It was a chance encounter more than 50 years ago that led to the founding of coating application company DECC.
The Mellema brothers were both operating independent businesses — Everett Mellema ran a bicycle shop and Donald Mellema ran a heating company — when their next-door neighbor asked for their help in solving a problem for Grand Rapids-headquartered jukebox manufacturer Rowe Industries.
“They were having field failures,” said Fred Mellema, DECC’s president and second-generation owner. “You put your dime in and you pick B2 or B8, or whatever your choice, and it selects a little pin. Well, that would stick.”
He said the reason was that lint from people’s pockets was sticking to the pins, which had a wet lubricant on them.
“My father and his brother applied this nonstick coating, and it worked,” Mellema said. “They didn’t have any more field failures because the lint would not stick to a dry film lubrication.”
After solving the issue for Rowe Industries, the brothers turned to the auto industry, opening DECC in 1965. For 30 years, the company served the auto industry exclusively with its coating applications.
Today, Fred Mellema runs the business, having purchased the company from his father and uncle in 2004. He said the company now has expanded to include additional industries. The client breakdown is approximately 30 percent auto, 50 percent diesel, 15 percent military and 5 percent miscellaneous.
Ten years in as the company’s owner and celebrating the business’s 50th anniversary, things couldn’t be better, Mellema said. DECC is poised to top the $9 million mark, the highest earnings in its history. Forty percent of sales are from Michigan-based companies.
The company has added more than 30 jobs to the West Michigan community during the past three years.
“Knowing that it is an accomplishment for a small business to make it even a decade these days, I couldn’t be more proud of reaching this milestone as a company,” Mellema said.
In addition to the impact of the rebounding auto industry and regulation changes concerning fuel efficiency and cleaner burning vehicles, Mellema noted a few other reasons he thinks the company is doing so well and has survived when others haven’t. They involve company culture, an investment in systems and valuing relationships.
Mellema said when he purchased the business, there were at least six software systems being used within the company.
“Nothing talked to each other,” he said. “I knew that was frustrating so I wanted to simplify that.”
So Mellema worked with Plex Systems, an Auburn Hills-based company, to develop a software system that better fit the company’s needs. DECC invested $400,000 in the new software.
“By 2006, we implemented Plex software, and it’s been a robust system for us and very helpful,” he said.
He noted having a single software system instead of six different systems has added consistency to the company, a key to enhancing overall quality in product and experience for customers. He credits the software with helping the company attract some of its largest customers.
Quality is also the driving force behind Mellema’s mission to put a great team together. He said he wants to create an environment where employees want to come to work and will stick around year after year, which in turn helps the company.
“I think there is a different focus with the younger workers,” he said. “Where I thought 401(k) was the most important thing, I’m finding out it’s not. That’s what I’ve learned — it’s more about day-to-day.”
Earlier this year, Mellema instituted a $10 starting wage following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address calling for an increased minimum wage.
“I talked to the managers and we sat down and said, ‘Yeah, it’s the right thing to do’ — trying to have a working wage — because we understand it’s tough out there.”
The company also offers a competitive benefits package.
“It comes down to, I want consistency so I need a consistent workforce,” Mellema said. “I want somebody that shows up.
“What we knew from the beginning is, I can have robots, the best automatic equipment and the best software, but without the best employees, it doesn’t matter.”
DECC hires full-time employees through a temp agency following a 90-day period. The living wage is one more thing helping the company to attract employees.
“We know through the agency there is a list to work at the DECC company,” he said.
The company also is focused on giving back. It’s had a 40-year relationship with Hope Network and recently made a three-year commitment to Habitat for Humanity.
Hope Network is a local nonprofit that provides employment for adults with developmental disorders, disabilities or other disadvantages. Mellema said the relationship started when a family friend was looking for a job opportunity to get his disabled son out of the house for a few hours each day.
“They found him a fit — racking; he was phenomenal at it,” Mellema said. “At that point we had college kids that were racking and it was very monotonous for them, but for Bill it was challenging and he loved doing the same thing day in and day out. He was a fantastic racker. So the relationship blossomed from that point. We ended up becoming board members at Hope Network, and we just kept that partnership.”
The company also tries to be transparent, letting workers in on many facets of the business that typically aren’t shared with production workers.
“It’s a culture here,” said Mike Michalakof DECC’s sales and marketing department. “It’s always open door. You can know anything you want to know, you just have to ask. It’s treating people on the floor with the same respect as the people in the front office, and that is not like it’s been other places I’ve worked. I think that separates this place from other places and makes people want to come to work.”
Mellema said he knows relationships have become the most important piece of the puzzle in the last 15 years, and that is what his company is focused on, both internally and externally.
It’s paying off. In the past decade, DECC has received numerous manufacturing-related awards and made the Inc. 5000 List of America’s Fastest Growing Private Companies on three occasions, the most recent being last year.
“Our vision is to be the most sought-after coating company in North America, and you don’t get there by being like everyone else,” Mellema said.