Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 14, 2013

Growth, local focus put companies on radar

BY KATHY GIBBONS kgibbons@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY – Chuck Thomas says he’s a “blue jean and work shirt kind of guy.”

He’s also proof that you don’t need to wear a three-piece suit to save a company.

Thomas, with then co-worker Don Aldrich, rescued Cadillac Culvert when its parent organization filed for bankruptcy in November 2011.

The two were working for the company and wanted to keep their own jobs as well as the positions of five fellow employees. They made an offer to buy the business, which makes steel corrugated pipe and related products.

They then developed a business plan with the help of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center. Firstbank in Cadillac helped with financing, including some Small Business Administration backing.

“Local attorneys helped us with purchase agreements, accountants right here in town with bookkeeping,” Thomas said. “We knew what to do. We just needed somebody to believe in us.”

They took over last May. Since then, sales have increased and they’ve added more staff — now up to 11, including the two owners.

“We got through the first year and our banker said we did a great job," Thomas said. "Our accountant did (too).”

Michigan Celebrates Small Business feels the same way about the company. The consortium of business leaders and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation named Cadillac Culvert to this year’s Michigan 50 Companies to Watch. The program identifies established companies that meet a variety of factors including demonstrating a pattern of growth.

Critter Control is also on the list. With 120 offices in 38 states and two in Canada, the company’s corporate headquarters is in Traverse City.

“It’s a nuisance wildlife removal company,” said vice president Sean Carruth. “(Franchisees) buy the rights to use the term ‘Critter Control,’ all our training manuals, trucks and uniforms.”

The company was established in 1983 in Westland by CEO Kevin Clark. He sold his first franchise four years later and relocated to Traverse City in 1997. Today, Critter Control has between 400 and 500 people on the ground in the U.S. and Canada, with 10 employees locally.

“He developed the concept, pushed, promoted,” Carruth said.

Another local company on this year’s 50 to Watch list, Grand Traverse Distillery, has grown at a rate of 50 to 60 percent annually since starting in 2006. The company produces vodkas and whiskeys entirely from locally grown grain.

“I think what’s really helped us is we’re a local business and we’re also 100 percent Michigan local,” said president Kent Rabish, noting that Grand Traverse Distillery just won the top award for its aged Rye “Ole George” whiskey at the American Distilling Institute’s 7th annual judging of Artisan American Spirits held in Denver.

“One hundred percent of my wheat, rye and corn is grown by (Send Brothers) out in Williamsburg," Rabish said. “We are one of the few that are a grain to bottle distillery.”

Another 50 to Watch company, Altus Brands LLC in Traverse City, has also experienced phenomenal growth, said one of the owners, Brian Breneman. The company has 18 employees locally.

“We were established four years ago, and I want to say it’s been over 400 percent growth over four years,” he said.

Altus acquires and consolidates small companies in the outdoor products industry, then manufactures and distributes those items. The company does some manufacturing overseas, with its U.S. production in Traverse City.

When Altus began, it had a business plan and goals. While the original direction may have changed course, the outcome hasn’t, Breneman said.

“How we got there wasn’t exactly what we projected — we got there in a different way, different brands … certain things we did worked and certain things we did, didn’t,” Breneman said. “But it was really kind of funny when we sat down and looked at our original plan and found we weren’t that far off.”