Driving west through the countryside on M-20 just outside of Mt. Pleasant, you’ll see all the familiar Michigan landmarks - trees, cows, farm fields - but turn down a couple gravel roads and you’ll come across the eighth largest employer in Isabella County; a woodchipper and waste processor manufacturer named Bandit Industries.
Bandit employs more than 460 people, and is planning on hiring 100 more between this year and next. While some companies with a “big and getting bigger” workforce might treat the people who work there as just another cog in the machine, that’s not how Bandit operates.
Starting Small, Growing Fast
Jerry Morey and Mike Morey Sr., started Bandit in 1983. “We had a lot of experience going into the formation of the company,” Morey says. “Mike had the manufacturing experience and I had finance, marketing, and sales experience. It was good partnership, and it allowed us to take off and get going.”
Although Bandit began with only a few employees, it grew rapidly, averaging a building expansion every two years since the start. They’ve also expanded their product line from simple brush chippers to whole tree chippers, to stump grinders, to recycling machines. Today, they sell those products in 56 different countries.
What made a fast growing company doing business around the world set up shop in Remus?
“Because we lived here,” Morey said with a laugh, “and we like this rural setting because we own property around here. We have a 220-acre proving ground where we set up, do demonstrations, and test all our products. Being out in the country has its advantages: we couldn’t do all this if we were in Detroit or even an industrial park in Mt. Pleasant.”
Some of those demonstrations will be happening on September 15 when Bandit hosts an Open House to celebrate its 35th anniversary.
“It’s open to the public, and we’re going to show all the products that we show our dealers to the community. They’re really impressive to watch. The biggest machines have as much as 1200 horsepower, and the biggest chipper we have will chip a 36-inch diameter tree and throw it into a truck in less than a minute," boasts Morey, adding, "The big shredder we’ll be running will chew a car up in 45 to 60 seconds."
A man at work at Bandit Industries
Philosophy at the Forefront
But it’s not just about the machines. Morey credits their core beliefs for Bandit’s success.
“I think what has driven this company is our philosophy. First of all, build good quality equipment that’s dependable. In most applications, our machines are the key piece in the whole operation and if it goes down then the whole operation’s down. Along with that, do a good job servicing customers.
“But as important, if not more important, is taking care of your employees, because you’re only as good as that person who’s dealing with a customer or that guy who’s designing the machine or putting it together. You can’t do it by yourself: a business is only as good as its employees.
“I think you can see the pride that our employees take in the products they produce. All the way back into the engineering and the research group. When they design a product that’s successful they’re proud of that.
“We’ve got a good bunch of employees and that’s the key to our success.”
Bandit's equipment is emblazoned with their raccoon mascot
Succession Plan: Giving Back, Based on Trust
Employee responsibility for Bandit’s success is about to hit a whole new level. They’ll officially take 100 percent ownership of the company in October.
Approaching retirement, the Moreys began to looking for options to secure the company’s future. Initially, they looked at selling the company to another manufacturer, and then an investment banking firm, but neither were a good fit.
“They were going to cut employee benefits and wages, or try to flip the company without looking at the long-term vision,” Morey says.
That’s when they talked to one of their major customers who already has an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, at their company.
In an ESOP, all the shares of the company go into the plan and are controlled by a trustee. Employees receive shares every year based on their annual earnings and seniority. Each year the stock is reevaluated, and as long as the company’s growing, the value of the shares go up.
Morey describes it as a 401k where employees don’t have to make contributions. “It’s mainly a retirement program. The employees are paid out at retirement. If they leave prior to that, they’ll also receive their shares, but paid out over a period of time.”
While there are risks to selling the company to employees this way, he said the benefits outweighed any downside. One of the biggest is giving the company to people they trust. “For us, it’s the right fit because we get to see Bandit operate in the hands of our great employees,” he says.
Morey also says the employees will be financially better off over the long term, especially as the company continues growing and introducing new products. “I’m going to be excited to just sit back and see what they do with it! We’ve got a really experienced team here with their own ideas, so it will be fun to watch and see what they come up with. They’re already thinking outside the box and I like some of the things they’re thinking about. I think they’ll do extremely well.”
Editorial Note: A previous version of this story stated that Bandit Industries was founded in 1988. We have corrected that date to 1983.