Rebuilding From Batts

    ZEELAND — He’d already made the career jump from one industry to another, so Terry Gruppen knew he had the ability to learn the ins and outs of another business.

    The difference this time: He was jumping in as an owner, taking on the risk with the responsibility three and a half years ago when he bought the labeling and graphics division of the former Batts Inc.

    “To pick your path and put your plan in place and execute your plan has always been a large goal for me,” said Gruppen, owner and president of Artex Label and Graphics Inc., which will have a new home in 2003.

    Artex broke ground earlier this month on a new $1.2 million, 24,500-square-foot facility in Zeeland, replacing a cramped, aging and inefficient 17,000-square-foot plant that has housed the firm since it was a division of Batts. Occupancy in the new facility, located on Case Karsten Drive off of Riley Street in Zeeland, is scheduled for July 2003.

    The new facility stems from a need for additional production and warehousing capacity and to accommodate future growth, generate significant operating efficiencies, and enable the company to compete for larger projects, Gruppen said.

    “As we move forward, this is only going to strengthen our position. This is going to be a huge advantage for us,” he said.

    After initially experiencing a lean period following the loss of Artex’s largest client, Gruppen has the company growing. Artex will generate revenues of about $4.1 million in 2002, a significant rebound from the $2.9 million level of three years ago after the company lost its largest client when Bil Mar Foods discontinued the popular Mr. Turkey product line, which accounted for about $700,000 a year in revenue.

    “It was an anxious, anxious time to say the least,” Gruppen said during a ceremonial groundbreaking on Dec. 12. “But since then we’ve done well, we’ve worked hard and we’ve rallied.”

    Boosting prospects for 2003 is a $500,000 contract that Artex, which designs and produces labeling for a myriad of industries, recently landed.

    The 42-year-old Gruppen was a production manager at Batts, a maker of garment hangars, when speculation began in early 1999 that the company was for sale. He began examining the feasibility of buying the graphics and labeling division and made his move following the April 1999 announcement that Batts’ archrival, A&E Products, a holding of global conglomerate Tyco International, had bought the company — and promptly decided to close all of its operations in Zeeland.

    The success of Artex, said Zeeland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Query, “sends a wonderful message to our community” that took such a hard economic and emotional blow with the closure of Batts, a 94-year-old, family-owned company that was one of the area’s most venerable corporations.

    “This is an example of a situation where we had a potential disaster and we had some people who were willing and able to step in and say ‘we can do this,’ take it on and build in a few years a really viable business,” Query said. “They really started over. To be able to take the next step of building their own facility to better serve their customers in the future — to me, it’s just the best spirit of entrepreneurship you can ever see.

    “It builds a sense of hopefulness.”

    Gruppen had long considered the division a well-run operation that merely needed more focus and direction. After working in management positions in the food processing and plastic injection industries, he was prepared to learn another business and provide the graphics and labeling division with new focus.

    “You can learn anything if the desire is there,” Gruppen said. “I’m still learning and I’ll always be learning.”

    The acquisition saved 26 of the 539 jobs that A&E was eliminating by closing Batts. All of the Batts workers joined the newly named Artex, which has 30 part- and full-time employees.           

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