Making It In Northern Michigan: Grand Traverse Industries

By Al Parker

Grand Traverse Industries, a 41-year-old Traverse City business that provides employment, training and services to persons with disabilities, is now producing an item that improves the smile of forgetful travelers.

The Smilesaver disposable toothbrush comes loaded with a dose of minty toothpaste right in the handle. The user simply pushes both ends of the toothbrush together, forcing the paste up onto the bristles. It can be used at the office, in the gym locker room, at a restaurant or anywhere you need fresh breath and a healthy smile. The Smilesaver comes individually wrapped, is 100 percent recyclable and makes on-the-go oral care easier than ever.

“We bought the Smilesaver company five years ago,” said GTI President and CEO Steve Perdue. “It was invented for the hospitality business for hotels to give to guests who may have forgotten their toothbrushes or toothpaste. Best Western is still a customer of ours.”

GTI’s goal for 2016 is to sell 500,000 units, but its capability is to eventually market 3 million Smilesavers a year, according to Perdue. Interest in the product has steadily grown beyond the hospitality industry and beyond U.S. borders. “We’ve have been focusing on exporting the product and have been working with partners in the U.K.,” said Perdue. “We get inquiries every week for distributorships. Recently we’ve had contacts from Turkey, Dubai and South Korea.”

While Smilesaver is an exciting area of growth for GTI, the backbone of its business is its plastic bag manufacturing process, launched in 2003 with Plascon of Traverse City.  GTI makes a complete line of plastic bags, including trash can liners, bio hazard bags, laundry bags, highway pickup bags, packaging bags and custom bags of any color.

The company has a contract to provide bags for the state of Michigan. Other large clients include Munson Healthcare, Northwestern Michigan College and the Turtle Creek Casino. “We’re capable of making 12,000 24-inch (trash bag) liners in an hour,” said Perdue. “We’ll make 600,000 to 700,000 a year for the state. “

GTI usually runs one shift of workers, but is capable of adding a second shift. Since many employees rely on public transportation to get to their job, GTI’s typical shift runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Like a lot of manufacturers in northern Michigan, GTI expects to add workers in the coming year.

“If people come to us with the right work ethic, we’re willing to train them,” said Perdue.

Founded in 1974, GTI started by providing work and services for 10 people. Today that has grown to almost 300. GTI has 70 staff members and some 200 employees with significant disabilities working at five sites in northern Michigan. Over the years, GTI has provided employment and training services to more than 3,000 individuals and has placed more than 1,000 workers into community employment. In 1995 it was chosen as the Michigan Small Business of the Year by the state’s small business development center.