Owners of brush co. triple growth in four years

By Kathleen Gest

TRAVERSE CITY – A German entrepreneur established the Laitner Brush Co. back in 1855, but advanced technology and innovative ideas by the new owners, John and Mike Kolarevic, have tripled the growth of the company since they bought it in 2000. They project another 10 to 15 percent growth for 2005.

The Kolarevic brothers, however, have kept the company founder’s ethics and ideology alive. In his own country of Germany, Alois Laitner was a man of prominence, and his brush factory in the southwestern part of Germany provided work for many of the townspeople. But his ideas of social advancement and employee welfare in the 1840s put him in conflict with the German rulers.

Emigrating to Detroit in 1846, Laitner and his sons were making brushes again by 1855, selling them around the city under the name of A. Laitner & Sons.

During the Civil War, the Laitners made excellent horse brushes, establishing a sizeable market by selling all they could make to the nine Michigan cavalry units. Business expanded and they moved to a new location, ironically, on Brush Street. In 1906 they became one of the first brush companies to install brush-filling machines. The machines were designed to replace the laborious work of putting bristles into the brush block by hand.

During the next decades, A. Laitner & Sons developed a complete line of automotive, consumer hardware and janitorial brushes, selling their products nationally. In 1947, the name of the company was changed to Laitner Brush Co. In June of 1984 the company was sold to Christopher Shotwell, ending 130 years of Laitner family control.

Shotwell moved the company to Traverse City in 1985, teaming up with Douglas Denike in 1989. In 2000, the Kolarevic brothers purchased the Laitner Brush Co.?now one of the oldest businesses in Michigan?keeping Shotwell on as their controller.

“We knew nothing about the brush industry when we bought the company,” laughed John Kolarevic, president of Laitner Brush Co. “We were just looking for our own company to run.”

Not only did they find there was a good base of manufacturing in Traverse City, they encountered civic leaders that encouraged an entrepreneurial approach to development. Local government entities were extremely helpful, along with workforce training grants and local financing potential.

As soon as they had the keys to the company in their hands, they began to implement their innovative ideas.

“We decided where we wanted to take the company…how we wanted the company to grow…and the different markets we wanted to get into,” John Kolarevic explained.

Their first line of business was to observe the competition. They traveled to Belgium, Italy and Germany, the three European countries highly rated for both production and production systems in the brush industry.

“We wanted to see how their production machinery would apply to what we wanted to do,” Mike emphasized.

The continuation of progressive thinking in the Laitner tradition led to a complete revamping of the company’s products, designing and allocating 90 percent of their production into completely new merchandise. The acquisition of the latest state of the art production system machinery from Boucherie in Izegem, Belgium was in process when the Kolarevics bought the company.

This machinery changes to different styles two to three times a day with an average change time from 10 to 30 minutes. “The ease of changeable machinery is the reason why we can offer a larger range of products,” Mike said.

They redesigned all plastic parts and the style of the wood used in the base and handle of the brushes. They designed new packaging for their products; acquired a new sales force; transformed their computer system for inventory control, how they managed information to their customers and worldwide access during their business trips; and became more aggressive in international trade. In 2003 they traveled to China, a rising competitor in their industry, for product components and production information.

The purchase of a production machine from Borghi in Cesario, Italy arrived in January 2004. The machine has a continuous work-cycle, controlled electronically to produce brushes and push-brooms up to 24 inches. Not only does the expensive machine have a sophisticated control-system that makes the machine absolutely reliable and operator error-proof, but also quality control can be managed at the machine.

“More expensive machinery is worth the investment to stay competitive; the speed, efficiency, accuracy and durability is worth the price,” John pointed out.

Although the 20-year-old production machinery from Carlson Tool & Die in Chicago, Ill., is not used daily, it is still used. The 60-year-old machine, however, stands against the far back wall, a historical relic of Laitner’s past. The machine from Carlson can only produce 60 units an hour, while new machines from Boucherie and Borghi are six times faster. Production at the Laitner plant can achieve as much as 9,000 units per day.

The brush industry is very global, with the raw materials used by Laitner coming from around the world. Tampico fiber comes from Mexico, fibers from the palmyro palm come from India, a product of the leaves of African Bass is grown in West Africa, and synthetic fibers come mostly from the United States, to name just a few countries they obtain raw materials from.

In July of 2004 Laitner consolidated their three buildings under one roof when they moved to their new plant in the Hammond Industrial Park.

“There were 60 semi loads of equipment and material moved to the new location,” John marveled.

“Our work force is an amazing group of people…dedicated, reliable, conscientious, with excellent productivity,” he added.

For Laitner Brush, Transportation is a large cost of doing business in Traverse City, but it’s a cost they absorb “almost” willingly, so they can live and work in an environment that’s close to the bay.

The company’s web site is www.laitner.com. BN