Proos Manufacturing tests its mettle

Local company shifts to developing material handling solutions for e-commerce distribution centers.
Proos specializes in gravity chute systems, fully engineering shelving and workstations for the material handling market. Courtesy Proos Manufacturing

Proos Manufacturing has come a long way from its roots as a cookie die and casket hardware maker.

The 101-year-old Grand Rapids company that was owned by the Proos family for three generations is entering a new phase of late, with its first non-family owner and a new set of priorities.

Bryan Howard in 2018 bought Proos Manufacturing from Amy Proos, granddaughter of founder Neal Proos, after working with her for a half-dozen years as a management consultant, then as general manager and later president and CEO of the company.

Under the past two years of Howard’s executive leadership, Proos doubled its revenue and nearly doubled its employee base from 75 to 80 workers in 2018 to 140 to 150 team members in 2020.

Howard said the company today is continuing to lean into its founding values of creativity, determination and grit. It’s also following a familiar sequence of innovation and adaptation to market demands.

As the consumer economy has shifted heavily toward e-commerce during the past few years, Proos seized an opportunity to engineer and build material handling solutions for warehouse distribution centers that serve retail giants like Amazon, Walmart, Target and more.

As Proos says on its website, “after nearly a century of playing by the rules, customers now hire us to break them.”

Neal Proos perhaps could not have imagined his small, scrappy business surviving so long and achieving what it has today. In post-war 1919, he started the company as an “inventor, thinker, tinkerer and entrepreneur,” Howard said, making cookie die stamps and selling them door to door in a kit with pastry bags and a cookbook.

During the Spanish flu that swept the country from 1918-20, undertakers, grave diggers and casket makers could not keep up with demand during a stretch of mass mortality for which America was deeply unprepared.

Neal Proos during that period branched out into making casket hardware using a vertically integrated system of stamping, plating and selling the end product to manufacturers across the U.S.

A hard worker, he went on to live through the Great Depression, World War II, the death of his wife in childbirth, his company’s first building burning to the ground and other hardships. When he contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease, his children stepped in to help with the business.

They loved to fish and shifted the company’s focus to producing downriggers for Great Lakes fishing boats.

“They did that for quite some time,” Howard said. “We still get calls now and then (about it), but that business unit has long since been sold off.”

Eventually, Neal Proos’s youngest son, Jack, bought his brothers out and steered the company toward the automotive supply business, making components for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). For many years, Proos continued to be primarily a stamping company making parts for the auto industry.

Amy Proos got involved at Proos in the ’80s while she was in college. In 2010, she completed purchasing the company, began expanding sheet metal operations, bought a laser cutter and began getting into metal forming, welding and fabrication — opening a fabrication division in 2011 — as well as diversifying into electrical component assemblies, complex metal assemblies and more.

Howard said the growth the company experienced in the past decade was mostly organic.

“Most of those new opportunities came to Proos by word of mouth, by a good reputation in West Michigan, but never really by creating a strategy to go out and grow the business,” he said.

When he and Amy began collaborating about six years ago, they began evaluating the customer base and comparing it to market opportunities. As he grew in his leadership, Howard decided to develop a “key account strategy” in which Proos could go deep and wide with customers and add value in the fast-growing space of material handling. Amy Proos continues to serve the company in an advisory role.

“We started doing some things initially to prepare the business for growth. We focused a ton on culture. We had a very strong stance that attitude, energy and effort were all that mattered. And if you needed to be taught a skill, we would teach you a skill, but you had to meet certain criteria for attitude, energy and effort. That became the mantra for that first year of transition,” he said.

The company at that time invested in a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for inventory management; hired more sales staff and developed a sales strategy around the type of equipment that goes inside distribution centers and e-commerce facilities; and three years ago enlarged its engineering team from one to two employees to 10 to 12.

“There are so many folks out there that cut and form metal that we needed to make an emphasis on engineering to create solutions versus just provide components,” Howard said.

“(We) joke sometimes that we’re turning into an engineering firm that happens to manufacture instead of a manufacturing company that can also provide engineering. We really want to try and flip that script to be, ‘That’s what we’re about is we can give you a solution from cradle to grave’ and also create a serialized manufacturing plan, as well.

“… We say give us your problem and we will design a full solution, whether that includes plastic components, metal components, electrical components, and then we will develop a manufacturing strategy — and by the way, we can handle the metal portion of it, and then we will design that in such a way that it’s manufacturable for high- to medium-volume manufacturing — and that’s where I think we set ourselves apart a little bit.”

Proos is still doing some industrial and office furniture supply work but now is mostly targeting the material handling market for growth. Its current business units are a stamping group, wire harness assembly group and fabrication group. Proos specializes in gravity chute systems, fully engineered shelving and workstations for the material handling market.

Howard said, like nearly all manufacturers, Proos was hit hard by COVID-19. The company had to lay off employees but was able to bring most of them back after it restarted, and operations are now back up to full capacity.

On the other hand, he said he believes the pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce, which in the end, benefits Proos.

He said the pandemic also gave Proos’s team a chance to shine.

“We don’t have a culture of ‘That’s not my job,’ or ‘We’ve tried that before’ or ‘This is how it’s always been.’” Howard said. “We have a very vibrant culture that’s open to change. And so, as COVID was taking its toll, we had people in our purchasing group that were like, ‘Hey, in a former life, I drove a forklift, and we’re down all of our material handlers, so I’ll go drive a forklift today. I’ll be a material handler.’ We had folks in our engineering and estimating group that 20 years ago ran a press brake forming metal parts. So they were like, ‘I could probably dust off my gloves and go down there and run a press brake for the next two weeks, because this is what we need to do to further Proos.’

“Our mantra is, how do we further Proos every day when we walk in the door? … It became a bit of a galvanizing time for us, even though it was very hard and very challenging.”

Howard said Proos plans to stick with its material handling emphasis for the foreseeable future.

“I think we’re just now scratching the surface. It’s such a big market, and it’s growing at such a rapid pace and changing so much every day, that I think there’s a lot there for us to still pioneer and figure out within that space.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of growth.”

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