Trace Keeps Things Moving

GRAND RAPIDS — One of biology’s more intriguing aspects is how, as cells divide, they start differentiating somewhere along the way, some becoming muscle, some bone, and so forth.

Something akin to that seems to have happened with an older Grand Rapids family firm — Holland American Wafer — that has spun off not a clone, but an entirely different operation, which seems on the brink of doing something of the sort itself.

The spin-off is Trace Warehousing, a 2-year-old company. The firm’s president is Stuart Vander Heide, the CEO of Holland American. His son, Paul, is the general manager of Trace. 

As its name indicates, the younger Vander Heide says, Trace Warehousing operates warehouses — two of them. One is a 180,000-square-foot facility at 7458 Expressway Drive, off U.S. 131 at the southern edge of town.

The other is an 85,000-square-foot portion of the Union Station, at 1100 Hynes Ave. Vander Heide said the firm wanted the site because of its proximity to rail, which is critical to serving a printing client.

But Vander Heide told the Business Journal that neither warehouse actually is a storage unit in the sense that the term warehousing traditionally implies.

Rather, he said, in the age of just-in-time delivery, what his company offers is what one might call a Web-based, vendor-managed inventory system. And it’s in operation on a 24/7 basis.

Vander Heide said that each client can manage its own inventory to the degree it desires via Trace’s Internet management software system.

He explained that, in a nutshell, a Trace client can access its own secure inventory account on the Internet.

Thanks to a running data base that Trace establishes via bar code when a load of product arrives at either of the warehouses, the client is able to determine exactly what lots of which products are in which warehouse.

Vander Heide said the client then can signal, via e-mail, that it wants Trace to drop, say, Lots No. 11 through 54 of its widgets on the loading dock for pick-up at Oh Dark Thirty sharp in the morning.

“We have it there for the client to make the pick-up,” Vander Heide. “Or, if the vendor wants, we can shuttle it for them.”

He said Trace’s shuttle service pretty much operates in the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland triangle, but the firm’s client service area extends beyond Chicago.

If it happens that a client sends an order for product to be on the dock, and Trace’s staff happens to be tied up in an operation when the message arrives, Vander Heide says the word gets through to the right people anyway.

“If somebody’s not at the computer,” he said, “they get the message immediately on their beepers. That way, they can have the order immediately available.”

It’s a system that Vander Heide said is highly responsive to the client. But, he added, it didn’t get that way overnight.

“This evolved over a period of 15 years or so.”

He said Holland American — an 80-year-old company headquartered at 3300 Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Drive — developed the system in working with its own products.

He explained that owing to poor shelf life, food products — whether they be cereals or snack products such as granola bars — usually must cycle through a distribution site quickly and in very large lots, and always on a first-in, first-out basis.

In itself, that means knowing the full inventory and its disposition at all times.

In fact, the necessity for efficient and high-speed inventory movement at Holland American is what ultimately gave rise to Trace.

Currently, Vander Heide said Trace Warehousing primarily handles Holland American food, plus automotive products and printed material. It also has begun consulting with firms that are finding inventory management beyond the capacities of older generations of software. “And inventory management is more important now than ever,” he added.

He said the company’s software and Web-based management system is effective.

“But it also relies on some very qualified people,” he added. “They’ve got to be very computer and scanner-savvy.”

He said the Union Station crew consists of one technical person and four people on each shift. The staff at the Expressway Drive warehouse ranges from 40 to 50 people.

He said Trace is so happy with its warehousing management system that it’s now deliberating whether to license it for sale to other firms that find true inventory management to be a challenge.

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