Safer Surfaces: Great Lakes Stainless is fighting the virus with copper

Great Lakes Stainless employee Kirk Toedebusch laser etches a logo into a copper cover for a door.

In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in the United States, businesses were ordered to shutter unless essential and residents quarantined as a precaution.

But at Great Lakes Stainless, the company immediately shifted gears and started to fight the virus at work with scrap pieces of copper from previous decorative fabrication jobs.

“When things started going sideways with the whole pandemic, I told the production manager here to set up an internal job to put copper covers on all of our door handles and replace all the push plates here,” Michael DeBruyn said, who owns Great Lakes Stainless.

DeBruyn and his team had learned about the antimicrobial nature of copper a few years prior and took advantage to protect the workers there.

“The genesis of it was just to do everything we could do to put safety measures in place for our staff here,” he said.

After the production manager asked, “Does copper kill it?” within the next half hour, DeBruyn secured the domain name copperkillsit.com. The website was up and running in a couple of days.

The home page now greets visitors with its logo and slogan, “Safer Surfaces for Life — Copper touch points for your space that naturally and quickly kill coronavirus and other surface pathogens.”

“The logo was something I worked up with the ‘c’ for copper and the stylized elements kind of reaching out to kill germs,” DeBruyn said. “For this stage of the game, we’ve gotten quite a bit of traffic, more than any of our other previous ventures at this point.”

The pandemic proved to be a turning point in what’s been a busy 18 months for DeBruyn, who bought Great Lakes Stainless about year and half ago from his father-in-law Terry Berden. DeBruyn has been the president since 2013 and the purchase, he says, was always part of the long-term plan.

Berden started the company in 1995. At the time it mainly catered to the food industry, but then branched out into stainless steel and laminate medical cabinets. Today, the company produces a wide range of products including decorative metal fabrications that it ships throughout the United States and internationally.

DeBruyn said the company has never been confronted by a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented several challenges.

“Adapting and making judgments and looking out for change is a big part of business, but I can safely say never at this level of speed or urgency,” he said.

One thing that the company was doing, however, was dedicating itself to the safety of its workers and customers.

“We were doing almost all of the safety things before they were dictated by the governor,” he said. “A big part of sustainability is making sure you take every step to keep your workforce healthy and safe, because no matter what business you have, you’ve got to have people to do the work and take care of the customers.”

Great Lakes Stainless was in good shape to start production on the copper handle covers, because the Traverse City company already had most of the equipment in place that was needed, like a fiber laser to produce the copper handle covers.

“The big capital investments you need to go into producing it we’d already had,” DeBruyn said.

Other challenges presented themselves, however.

“Some of the challenges are trying to address the incredible variety of door hardware that is out there,” DeBruyn said, adding that most of the investment is in engineering time, sales work and resources.

But overall, the changeover has been good, said DeBruyn. Thanks to the copper products, the company has picked up new clients both locally and throughout the US.

“The new business has been good,” DeBruyn said. “Several new customers have generated a few additional opportunities in our other business lines from new contacts generated by the copper products.”

Copper door covers like this one for Brew in downtown Traverse City are becoming popular products created by Great Lakes Stainless.

Some of the business has been local. Brew on Front Street has been a client of Great Lakes Stainless for about five years. The coffeehouse owner, Sean Kickbush said he likes how the company is able to “literally build anything.”

“Restaurants are so unique and always need these unique voids filled spatially,” Kickbush said. “They have done a lot of work for us. They are probably one of our favorite companies in Traverse City. They have lasers.”

Brew has been closed during the pandemic, but plans to reopen on July 2 with a few new copper additions.

Great Lakes Stainless had already made the coffeehouse’s menu boards, counter tops and copper cabinets beneath the bar. Recently, they had copper door handle covers installed.

“This is all so new to everybody,” Kickbush said, who sees as many as 600 customers a day. “We’re taking whatever measures we feel would be effective and this definitely is an easy no-brainer.”

Kickbush says he was educated by Great Lakes Stainless on the benefits of copper.

“Even if it wasn’t a pandemic, it makes a lot of sense for lowering the transmission of disease,” he said. “I had no idea that copper had that ability, so they kind of educated us on that.”

Early Thursday morning, Burritt’s Fresh Market, also on Front Street in Traverse City, was slated to have a copper wrap installed at the checkout counter along with copper pushbar covers and handles for the front door. The market stayed open during the pandemic.

“It is just an added layer of safety and precaution,” said Burritt’s General Manager Jake Kaberle. “I’m taking care of my people – not only my staff and their families, but all of my customers.”

He added that having a company nearby to fill Burritt’s needs, especially during a pandemic, is a plus.

“It’s fun to have this cutting edge technology,” Kaberle said. “It’s great to know that it’s grown right here in our backyard.”

Although Great Lakes Stainless is seeing new work orders and customers thanks to its copper products, the company did not go unscathed through the pandemic shutdown. The company laid off more than half of its 60 employees, but is seeing signs of recovery.

“We had some of our workers that were essential and some that were not,” DeBruyn said. “We’ve gotten a significant part of them back, but we’re still down a number of employees. Orders are probably half of what they were a month prior.”

At first, the company thought the pandemic would create a surge in productivity because one of their biggest clients is the health care industry. However, many hospitals were hit hard by the pandemic, resulting in cutbacks in capital expenditures.

As a raw material, copper is readily available, but it comes at a higher price than stainless steel. The company also looked at other products it could produce in response to the pandemic, such as aerosol protection boxes and sneeze guard shields. Both of those products use plexiglass, which is hard to find, DeBruyn said.

DeBruyn said he is optimistic about its new products and plans to keep producing them as long as the demand is there. He says he is hopeful the core business will also return to normal.

“Things change really quickly, so we really took a look at everything and made the changes needed,” DeBruyn said. “I am proud of our team we have here because they were very proactive.”

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