Minding Their Steps: How family-owned Stromberg Carlson’s collapsible stairway company thrives across generations
What does it take to keep a family business going through multiple generations?
It’s a big question, not least because studies have shown that less than two-thirds of family businesses survive their second generation of ownership without closing up shop or changing hands. Only 13% make it through three generations of independent family ownership.
In that context, Traverse City’s Stromberg Carlson Products Inc. is beating the odds. Since 1959 and across three family generations, the business has manufactured an array of aftermarket products for manufactured housing (to start) and recreational vehicles (today).
According to company president Bob Brammer, Jr., making it past the 60-year mark as a family business required both strong buy-in from the family as a whole and a willingness to adapt and evolve with the times.
Today, Brammer works alongside his brother Charles, the company’s vice president. It’s a true family operation – but then again, that’s what it was always intended to be. As Brammer tells the story, his grandfather, David Stromberg, started the business in large part because he wanted to build something for his son.
When Stromberg incorporated Stromberg Carlson in 1959, he was a tool and die maker who already owned his own business. Stromberg’s tool and die shop, based in Traverse City, specialized in building products for other companies. One day, Stromberg bought the patents for some of the products he had been building – specifically, stairways for manufactured housing – and Stromberg Carlson was born.
“My grandpa bought the patents and helped my dad begin a business,” Brammer explained. “My grandfather and my dad were very different kinds of people. My grandfather was a very workaholic, Baptist, straight-laced kind of guy. My dad was very Methodist – meaning middle of the road – and fun-loving. He liked to have a good time. So, I’m sure (this business) was a way to give my dad a little space to do his own thing in business and not be under the direct thumb of my grandpa (at the tool and die shop).”
Through the years, Brammer says his grandpa and his dad – Bob Brammer, Sr. – came to respect one another deeply, even for the things that made them different from one another. That respect, along with the quality and innovation of the products themselves, formed the foundation for Stromberg Carlson and gave the family business the legs needed to go the distance.
For years, Stromberg and Brammer, Sr. worked as an effective team. Stromberg Carlson’s manufacturing facility was situated in a 36,000-square-foot facility on 16th Street, now the home of Right Brain Brewery. Stromberg’s tool and die shop was right across the street. The two businesses operated more or less as one.
Brammer even says it wasn’t uncommon for employees to run back and forth between the businesses depending on who was needed where – often toting tools or equipment with them.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Stromberg Carlson grew and thrived, making a name for itself in the world of aftermarket manufactured housing components. Crucial to the growth, Brammer says, was the fact that Stromberg Carlson’s stairway design was collapsible, which made everything from storage to shipping easier and more economical for the company.
“Obviously, stairs could take up a large portion of a tractor trailer,” Brammer said. “But because our stairs were collapsible, you could get 300 or 400 sets of stairs into a large tractor trailer. And spreading the freight cost over a tractor trailer of 300 or 400 steps was much nicer than, say, just 50 or 60 steps. So we shipped steps in the ‘60s and ‘70s all over the United States.”
Stromberg Carlson steps made it into some interesting places in those years, from a manufactured housing section at Walt Disney World in California to a series of Minuteman Missile silos throughout the U.S. Eventually the manufactured housing market for aftermarket steps ran its course; Stromberg Carlson found itself in need of a second act. That moment coincided closely with Brammer’s graduation from college – though it wasn’t a given that the younger Bob Brammer was going to go join his father at the family business.
“I thought I was going into advertising and marketing in Chicago,” Brammer recalled. “My wife was going to be a teacher, and we were going to go live our happy life in the big city, just like a lot of kids think. But then my dad and I started talking.”
The father-son duo had a conversation over dinner at Mode’s Bum Steer, which one way or another led to a job, says Brammer.
“The funny thing is, I always thought he asked me to come work for him,” he said. “But I have recently been told by somebody who was at the table that night that I asked my dad for a job. So, there’s a little confusion there on who asked who, but the short story is that I began working with my dad in 1983.”
Together, the father-and-son team cooked up a plan for the next generation of Stromberg Carlson. While the elder Brammer had been trying to get something going by manufacturing steps for oil wells – which, at the time, were being drilled all over northern Michigan – RVs ultimately proved to be a more natural fit for a company that had made its name in the manufactured housing market.
Nowadays, Stromberg Carlson still makes steps for RVs, but has also developed a variety of other aftermarket accessories for the RV market. Those include hand rails, ladders, bike racks, cargo carriers, fifth-wheel tailgates, RV jacks, shower rods, and more.
That market is only continuing to grow as more baby boomers retire. The COVID-19 pandemic drove a big spike in RV sales, too, as people looked for ways to travel without needing to rely on restaurants, hotels, rest stops, or other potential exposure spots.
So what’s next for this business that is now well into its third generation of family ownership? One priority, Brammer says, is thinking about the next generation.
Just as Brammer once envisioned himself moving to Chicago and working in marketing and advertising, his kids have also followed their own paths. His daughter, Hanna, is a professional opera singer. His son, Gunnar, works in the fishing industry. Neither currently live locally.
“I throw a lure in front of my son about every six months, to test his tenacity,” Brammer laughed. “He’s super happy with what he’s pursuing, and he’s doing very well in the fishing business, but I do keep him involved.”
Brammer’s son helps at trade shows and with YouTube videos.
“I told him, ‘I need a younger face. I can’t have a 60-year-old man (in these videos). I mean, I look like a grandpa!’” said Brammer. “I think it’s a little smarter, with this new demographic of people coming into the industry (because of COVID) to have Gunnar be my front man. So I’m blessed to have him at least do that much for us.”
Brammer says he is not interested in selling the company and would like to keep Stromberg Carlson’s family-owned status for that elusive fourth generation.
“Charlie, my brother, has two kids, so maybe one of them is going to come along and just have a dream of manufacturing,” he said.
In the meantime, Brammer says it’s business as usual at Stromberg Carlson – which is to say, continuing to operate with one eye trained on whatever comes next in the RV industry.
“We keep changing our business,” Brammer said. “We spent over a million dollars this year on equipment and new tools for new product lines that we’re coming out with soon. So, (Charlie and I) are pretending like we’ll never retire. Maybe we won’t. But it’s just the right way to run a business: to keep moving forward till the day you don’t – or until you hand it off to somebody else.”