Last Ladder Standing

In the early 1900s, Michigan was leading the country in automotive manufacturing - we all know this. But what you might not know is that at about the same time, Michigan was also leading the country in ladder manufacturing. And, in fact, still is.

Yes, ladders. With such a common, everyday item as a ladder we sometimes forget that these things don't simply just exist, that they are manufactured somewhere by someone and that even they have their own unique story to tell.

Lest you think local business development is a recent trend, the story of the Michigan Ladder Company is the perfect example of a community investment that has paid long and large dividends to future generations. In 1901, a patch of farmland in Ypsilanti was donated to the company by the city with the condition that they would employ ten men for three years (yes, the verbiage was specifically "men"; this was 1901 after all), part of the city's move to try to drive businesses to the community.

"We've been making ladders in this state longer than we've been making cars!" laughs CEO Tom Harrison, an instantly-likeable kind of guy with a gracious sense of humor.

And so Melvin Lewis, A.G. Houston and Edgar S. Geer started Michigan Ladder Company, later selling it off in the 1920s to the Nissly family, who have owned it ever since. Arthur Nissly became the company's second president in 1929, followed by Rob Nissly in 1967. In 110 years, the company has only had four presidents. Harrison, who has been with the company for seven years now, is the fourth and is in the process of purchasing the business from the Nissly family.

Over those 110 years, Michigan Ladder has stayed in the same location and even still uses the original buildings ("the barns"). Their products are almost exclusively for the commercial industrial market, making ladders for electricians, fire departments, even the military, with less than 5% of sales coming from the state of Michigan. They are the oldest ladder manufacturing company in the country, and still make wood ladders the same way they did over a century ago.

That's one of those "the more things change..." kind of deals. While 110 years of technological advances in the manufacturing sphere have certainly brought with them significant changes - fiberglass and aluminum ladders didn't even exist when the company was founded - the process of manufacturing a wood ladder, which Harrison points out is more like making furniture than it is assembly line "manufacturing," remains timeless.

Which isn't to say that Michigan Ladder Company hasn't changed with the times. Currently they distribute fiberglass and aluminum ladders made by other vendors, but are in the process of expanding their manufacturing operations, purchasing machinery and equipment and remodeling the plant to enable them to assemble fiberglass products on-site. This may sound mundane to anyone outside their business sphere but consider this: after these renovations are made, they will be the only manufacturer of fiberglass ladders in the United States.

"So often, when you talk about globalization and 'global economy' people think that means jobs leaving the country, but sometimes that means bringing jobs here," Harrison says. "This will bring more jobs to this area. It's not always bad news when people talk about the global economy. We've never had these jobs in this country before; they weren't here and then left, [they were never here]."

Amidst the gloom and doom talk of the decline of American manufacturing centers and job outsourcing, this is certainly a glimmer of good news.

The Michigan Ladder Company has also worked hard to establish business relationships and create products that have kept them at the top of their field. Over the years they've made furniture and work benches, but the product they were once most famous for (aside from ladders) was a line of ping pong tables called the "Detroiter." That division has since been sold off, but in its day these tables were used all over the world. Remember the ping pong tournament scene in the movie Forrest Gump? All of those tables were "Detroiters."

Most recently Michigan Ladder partnered with Victoria's Secret on their 2010 holiday display windows. The company shipped thousands of wood ladders to be used in the elaborate holiday visual displays for the company's PINK brand. The holiday windows for a $5.6 billion company like Victoria's Secret are no joke (corporate visual teams start planning the design elements of next year's holiday display immediately after the end of the previous holiday season), especially since the retailer has over 1,000 stores nationwide. To borrow the lingerie company's own branding motto, "What is sexy?" Well, apparently...  ladders.

Harrison credits successes such as that to a loyal and innovative company team. "It's a perfect example of the extra effort these people put forth because it was an enormous project; these people worked overtime, weekends, whatever they needed to do, and in the end [the ladders were] delivered on time and were perfect and [the people at Victoria's Secret] were thrilled."

In fact, Harrison quickly credits the employees at Michigan Ladder for the company's impressive longevity, even in the midst of Michigan's faltering economy and the decline of the manufacturing industry across the country. "We've downsized just like everyone," Harrison admits, "but we remained profitable during the downturn. We just have a phenomenal group of people... we run this place like a family, treat [the people here] like family, treat them with respect and as a result we have phenomenal people. They genuinely care about the company."

Yes, the more things change the more they stay the same. One thing that has not changed in the world of business and manufacturing is that good business is all about forming good relationships.

"There's a lot of companies run by a lot of people a whole lot smarter than us," Harrison says of the company's long term success. "I honestly think we have a good solid work ethic and have people that care. I would love to think all of our customers do business with us because of the people we have here. Our success in this company is as much about the people here as anything else."

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com She's also a regular contributor to Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos

Tom Harrison in the Michigan Ladder Company barns

The assembly line

Tom in his Michigan Ladder Company office

Scott Bruneau cutting wood on the assembly line

Tom in a maze of ladders

Donald Kenworthy assembling ladders

Tom with a Michigan Ladder Company trailer.

Contact Doug here


Signup for Email Alerts