The Chain Gang
Copemish, population 200 (give or take a few), lies 30 minutes southwest of Traverse City in northeast Manistee County. The rural northern Michigan village is perhaps best known for its seasonal flea market. But tucked off the “main drag,” is a plastics empire, if you will.
On a road named after its founder, M R Products – trade name Mr. Chain – cranks out plastic chain like nobody’s business. In fact, it is nobody else’s business. Mr. Chain is the only manufacturer of plastic chain in the United States – and in off-the-beaten-track Copemish, no less.
Plastic chain may not initially seem like a wildly lucrative product, until one considers all the places plastic chain is used. This is the chain you see everywhere to create visual barriers and maintain crowd control – from construction sites and parking lots to retail stores, schools, polling precincts, car shows, festivals and the list goes on and on. The chain comes in every color under the sun, in nine different sizes and three different styles – more than any other source in the world.
Vice President Dennis Stacey has been with the company 32 years – starting as a general foreman, moving on to plant manager, and now serving as vice president for the last three years.
“Our core business today is crowd control and safety,” said Stacey of the multi-million dollar company.
In the last four years, the company has doubled its staff to 42 – making it the largest employer in Copemish by far – and operates three shifts Monday through Friday.
In line with that growth, the company recently completed a $100,000 expansion of its loading dock to better accommodate the approximately 60 orders it ships daily.
“We have trucks going in and out of here all day long,” said Stacy. Mr. Chain products are sold exclusively through distributors, such as Grainger and Uline, and online.
Even though Mr. Chain doesn’t have any domestic competition, it did lose some business in recent years when a few distributor accounts turned to Chinese suppliers trying to copy Mr. Chain’s chain-making process.
That forced the company to become more efficient in its operations, Stacey said, and it has seen those former customers come back.
M R Products was founded in southeastern Michigan by Michael T. Russo in 1960. He had been an engineering student at Ohio State University in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and he left school to join the Army Air Corps. He returned home a decorated veteran – the first Mustang Ace and the only A-36 Ace in World War II – and started a plastics injection molding business. For 17 years, he was an automotive supplier, with two of his biggest customers General Motors and Chrysler.
Russo relocated the manufacturing portion of the business to Copemish in 1969, during an incentive period of no cost land for manufacturing businesses.
“The town essentially recruited him,” said Stacey.
Russo was an inventor and a tinkerer – what really kept him excited about the injection molding work were the new products he conceived on the side. He invented the process used to manufacture plastic chain, which the company has produced in its Michigan facility since 1969. He eventually held more than 20 patents for products, including a re-seal cap for 16-ounce beverages that was later sold to PepsiCo.
Ultimately, the company starting manufacturing chain using an innovative process that allowed plastic chain to be made in continuous lengths in an injection molding machine but still allowed each link to move freely – marking a critical shift for the company.
By 1987, Russo was out of the automotive supplier business altogether and became solely a proprietary product manufacturer offering both injection molding and extrusion of plastic products. All design for Mr. Chain products is done in-house and Bridge Tool & Die in Buckley builds all the molds.
Russo, who died in 2006 at age 85, liked to operate under the radar, Stacey said – the reason the company was Copemish’s best kept secret for so long. For the last eight years, daughter Maree Russo Mulvoy has been at the helm.
But unlike Mr. Russo himself, Mr. Chain chains and stanchions have found a bit of fame – appearing in several major motion pictures, including “Marmaduke,” on several TV shows and even in a 2015 Super Bowl ad, in which the chain was used to set up a driving course for a miniature remote-controlled Lexus.
The company continues the entrepreneurial spirit planted by Russo as it tries to come up with at least one new product a year, said Stacey. In the last five years, Mr. Chain has developed a snap reflector, an X-Treme duty stanchion, and a magnet ring/carabineer. Its newest product, a chain cone connector, launched this year and will introduce the company to the highway and traffic safety market.
20,000 feet: average amount of chain produced each day
5 million feet (+/- 500,000): average amount of chain produced annually
The chain is available in 22 solid colors, six bi-color options, nine different sizes and three different styles. The stanchions come in seven solid colors, eight vinyl tape color choices and four sizes.