Inside Track: Grumm’s vision takes off during pandemic

Founder, CEO and engineer at Oktober Can Seamers helps accommodate surge in to-go alcohol sales.
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Dennis Grumm knew while he was a student at Michigan Tech he would someday start his own business. Courtesy Oktober Can Seamers

Growing up with a father and grandfather who were mechanical engineers for the aerospace industry, Dennis Grumm has always had an interest in design and engineering — but his passion led him to a different application.

Armed with more knowledge than most about the field due to his family connection, Grumm attended Michigan Technological University in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula — a place he described as “a whole other planet” than Michigan’s Lower Peninsula — graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2005.

“I grew up thinking engineering was a cool thing to do, and I guess I had more knowledge of it than a lot of people,” he said. “If you never have any exposure to it, you might not even know you’re interested in it.”

Grumm, whose family has German heritage, also spent a lot of time in Germany in his youth, referring to it as his “headquarters,” and so he decided to minor in German — a language he has used several times in his career, dealing with manufacturing customers and attending trade shows in Germany.

His Michigan Tech degree stood him in good stead when it was time to job-hunt, he said, as most manufacturers respect that institution and are eager to hire its engineering graduates.

DENNIS GRUMM
Organization:
Oktober Can Seamers
Position: Founder, CEO and engineer
Age: 39
Birthplace: Shelby
Residence: Grand Rapids
Biggest Career Break: Landing his first job as an engineer at the Spring Lake-based Campbell Grinder Company in 2006, where he had the opportunity to work on high-profile projects and take on a lot of responsibility for a 24-year-old.

Grumm’s first job out of college was at the Spring Lake-based Campbell Grinder Company, which makes high-precision grinding machines for the aerospace industry.

“One of the ways I’ve described that (company) is they’re the business that made the machine that made the lens in the Hubble telescope,” Grumm said. “It’s a pretty high-tech place, and it was all one-off projects. The machines were always custom … so everything we worked on was a new problem we had to solve.

“I really got thrown into the fire and had to figure things out and learn pretty quickly.”

During his decade there, despite his youth, Grumm rose through the ranks and ultimately became the research and development group lead, working on high-profile projects for Campbell.

“I was responsible for the complete ground-up design and development of high-precision CNC grinding systems used primarily in the aerospace industry,” he said. “My interest in improved performance and marketability led the company’s modernization and growth in technology, including implementation of many new methods and techniques in the design and production of large, dynamic machines capable of complex 3D surface generation in the 1-micrometers tolerance regime. 

“My emphasis on modularization (benefited) the quality, performance, cost, lead times and even appearance of all Campbell grinding systems produced today.”

As he was building his skills, Grumm dreamed of starting his own business one day.

The impetus for his company, Oktober Can Seamers, came in 2014 as Grumm was spending a lot of time in breweries and around home brewers and learning there weren’t a lot of great options for small operations when it came to canning their beverages. Most canneries only will do production on large batches, and bottling can be a pain with the constant need to wash and sterilize.

“I always knew at some point I’d probably start my own company,” Grumm said. “Even when I was going to Michigan Tech, I was already drawing up plans for doing my own thing, just because I always wanted to be in control of my own design projects. I’d been writing down ideas for years, and the can seamer was the first idea that clearly had some customers and there was a market for it.”

Grumm said his idea for the machine was so simple that it didn’t require a huge, up-front monetary investment. He and his business partner, Clint LeaTrea, a childhood friend and fellow Michigan Tech alum, started the company together out of a basement, with no website, and first started selling the invention in 2016. Grumm did the engineering, and LeaTrea wrangled the purchasing and sourcing — roles they continue in today.

Oktober Can Seamers’ flagship product is a hand-operated machine that costs $2,500 and cans one beer — or wine, cider, seltzer, kombucha or wellness drink— at a time. The co-founders source all of their parts locally, leaning on the manufacturing base that already exists in West Michigan.

At first, during the development phase, Grumm continued working full time at Campbell, but it quickly became apparent the business had traction and demanded his undivided attention, so he quit his job and dove in headfirst.

Grumm said he has enjoyed working with customers in the beverage industry, whom he described as a laid-back and collaborative bunch who know a lot about hard work and entrepreneurship.

“Beer City USA” is what gave Oktober Can Seamers its initial business, but the company now has customers around the world, anywhere there’s a concentrated beverage industry, doing direct-to-customer e-commerce and working with international reseller partners.

Although he certainly listened to his customers when developing the product, Grumm said he has enjoyed steering the ship and he and his team having the ultimate say in what the can seamer looks like and how it works.

“(I) definitely enjoy the freedom to make decisions for better or worse,” Grumm said. “If something goes wrong, I don’t have to be annoyed with somebody else about it — at the end of the day, it’s on me. And if something goes right, it’s on me, or on us.”

The company’s headquarters and production are based at 5 Colfax St. NE in Grand Rapids, with another location in Sparks, Nevada, and 16 employees overall.

Oktober Can Seamers currently offers various models of its flagship product, as well as replacement parts and instructions for those to be swapped out with simple hand tools if they wear out. The company also sells cans by the pallet as a service for its clients, since cans usually come by the truckload, which isn’t ideal for small-batch production.

Grumm recently hired more engineers who are working on building more complex machines that can do larger-scale projects, so Oktober Can Seamers can grow with its customers.

While many companies struggled when the pandemic hit, Grumm said it was the opposite for Oktober Can Seamers. As restaurants, bars and breweries were required to shut down unless they could offer to-go food and beverages, suddenly, more businesses needed to be able to can drinks.

“Our machine cans (drinks) to-go, right off the taps. Instead of us shutting down, it was the opposite: Our sales went through the roof for the whole year, basically trying to keep all these breweries from having to close their doors,” he said. “It was madness in 2020.”

The busyness has continued in 2021, with sales far higher than they were in 2019.

Grumm takes his inspiration not only from his dad and granddad — who are both retired but still offer consulting services and occasional advice — but from all the designers, entrepreneurs and engineers in history whose inventions and leadership have powered the world.

Although Oktober Can Seamers has been in business for only five years, Grumm said he still is having fun.

“I’m very proud to have built my business from scratch, with manageable and steady growth over the past five years,” he said. “We currently have two published patents for our products.

“It’s kind of fun to think back on how we started off. If somebody showed me our business right now, I would say, ‘Wow, that looks like a really complicated thing to have done.’ … Step by step, it just kind of grew. Something that I think of is, if you want to do something, you’ve got to just start doing it and see how it grows.”

He said his advice to other startups is that doing everything yourself only takes a business so far. Over time, he added social media coordinators, bookkeepers, accountants and a business-savvy bench of talent, including a team of engineers, marketing and customer relations professionals, manufacturing technicians, and e-commerce and shipping/receiving experts.

“Eventually, (our business) got to the point where we knew word of mouth wasn’t getting out any faster, so then, we started adding some marketing and doing some social media stuff,” he said. 

“It was nice, steady growth, but it was good to have that time where it was just word of mouth so we could get our feet wet and learn how to build the machines fast enough, how to make sure that they worked and how to keep our customers happy without growing too fast.”

More about Oktober Can Seamers and Grumm’s story is at oktoberdesign.com.

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