Whetter Saves Mason Firm

June 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Like a great many local businessmen, Bruce Whetter hops into his car each morning for a long commute to his job.

But his trip —  “It’s an hour … in good weather,” he told the Business Journal — is not just to a job, but to his own company, a chemical distributorship in Mason, a few miles south of Lansing.

And in his eyes it’s a very special firm, not only because he owns it, but also because when he bought it, it was just about as far into the jaws of death as a company can get and still come out alive.

The company is Americhem Sales Corp., which distributes industrial chemicals, solvents and lubricants to wholesalers and high-end retailers throughout the Midwest.

Whetter — who speaks of having a BBA with a minor in psychology and an earned MBA from the “College of Experience” — became acquainted with the plant when its management hired him as an environmental compliance consultant in 1987.

What he found dismayed him.

“It originally was built in the ’70s,” he said, “so the tanks in their tank farm were just sitting right on the ground.” No spill containment gear existed. Based on a great many case studies that Whetter had encountered during two years of environmental law studies, he suspected Americhem had serious groundwater pollution problems.

Adding to that impression, Whetter said, was learning that the firm’s management hadn’t even heard of the Responsible Distribution Process, a set of chemistry handling procedures promulgated and audited by the National Association of Chemical Distributors.

Even more disquieting, he said, was that he quickly recognized the symptoms of a failing company. Two of the firm’s principals, he said, seemed to have just thrown up their hands and walked away.

“Sales were slumping badly,” he said. “Management morale was in the toilet.” Too, management seemed oblivious that it was sitting on a ticking regulatory bomb threatening financial disaster.

When Whetter learned the town of Mason depends upon wells for its water, he also could see the chance of class action liability looming.

Nonetheless, the notion of buying the company seized Whetter. For the preceding two decades, he had served as a plant turn-around manager in the chemical industry. His thought was that he could buy the failing operation and turn it around for himself rather than another company.

One thing was sure, Whetter felt: The nation’s chemical industry had a place for a restored Americhem, no matter what its troubles.

He based the view upon knowledge of the industry he gained in several years of work as a national accounts manager for a major chemistry corporation.

“That was my biggest career break,” he said. “It exposed me to the whole industry; all of it, coast-to-coast. I really got to know it and how people do business differently in different parts of the country. It gave me a breadth of knowledge I couldn’t obtain any other way.”

But before buying Americhem, he had to assess its legal vulnerability. And that meant he couldn’t be content with Phase 1, 2 and 3 environmental testing. “All that does is tell you what’s on the surface,” Whetter said. “I wasn’t about to try to buy this plant without knowing what lay underground, because if I bought it and then found out it had contaminated soil, I’d be liable for the sins of all the previous owners.”

Test wells confirmed his suspicions: The soil beneath the plant contained lots of diesel oil and solvents. Fortunately, the pollutants had not migrated to the city’s wells.

His next step was to negotiate a deal with Lansing. If the state would help him clean up the site and protect him from liability for its existing pollution, he’d finance the $2.5 million purchase and commit $750,000 of that sum as Americhem’s share of the clean-up costs.

Whetter told the Business Journal that legislators and the Engler administration eagerly helped. “The state wanted to save the jobs in the plant. I wanted the plant, but I didn’t want to be liable for what the previous owners had done.” He said he was happy to deal with someone up front instead of a firewall of lawyers. “They were very, very helpful,” Whetter said. “It couldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Assisting Whetter was State Rep. Paul DeWeese, R-Williamston, who said, “This is exactly the type of partnership the state money is meant to encourage.”

Currently, 48 wells surround the 19.5-acre site: test wells, purge wells and recovery wells. Each quarter, the arrangement pulls about 1,200 gallons of water and assorted toxic chemicals from the groundwater.

Since then, Americhem has replaced its aged 300,000-gallon capacity tank farm with a new 500,000-gallon one. The firm also has emptied, flushed and cleaned numerous underground storage tanks, which now are brim full with concrete.

Also turned around is the corporate culture and sales picture.

“At first the staff was constantly saying, ‘We didn’t do it this way in the past,’ and it couldn’t cope with the change.” Exasperated, he bought a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese,” an elementary level allegory about the necessity and inevitability of change.

Things changed, but Whetter said it was like pulling teeth.

“For the first two years, I swear I was working 90 hours a week. I spent a lot of nights at the Holiday Inn instead of driving home. And Susan, my wife, was worrying so much about the commute in bad weather that she talked me into building a little apartment right here. So now I have a shower and even a set of bunk beds.”

But he doesn’t need the apartment nearly so often nowadays. Sales are very healthy, he said, and Americhem not only routinely passes its RDP audits, it also now has ISO-9002 and QS-9000 certification.

“All this has established Americhem as the leader in chemical distribution in the Midwest,” Whetter said, grinning.

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