Briggs Is At Her Peak

October 5, 2002
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ZEELAND — She says it’s the latest peak of her career.

If the future is anything like the past, then Juanita Briggs will reach for and likely ascend many more peaks.

“I’m cooking up something else,” said Briggs, the founder and president of Valor Industries Inc. who last week earned the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2002 Small Business Person of the Year Award.

In accepting the honor, which is just the latest professional accolade she has recently received, Briggs recalled the “peaks” she has had to climb in a business career that includes forming three companies and partnering in a fourth. Future peaks, she said, await her as she goes after new markets and new customers.

“I’m looking again — for new mountains to climb, for new peaks to scale,” said the 39-year old Briggs, describing an “incurable condition” that afflicted her at an early age.

“It’s called entrepreneurism,” she said.

Today, Briggs, a mother of two daughters ages 14 and 11, is the owner of three companies that employ 42 people and is a partner in a fourth.

Each company was started to help Valor overcome a pressing problem. The latest, Valor-Nichols, is a partnership with Nichols Paper and Supply Co. in Muskegon and was launched six months ago to address the high cost of packaging materials.

A native of Grand Haven, Briggs’ first stop in business was at the Eagle Ottawa Leather Co., where she went to work as a high school junior. A few years later, and after earning an associate’s degree in accounting from Muskegon Community College, she was promoted to credit manager at the age of 21.

Her next peak came a year later at the former Bastien Blessing Co., where Briggs became credit manager. She later joined Herman Miller Inc. as a credit analyst, a position that would send her on a new career path and ultimately lead to the formation of Valor Industries.

Wanting more exposure to the company and to “get closer to the product,” Briggs attended night classes at Grand Valley State University and earned a degree in marketing in 1992.

Climbing through the ranks, she earned a promotion as senior product manager at Herman Miller, managing five multi-item, high-end product lines.

At 31, Briggs had again “reached the peak of my career,” only to get “tossed off that mountain” when Herman Miller went through a corporate downsizing in 1995. Her last project was one that literally put her out of work — traveling across North America, seeking manufacturers as she outsourced the product line she oversaw.

But Briggs turned that experience into opportunity. Feeling she had learned a lot reviewing other manufacturers, and after plenty of encouragement from friends and family, along with personal soul-searching, she decided that she wanted to implement the outsourcing plan herself at her own company.

Following her departure from Herman Miller, Briggs spent the summer of 1995 formulating a business plan. She made her pitch that October. Herman Miller accepted her plan the following month.

Taking out a second mortgage and using her severance check to buy equipment, Briggs formed Valor Industries and began producing product for Herman Miller in December with a workforce of four people.

The company grew to $10 million within six months, a growth rate that created plenty of challenges, including eventually reaching 100 percent on-time delivery.

But after the early success came another fall from the mountain peak that occurred “faster than we had climbed it.” In 1999 Herman Miller decided to discontinue the product line. Valor Industries’ sales went from $10 million to zero, Briggs said.

“We were back to where we started, to rock bottom,” she said. “I had to start over. Valor had to start over.”

The first stop was Herman Miller’s rival, Steelcase Inc. Valor eventually began landing contracts from Steelcase and other customers, as it became a company that handles sub-assemblies, complex assembly projects and offers process management and supply chain management to clients.

“We became what our customers needed — an outside source for work that doesn’t fall within their system,” said Briggs, who’s taken to heart the lessons from the ups and downs of business and learned to see opportunity in the challenges she’s faced.

Those lessons, coupled with a spirit of entrepreneurship, led Briggs to form other ventures “that complement and support one another.” She formed her own powder-coating company, Integricoat, in 2000, Valor Boxes in 2001, and Valor-Nichols this year.

“The key for me is to learn from the successes and failures — my own and others. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason,” said Briggs, adding that she still has that “incurable condition called entrepreneurism.”

“But with a slightly different focus now,” she said.           

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