Ann Kirkwood-Hall discovered a bounty of regional and state resources when she decided to make Bulman Products an export business. Photo by Jim Gebben
Ann Kirkwood-Hall and her company Bulman Products Inc. were honored in May with the West Michigan World Trade Association’s Trader of the Year award.
Skytron, GNS, Steelcase, SoundOff Signal, Meijer, X-Rite and Amway have received the recognition in previous years, putting Bulman in good company.
“It is a really nice honor,” Kirkwood-Hall said at the time. “We are joining the ranks of some pretty well known companies.”
Exporting is a relatively new venture for Bulman Products and for Kirkwood-Hall, who took over leadership of the company in 2012 after purchasing the business from her father-in-law, Jack Kirkwood, following the death several years earlier of her husband, Jim Kirkwood, who had planned to purchase and run the business.
Prior to the last three years, Bulman Products, which manufactures rolled paper dispensers for the school and art supply, industrial packaging, retail packaging and food service industries, sold its products almost exclusively in the United States and Canada through approximately 800 distributors.
But Kirkwood-Hall said inquiries began coming in from the European market, prompting her to start thinking about how to take advantage of the demand from companies outside of North America.
As she started her research, Kirkwood-Hall said she was quickly overwhelmed — but not by the prospect of exporting Bulman’s goods.
“I was overwhelmed with all the resources,” she said. “West Michigan and the state of Michigan have a lot of resources to help you with exporting. Gov. (Rick) Snyder really pushes for exports.”
Thankfully, she attended World Trade Week West Michigan in 2012 and heard speaker Dante Villarreal, director of the Small Business Development Center West Michigan Region at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business, say, “If you don’t know where to get started or who to talk to about this, contact us and we will help you get started.”
“I contacted Carolyn Rourke from the Michigan Small Business Development Center, and she came to meet with me,” Kirkwood-Hall said. “I told her where we were at and where I wanted to take us.”
Rourke gave her a list of contacts and helped set her on the path to building a strong exporting business.
“We did the Pure Michigan Economic Gardening program, and they helped us with keyword research for our website, with SEO (search engine optimization) analysis, and they did market research for us,” she said.
The company also received a Michigan Economic Development Corp. State Trade Export Grant, which allows it to receive up to $12,000 in reimbursements for export-related costs.
Today, the company is selling to distributors in the United Kingdom and is eyeing the Asian markets for potential growth.
Kirkwood-Hall said while the competition is actually stiffer in Europe, the company is doing well there because of its price point, which it can offer due to manufacturing “a simple paper cutter.”
“Theirs (overseas competition) looks to be over-engineered — there are a lot more parts, which is more money to produce,” she said.
She will participate in the MEDC’s state trade mission to China in August, where she hopes to be able to build up the business.
Bulman Products also has begun focusing on direct selling.
“Our successes (abroad) have come mostly from shipping direct to end-users,” she said.
As a result, the company launched a domestic e-commerce website in April and plans to add a global component by fall.
“It’s a newer thing for manufacturers to sell direct,” she said. “The Internet makes it so much easier.”
She said there are several advantages to selling direct, including getting a better idea of end-users and developing a case for why distributors should take on new products.
Kirkwood-Hall also recently completed an asset acquisition of Inovent LLC, a California company that halted production of its paper-cutter product in approximately 2010.
While plans have not been solidified, Kirkwood-Hall hopes to start producing the Inovent paper cutter, which will become a Bulman Products line, in 2016.
“They are made out of aluminum so we will have them produced by a local extrusion company, not us. But they will be made in Michigan or the United States,” she said. “We may be doing some of the assembly here.”
Having taken over the company only three years ago, and following such tragic circumstances, Kirkwood-Hall’s achievements are commendable. She doesn’t see her decision to purchase and run the business as courageous, however.
“It did change the life plan a lot,” she said.
She said her late husband had intended to purchase the business from his father and she was going to have a small role in it, handling HR and administrative functions on a part-time basis. But as she considered her future as a single parent and the flexibility she would need to be able to attend her son’s basketball games and other functions, she decided she wanted to purchase the company herself.
“I always hated to ask for time off or to say I needed to leave early,” she said. “So I wanted that flexibility.”
She also said she couldn’t accept the idea of someone else buying the company. She was particularly afraid that if someone else did buy Bulman Products, it might result in employees losing their jobs.
“I wanted it for those reasons — for myself and also for the employees here,” she said. “They are family to myself and to my late husband’s parents, Jack and Rita Kirkwood, and it was important to Jim, when he was alive, that the jobs stay here in West Michigan.”
Her father-in-law suggested she join the company and see if she liked the work before she made the purchase, so in 2009, she became customer service manager.
With a background in HR and having worked for several manufacturing companies, she said she caught on quickly, though she noted the first six months were the most challenging because she was going through the grieving process and adapting to life as a single parent.
“I had always worked for smaller companies — and usually in manufacturing — so I had that background, and when you work for a small company, you do a lot of everything,” she said.
When Kirkwood-Hall first joined Bulman, the company was beginning to feel the impacts of the recession, losing 25 percent of its sales in 2009.
That meant tightening the budget tremendously and presented Kirkwood-Hall with the difficult decision of cutting the company’s charitable contributions.
“Amy Proos, of Proos Manufacturing, gave me some of the best advice,” Kirkwood-Hall said.
“I was struggling with having to cut back on a lot of our large donations and I was going to have all this debt to finance the business, and she said, ‘The most important thing you can do for this community is make sure those jobs stay here — that is what you are giving to this community.’ That was helpful advice.”
Noting that losing her spouse was the worst experience of her life, Kirkwood-Hall said dealing with that loss has impacted her as a business owner, too.
“When you lose your spouse, you learn quickly that happiness is a choice,” she said. “I still chose that every day.
“That was the hardest thing I ever had to go through in my life. So when there are challenges at work, it makes them maybe not seem as difficult or as earth-shattering as some people might think they are, because nothing is as bad as that. It gives you a different perspective on things and what is important.”