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Sunday, 22 June 2014 22:00

Bulman Products expands through global markets, acquisitions

Written by  John Wiegand
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Bulman Products targeted growth by moving into new foreign markets and acquiring companies and product lines that complemented the manufacturer’s business, said President Ann Kirkwood. Bulman Products targeted growth by moving into new foreign markets and acquiring companies and product lines that complemented the manufacturer’s business, said President Ann Kirkwood. PHOTO: JOHN WIEGAND

Given stagnant domestic growth, one West Michigan manufacturer plans to capitalize on export incentive programs as it looks to increase its business in the European market.

When Bulman Products Inc. President Ann Kirkwood-Hall joined the company in 2009, the manufacturer had fallen on difficult times as sales slumped 25 percent from previous years.

But Kirkwood-Hall saw the downturn as a unique opportunity to learn the business from her employees and outline a growth strategy, so she decided to make the best of it.

“The recession is never good, but sometimes you have to look at the positive in things when your sales go down that much,” Kirkwood-Hall said. “People weren’t as busy, but we kept everyone, so I had a lot of people who had the time to help me learn the business.”

The Grand Rapids-based company manufactures cutters and racks designed to cut materials ranging from butcher paper to bubblewrap. Bulman Products started in 1906 as a single-product company and grew its line to approximately 30 products today. The company’s largest customers include the school and arts supply industry along with retail and industrial packaging.

Bulman Products conducts approximately 95 percent of its business in the United States. The rest of the company’s sales are spread across a few small distributors in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, Kirkwood-Hall said.

The manufacturer generated $3.5 million in sales last year and is growing approximately 3 percent annually, she said. The company has outpaced its domestic market and hopes to expand its distributor base into European markets to meet increasing inquiries about its products, Kirkwood-Hall told MiBiz.

To execute on that global vision, Kirkwood-Hall leveraged Michigan’s ample resources for companies looking for help with exporting. Bulman Products currently works with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), Van Andel Global Trade Center and the Michigan Small Business Development Center (MI-SBDC) to access opportunities for international expansion.

The MEDC recently awarded Bulman Products a $12,000 grant through its State Trade Export Program (STEP) to cover some of the company’s expenses as it ramps up its foreign expansion plans.

The state sees export assistance as a key way to help Michigan-based small businesses and second-stage companies grow. For every $197,000 in new export sales, one additional job is added in the state, according to research cited by the MEDC.

Under the STEP program, the MEDC classifies Bulman Products as a Tier 3 company — an experienced exporter — based on its current presence in the Canadian market. But even experienced companies like Bulman Products need guidance before they are properly positioned to engage in widespread exporting, said Jennifer Deamud, associate state director of the MI-SBDC.

The MI-SBDC partners with the MEDC to prepare companies for exporting and offers consulting on state and national export programs. The organization also includes a staff of business export consultants, many of whom hold certifications in international trade.

The presence of the STEP program and other export consulting services demonstrates the state’s commitment to providing resources that help companies grow by expanding into international markets, Deamud said.

The MEDC allows companies to use STEP funds to engage in overseas trade missions or trade shows, support export-focused business services and conduct international market research.

Bulman Products’ Kirkwood-Hall plans to attend trade shows and make connections with representatives from global companies to develop the manufacturer’s network of international distributors and customers.

The firm currently employs 26 people and plans to expand its workforce by up to 20 additional employees to meet increased production requirements from export sales, Kirkwood-Hall said.

In conjunction with expanding export capacity, Kirkwood-Hall hopes to continue development of Bulman Product’s e-commerce platform to allow it to sell products efficiently to international distributors and private customers.

Inorganic growth also plays a key role in the company’s strategy as it looks to acquire additional product lines and companies that fit or expand its current offerings, Kirkwood-Hall said.

Bulman Products manufactures all the steel components for its products on-site but outsources components made from other materials, such as wooden tops for its packing tables. By acquiring furniture supply companies, Kirkwood-Hall plans to speed production and expand Bulman’s product offerings.

The company is also in the process of acquiring a competitor’s line of cutters currently manufactured in China. The plan is to onshore that production to another local supplier, she said.

“When I found out that it was manufactured in China, I said, ‘That won’t happen. I’m from Michigan and we make things,’” Kirkwood-Hall said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from a previous version. 

Read 4174 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 August 2014 10:41

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