells its products domestically and in several other countries, is always exploring new markets.
“The business is constantly evolving and changing. It seems like when one segment drops, another always comes back,” he said.
Marsh also has been assuming more ownership-related duties from his parents and plans to remain in business for the long haul.
“I’m the [ownership] succession plan,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Leelanau Rustic, Lake Leelanau
Products: Wooden American flags and wood furniture, much of it made from wood still being recycled from a devasting, 100-year storm that tore through Leelanau County in August 2015. The company also makes chainsaw carvings.
Its most popular product is the wooden American flag, which co-owner Scott Sheehan said represents the county’s recovery from a storm that took down thousands of trees.
“What’s better than to recycle this chaotic mess and make it into American flags,” he said.
Company history: Leelanau Rustic was started in 2015 by Sheehan, who had experience in chainsaw carvings, and Brandon Steck, a licensed home builder.
Company size: It’s still a part-time occupation for Steck, the home builder, and Sheehan, who works on Steck’s crew and does other part-time jobs. Leelanau Rustic sells its products through its website: leelanaurustic.com. Sheehan said company sales are starting to take off after a July story about it on a Traverse City television station.
“We’ve done about $15,000 in sales since that story ran,” he said.
The future: Leelanau Rustic recently started offering “raftnick” tables — picnic tables for water use that are mounted on pontoons. They feature holders for a cooking grill and umbrella, and a mount for a small motor. The company also is donating its wooden American flags in every police and fire station in Leelanau County to honor their work during the 2015 storm.
Plascon Group, Traverse City
Products: Manufactures plastic bags, liners and films for the food, pharmaceutical, institutional and bulk packaging and bioprocessing industries. Its top-selling product is the “Safetea” liner for iced tea and iced coffee urns in restaurants. While the product has been on the market for several years, it was launched in August on Shopify, a major online shopping site aimed at businesses.
“Tea can grow all kinds of bad things you don’t want to ingest,” said Nancy Hodges, Plascon’s marketing manager. “It’s a good producer of bacteria and mold in urns. Tea never makes contact with the urn when using our Safetea liner.”
Plascon products have safety certifications from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the British Retail Consortium.
Company history: Founded in Traverse City 1999 by David Peterson, who served as chief executive officer until last year and is now executive chairman. Laura Wright, the company’s former director of strategic planning, was promoted to CEO. Plascon also has a sales office in the United Kingdom.
Company size: Plascon has 77 employees and reported annual sales of $19 million.
The future: Plascon is focusing on increasing business to small restaurants and expanding into new geographic markets.
Great Lakes Trim, Williamsburg
Products: A variety of interior trim products for cars, SUVs and John Deere tractors. Among them are front seatback panels for the Lincoln Continental and Navigator models, and the glove box door for the GMC Sierra pickup. The parts are then shipped to interior suppliers Magna, Lear and IAC that incorporate them into their interior components for final assembly by automakers. In addition, the company is required by its customers to provide service parts for 15 years after the end of production of the vehicles it supplies.
Company history: Founded by brothers Tom and Jeff Crandall in 2001 in Williamsburg, Great Lakes Trim has since expanded to three buildings in the Railway Industrial Park.
Company size: Great Lakes Trim employs 80 people and has annual sales of $12 million. Sales are expected to grow to $24 million over the next two years because of several new contracts.
The future: Great Lakes Trim recently was awarded contracts to build front seatback panels for the Ford Explorer and its police version, as well as the Lincoln MKC. The front seatback in the police version is specially hardened to prevent prisoners and arrestees in the back seat from puncturing it.
“We might have to add a second shift to production,” company President Tom Crandall said.