September 23, 2020

Winning.

Six Northern Michigan businesses finding a way to survive and thrive
By Craig Manning | Aug. 1, 2020

Which northern Michigan businesses are best positioned to thrive in the aftermath of COVID-19? While the pandemic has been devastating for many industries, it has also created opportunities elsewhere. Northern Express flagged six local businesses that are poised for growth going forward because of smart business pivots or simply being in the right industry at the right time. 

eFulfillment Service — which stores and ships products for hundreds of online businesses — has had a gigantic 2020, according to COO Steve Bulger. He says the company went from processing about 20,000 orders a week in the first two months of the year to handling more than 44,000 per week at the peak of the pandemic. As stay-at-home restrictions have lifted and retail stores have reopened, those volumes have tapered slightly, but are still 50 percent above eFulfillment’s year-over-year average.

The uptick in business hasn’t been without challenges. To keep up with increased order volume, eFulfillment had to hire 20 new staff in the middle of the pandemic. The business — and the rest of the e-commerce industry with it — also faced difficulties restocking inventory as demand spiked, and factories around the world halted operations.

Bulger is hopeful that, having navigated the first wave of COVID-19 successful, eFulfillment Service, and the e-commerce industry as a whole, will be well-prepared in the event of a second wave. The company has focused on perfecting its safety protocols, splitting its nearly 100-person warehouse team into two shifts to allow for better social distancing. As for the rest of the industry, there’s a new trend of diversification throughout the e-supply chain that could make a big difference going forward.

“What we've been hearing is that a lot of e-commerce sellers are looking to expand the number of manufacturers that they're using, or the locations they're sourcing from,” Bulger explains. “Nobody wants to get caught not being able to restock their inventory again.”

Diversification is also part of the strategy for Short’s Brewing Company. According to CEO Scott Newman-Bale, the Bellaire-based craft brewery has been able to weather the pandemic due in large part to a beer delivery service that it launched in March, both in Northern Michigan and in Metro Detroit.

Between the popularity of the delivery service, solid curbside sales at the Short’s pub during the shutdown, and a “stronger than anticipated” bounce-back for restaurant and bar accounts, Newman-Bale says revenue figures for Short’s for 2020 are in good shape. In Michigan, the brewery’s numbers are “up double digits in June and positive for the whole year.”

Short’s is now looking at ways to keep beer delivery around for customers who want it without cutting out key supply chain partners like distributors and retail stores.

Short’s also recently announced that it had acquired the full beer brand portfolio of Arcadia Brewing Company. Founded in 1996 in Battle Creek, Arcadia was one of Michigan’s first craft breweries and was known for beers like Whitsun, a wheat beer brewed with coriander, orange peel, and honey; or Jaw-Jacker, a seasonal pumpkin beer. Short’s has begun bringing Arcadia’s beers back to the market, starting this month with Whitsun — a strategy Newman-Bale says is motivated by the pandemic.

“There's been a trend in craft beer [during the pandemic] of people going back to brands that they know,” he says. “We know that a lot of people have good memories of Whitsun, so the deal made a lot of sense.” 

A different kind of pivot is underway at Windemuller, a contractor that provides electrical and communications services. In response to COVID-19, the business is offering what it calls “elevated skin-temperature-monitoring solutions” to help businesses screen employee or visitor temperatures.

While temperature screenings have become somewhat common at businesses since the pandemic started, those efforts thus far have been mostly manual. Windemuller’s system utilizes thermal cameras that can automate these temperature scans and reduce exposure risk for the workers taking temperatures. The camera systems can also enforce masking policies, by detecting whether or not someone is wearing a face mask.

“We’ve had a pretty robust response so far, as far as interest goes,” Technology Manager Homer Campbell says. He adds that manufacturers, hospitals, doctor offices, colleges, and schools have been particularly drawn to the technology.

Several manufacturers in the region have also changed course to do their part in fighting the pandemic. One of those companies, Petoskey Plastics, made the jump back in March to start manufacturing non-surgical isolation gowns for healthcare workers and patients. While Petoskey Plastics has traditionally done a bit of work in the medical sector — manufacturing biohazard medical bags for hospitals, laboratories, dental offices, veterinary offices, and other healthcare settings — the company does most of its business in other industry segments, including automotive, retail, and construction.

When COVID-19 hit, those market segments started to dry up — particularly automotive. Petoskey Plastics makes a significant percentage of its revenue by manufacturing vehicle protection products for auto service providers and automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), but with COVID-19 shutting down auto factories across the country in March and April, much of that revenue segment vanished overnight.

Faced with having to shut down key operations and lay off hundreds of staff members, Petoskey Plastics changed course and repurposed some of the production lines making automotive products to start making hospital gowns. The pivot — which ultimately landed Petoskey Plastics contracts with dozens of hospitals, including neighbor McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital, in Petoskey, saved the company from having to furlough employees and even allowed for the payout of worker-appreciation bonuses. Going forward, Petoskey Plastics is making hospital gowns a permanent part of its manufacturing portfolio.

While many businesses have pivoted to better serve the needs created by the pandemic, HealthBridge Financial has been “right in the middle” of the crisis since the beginning, according to COO Amy Chambers. HealthBridge is a Grand Rapids-based startup with a Traverse City office. The company’s platform offers a financial security safety net for members of high-deductible health insurance plans offered by their employers. Organizations can offer HealthBridge alongside their existing health plans as a way of helping plan members with potentially unaffordable deductible payments. When a member makes a claim, HealthBridge covers deductibles, copays, and other expenses, consolidating them into one monthly installment plan, much like a credit card would work. 

HealthBridge launched its service on a pilot basis last year and is now expanding its reach.

“There is a national conversation going on right now about healthcare reform, affordability, and access,” Chamber says. “COVID was one part healthcare crisis, but it was also one part financial crisis. Ninety percent of all Americans have said that COVID was causing financial stress and that paying for healthcare was among their top concerns. As a result, we are more certain now about the HealthBridge thesis than ever before. Guaranteed access to financial resources is going to be critical if we want insured individuals to access the right care at the right time.”

Retailers have been right in the thick of the pandemic too, serving the needs of customers directly – and interfacing with the general public at a time when doing so might put any and all parties at risk. Harbor Retail, which is based in Grand Haven but operates a second manufacturing facility in Charlevoix, has been helping retail businesses build new safety protocols into their store designs. The company specializes in retail design, working with brands like Best Buy, Target, and Nordstrom to cultivate their store experiences, integrate technology, design custom fixtures for displays, and more. During COVID, they've pivoted to manufacturing plexiglass shields, sanitation wipe stations, and other retail solutions that can “encourage confidence from customers and clients post-crisis, to spur positive economic activity.” Harbor Retail is also now offering modular pop-up room systems aimed at disaster response and recovery.

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