Off the Chain: Copemish plastic chain manufacturer to double capacity by early 2021

Mr. Chain products guide travelers at Cherry Capital Airport.

It used to be monthly orders of $750,000 were very good for Mr. Chain, a Copemish plastic chain, stanchion and traffic cone manufacturer.

“Now we’re at $1,000,000 every month,” said company president Maree Mulvoy. “We could sell more if we could (supply it).”

Mr. Chain’s large machines had been running at about 30% of capacity, pre-COVID. Now “all of them are running 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Mulvoy said.

Demand for Mr. Chain products has skyrocketed since COVID-19 and social distancing brought along a need for directing foot traffic and controlling crowds.

Recent projects include several miles of chain sent to the New York City Transit Authority to restrict on-board access to bus drivers and to the National Guard in Louisiana, California and Indiana to form drive-through COVID testing areas.

Locally, Mr. Chain worked with Cherry Capital Airport when it closed off its dining areas and is now working with restaurants in downtown Traverse City to rope off designated outdoor dining areas.

The daughter of company founder Michael Russo, Mulvoy said the company is now at capacity, which also has lengthened product lead time.

“We (used to) pride ourselves on shipping within 24 to 48 hours,” she said. “Now we’re quoting at three-and-a-half to four weeks.”

To accommodate this demand, Mr. Chain is expanding and modernizing its ’60s-era production facility. By chance, Mulvoy had purchased the land two years ago in anticipation of a future expansion … someday.

The company’s new 25,000 square-foot building will double current production capacity and increase efficiency.

 

That day came earlier than expected. Ground was broken last month for the new 25,000 square-foot facility, which is a pre-engineered steel building. It will double the current production capacity and allow the company to implement more efficient processes and workflows.

She said getting permits, drawings and awarding contracts was the first step, then footings and concrete work. Pre-cut steel  – scheduled to arrive mid-September – will be shipped to the site. Construction is estimated to be complete in four to five weeks, followed by interior work like electricity and plumbing.

“It’s like a big Erector set,” Mulvoy said.

Not only will the new building double the current production capacity, the design will include hands-free electric eye toilets and faucets, ionic air purification and other innovations that will make it safer for employees, more of whom will be joining the company soon: The company has already ramped up its hiring, from 65 people April 1 to 108 people today.

Mulvoy says she believes when the building is completed and new machinery is installed, the company will employ approximately 120 people. She also noted that the project will also employ numerous people from the region, as construction, electricity, plumbing and toolmaking will involve companies based in Traverse City, Cadillac, Buckley, Manistee and elsewhere.

As for the old building, it will remain to house some manufacturing, but it will also provide for offices, more shipping docks and 12,000 square feet of warehouse and shipping space.

Michael Russo founded Mr. Chain as an automotive supplier for both General Motors and Chrysler. By the early 1970s it had begun manufacturing plastic chain. It grew to become an industry leader and Russo eventually abandoned the auto parts side of the business.

Mulvoy came to the business late. She was a corporate tax attorney and CPA, working as a partner at Plante Moran in Auburn Hills. In 2006, both her father and a sister who worked at Mr. Chain passed away and Mulvoy took control of the company.

“My original plan was to get it in shape and stable, then sell it,” she said.

The longer she was involved in it, the more she came to appreciate both the industry and the people who worked there.

“Some drive from Cadillac or Traverse City, but some walk or bike to work,” she said.

Mulvoy found that many of the soft skills she’d developed in her first career translated to this one as well.

“Hiring, motivating, managing employees – people respond to how you treat them,” she said.

She said the most gratifying part of the business for her has been providing her employees with good-paying jobs with benefits such as medical and dental.

She is also a conscientious employer when it comes to employee safety, saying she’s a “real pain” when it comes to enforcing rules on mask-wearing for those employees on the factory floor and in the building.

“Since April, anyone with a fever or cough has been tested. So far with 12 tests they’ve all been negative,” she said.

Since COVID, the sales and marketing teams have been working from home, which Mulvoy said has been so successful that she is changing the design of the office space when the current building is changed over. She anticipates that many of them will continue to work from home at least part of the time, so rather than separate offices, the new design will include pods where they can work when they are onsite.

Even if the pandemic gets under control, she said she sees opportunity for increased business.

For one thing, she said the company’s biggest competitor is a Chinese company and two previous customers have already returned after finding it wasn’t as reliable as Mr. Chain.

Secondly, as businesses gradually reopen with social distancing guidelines, she believes many will see a need to rope off sections or areas that aren’t available. And she believes the company’s overall response during the past few months has built brand awareness.

“I don’t think (the increasing business) will last forever,” she said, “but I hope it will plateau at a higher level.”

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