MADE IN MICHIGAN
Founded in 1975, National Bulk Equipment Inc. manufactures integrated bulk material handling equipment systems for a variety of industries including the pharmaceutical, confectionery, plastics and chemical industries. NBE in May acquired the Chicago-based General Processing Systems Inc. and added its three complementary product lines to the mix.
HOLLAND — As many manufacturers clamped down on marketing budgets to weather a rough economy, National Bulk Equipment Inc. beefed up its marketing activity and acquired a company to grab new market share.
During the economic downturn in the late 2000s, the manufacturer of bulk material handling equipment employed unusual tactics to survive. While NBE did cut production hours and employed other cost-saving measures that other manufacturers used to ride out the recession, the company increased its marketing budget 75 percent in 2009 and explored acquisition opportunities, moves that to some seemed counter-intuitive.
“We actually increased our marketing efforts during the downturn, which helped get us through it. Most other companies cut marketing, but we actually went ahead instead,” said Todd Reed, the company’s second-generation president. “We just needed to get out and shake the bushes more, expand our name and expand our product range.”
While the company added some sales staff, Reed credits a renewed focus on outside sales and branding for helping the company weather the economic storm.
NBE saw growth potential in the recycling industry and in May acquired Chicago-based General Processing Systems Inc., the makers of the Product Saver packaged material reclamation systems. The company relocated the manufacturing operations for Product Saver from Chicago to Holland.
While the acquisition provided NBE entry into a new market, Reed said the company plans to continue broadening its reach.
“We’re going to continue to bring in some additional product lines to fill some of our gaps to allow us to be a full-system integrated solutions provider,” Reed said. “We’re going to continue to tweak our current lines and expand on those as well as break into new markets.”
The Product Saver equipment helps manufacturers recover materials — whether packaging or product — when production mistakes or problems arise. The machine helps companies recycle the materials, which resonates with sustainably minded customers, Reed said.
Based in Holland, NBE services the food, chemical, confectionary and petroleum product industries with a range of products including bulk material discharging, filling, storage, mixing and conveying systems. All systems are designed to integrate within existing production lines.
According to Reed, NBE made a name for itself especially by understanding the regulatory issues manufacturers struggle with and by anticipating the needs of those businesses.
“Obviously, there’s quite a lot of food regulations with regards to sanitary equipment construction,” Reed said. “As things tighten up with food processors from every aspect of the processing of their food, they’re looking for people like us who are experts in sanitary equipment design.”
This focus on understanding regulatory issues ensures that customers consistently receive the best product possible as well as products designed for risk avoidance. Additionally, NBE is often asked to assist in designing production centers for manufacturers and cooperates with other engineering and design firms on those projects, Reed said.
That led to customers bringing NBE with them as they moved some production facilities overseas, Reed said. To continue to get contracts, NBE focused on providing excellent products and services in North America in the hope that companies will continue those relationships elsewhere, he added.
“We have to try to follow them and provide them their systems wherever they are,” Reed said. “We try to get in solid with them so they take us with them. A lot of our business overseas is due to the fact that we really get in solid with the companies, and we do so much work with them in North America that we’ll end up following them.”
NBE has licensed distributors that cover Australia, New Zealand and Thailand to serve customers’ overseas operations.
“We’ve made sure we’ve got some local presence in some of the key markets that we serve,” Reed said.
While many NBE customers moved overseas to find cheap labor, Reed said he’s seeing some reversal of the offshoring trend as some manufacturers return to Central and South America.
The main problem that Reed sees in his own operation is the shortage of labor. With clients’ operations picking up and orders increasing, NBE is struggling to find talent to keep up with demand.
“We’re trying to find additional people now…because we’re running more overtime than I like to,” Reed said. “Where are all these people in West Michigan who need jobs?”
His biggest difficulty, he said, was finding employees in skilled trades like welding. Changing that trend could take a shift in cultural norms that push everyone to attend a four-year college.
“I can’t find welders. I can’t find design engineers. I can’t find control engineers. I need to hire all of them. What I’m hearing is that, with the younger generation, it’s not cool to be a welder,” Reed said. “But, if someone wants to be a welder, they could make some good money.”