Sparks Belting, a local manufacturer, fabricator and distributor of small- and large-scale conveying solutions, is celebrating 75 years in business and its recent move to a new corporate office and national manufacturing center.
The Grand Rapids company — which has been part of Grand Haven-based JSJ Corporation since 1982 —consolidated its operations from two smaller plants in Spring Lake and Grand Rapids into a 105,000-square-foot national manufacturing plant at 5005 Kraft Ave. SE in Cascade Township that will allow the company to increase production and expand its workforce by about 15 to 25 employees over the next 12 to 24 months to meet increased customer demand. Sparks currently has 160 employees across 10 locations in the U.S. and Mexico, with about half of those located at the new Grand Rapids headquarters.
Production at the new plant began in May, and Sparks Belting held an open house there on Aug. 6 in recognition of its 75th anniversary and expansion.
“While many organizations are still feeling the impact of the pandemic to their business, we are fortunate to have been able to bounce back better than ever during this momentous year for our company,” said Mitch Mittlestadt, president of Sparks Belting for the past four years.
He said he is thankful that Sparks had already gone through some maturing pains and buttoned things down a few years prior to COVID-19, which made it lean enough to withstand tough times. Although sales decreased by double-digits overnight, and Sparks had to furlough employees, there were no layoffs, and the company is back to the sales numbers it had two years ago. He also believes the team grew closer and communication improved, as management prioritized putting people and safety first.
That’s not to say it is past all challenges, as like all other manufacturers, Sparks has seen supply chain slowdowns and the talent shortage impact its ability to fulfill orders. But Mittlestadt said he believes Sparks will weather these setbacks.
“We’ve been able to navigate changing market conditions over many decades by adapting to the needs of our customers, (and) this innovative mindset is what will launch us into our next 75 years,” he said.
Sparks is known for its customized belting solutions, often serving small customers with one belt at a time, Mittlestadt said. However, the company’s move to the larger facility and investment in new equipment will allow Sparks to increase its high-volume production capabilities, serving more large, multinational companies in its core markets of logistics and distribution, building products, food processing and general manufacturing.
“We have reinvented the way we look at client relationships, transitioning to a more partner-centric position,” Mittlestadt said. “Not only are we a product provider, but we also come alongside our clients with service, technology and technical application expertise.”
Although Mittlestadt said Sparks is not able to disclose many of its specific customers’ names, the company produces conveyor belts and motorized pulleys for Dematic — one of its largest customers that also is based in Grand Rapids.
Sparks also serves food processing companies that make snacks, candy, bread, rolls, cookies and more; as well as heavy duty steel plants; recycling facilities; consumer self-care products providers; paper goods producers; roofing and insulation makers; the meat and fishing industries; and many more.
“We’re the behind-the-scenes people who make the conveyor belt, but everything has to touch the conveyor belt on its journey to the marketplace,” Mittlestadt said.
“Think of salmon. They’re caught in the ocean. They’ve got conveyor belts in the bottom of these boats, these ships, (on which) they process all the fish. It goes through conveyor belts. It goes into packaging, and when they get back to shore, all of that’s packaged on ice and ready to be shipped to the supermarkets.”
He added Sparks provides engineering solutions for tricky problems by listening to the customer with an open mind and curiosity about their challenges. Some plants need belts that are only 1-inch-by-1-foot, while others have ordered conveyors that are 10 feet wide, 250 feet long and 800 pounds and take two or three weeks to make.
For one of its large, well-known food processing customers, Sparks created a new line of belting from a custom material that can withstand the high temperatures of ovens as cookies pass through them during the baking process. Its previous belts were breaking, leading to a lot of down time and additional cost.
“(We) saved them time, saved them money, it was a better product, and it lasted longer,” Mittlestadt said. “When we show up to our customers, those are the types of things we’re trying to solve. We don’t just want to sell them a product. We want to sell them a solution that helps them take cost out of their production process.”
In another case, Mittlestadt visited a tortilla manufacturing plant in New York that was in a tall building — three stories high — but it was small and narrow, so its conveyor systems had to be vertical rather than horizontal. Sparks was able to provide two belts that were installed back-to-back that gripped the tortillas and zipped them up two stories and across the length of the plant to be packaged and shipped.
“Every single day, we’re dealing with very different applications. You wouldn’t think conveyor belting would be that exciting, but at times it really is,” he said. “If you love the show, ‘How Things Are Made,’ that’s literally what we deal with every single day. We learn how things are made and then we provide value back to our customers on, ‘Hey, we think we can help you make that better, faster, less expensive, make it last longer, or anything else that we can do to help.’ … When customers call us or we go visit the plant, because we’ve been around so long, we are really good at diagnosing the issue or the challenges and coming up with innovative solutions.”
As part of its expansion, the company is investing in key markets throughout the U.S. and Mexico and shifting inventory and services to areas of higher customer demand.
“Sparks Belting truly exemplifies what it means to be a JSJ business,” said Nelson Jacobson, CEO of JSJ Corporation. “For 75 years, Sparks has demonstrated a commitment to excellence, a passion for innovation and client service, and an adherence to the JSJ values: earn trust, learn by doing, work together, steward our legacy. The fact that the team at Sparks not only weathered the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to drive the business forward and set a standard of excellence for the industry is a testament to their skill, creativity and drive.”
Mittlestadt added: “We take ‘steward our legacy’ very seriously. Being around 75 years, it’s critical that all of us learn from the past, then let that help build our future. … We want to leave the company, the community and the world in a better place than where we found it.”
More information about Sparks Belting’s history is at sparksbelting.com/about.