Cooper Learns To Shift Gears

November 27, 2002
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MUSKEGON—Irmgard Cooper doesn't give up very easily. When she tried to expand her business, IMC Automation, into West Michigan in April of 1990, she initially found it to be very inhospitable to her 5-year old Hewlett-Packard and Compaq computer vending operation.

"I was invited to Muskegon by a colleague to look into what opportunities might be here," she recalled. "I was told that I could do very well here, but I came here looking to do business on the computer side, but all I saw was the industrial side."

After attempting to secure business with companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller she found that all the major players in the area were not looking for a new computer vendor. But instead of seeking out smaller clients, like the Muskegon courts system, one of her first local customers, Cooper decided to adapt her business to the market.

"The customer base in Muskegon was much too small to compete in the computer industry," she explained. "So I thought we would be much more successful if we were to provide different products and services. When a company began telling me they weren't interested in what I had to offer, I started asking what problems that they had that we might be able to provide a solution to."

What Cooper found was a desire to outsource certain operations, notably kit assembly and light manufacturing. That niche led her to develop a sister company to her Chicago-based IMC Automation, the Muskegon-based IMC Products Inc.

"We were shifting gears more than diversifying," she said. "The more manufacturing-related industry here led to our assembly work, and now assembly is our primary function."

IMC Products immediately established itself with some of the larger companies in the area, providing assembly of small kits and products for Herman Miller and Steelcase as well as many smaller companies. Later the firm would add Donnelly, Borg-Warner and ADAC Plastics to an impressive client list.

Her 12-employee operation adhered closely to the idea upon which it was founded — finding new ways to work for clients — and it soon led to expansion into the realms of contract management, inventory control, and program management, in addition to warehousing, distribution, and assembly operations, beginning with a pallet program for Herman Miller.

Not only did IMC manage the assembly and warehousing of the pallets, it also took on the responsibility of tracking and distributing the pallets through as many as 60 different suppliers.

"It's always been my philosophy to aim for the largest accounts," Cooper said. "Even though we're a small business, my experience in Chicago was with major companies, so it was natural for me to market to major businesses. Our plan was never to work with smaller businesses.

"Many times, despite being a small company, we can fill some niche with the larger companies that they never would have thought of."

IMC's success has been largely founded upon doing small things for larger companies. Whereas a company like Donnelly might have hundreds of projects going on at one time, IMC has only a handful. The firm is able to put its full energies into the one or two projects it might do for Donnelly at a given time.

The extra effort allows for IMC to improve upon products and processes as well. For instance, a recent project called for the firm to build a kit for Borg-Warner involving tiny light bulbs. IMC determined that a sizable amount of money could be saved if the bulbs were to be purchased in bulk rather than pre-packaged, and suggested the change.

"It wasn't a tremendous amount of money," Cooper said. "But it was significant enough to show a proactive role. We were able to split the cost savings, earning ourselves more of a return and the customer a larger profit."

IMC also provides another service for its customers, acting as a sort of match-maker in its contract management. IMC is able to not only take over existing accounts for companies to minimize their supply structure, it also is able to bring in new partners with which the larger companies might be unfamiliar, a benefit as much to the smaller partners as to IMC and the customer.

"We might determine that we are not capable of doing a project well with our own resources," Cooper explained. "So we'll outsource that project to a company."

Long-standing relationships include Grand Industries and T&G Assembly.

"We essentially become a marketing arm for these companies," she said. "And if the customer prefers us to stay on and manage the project, we will. But usually we act only as a consultant, managing it until the best way to do it is determined, then handing it over to the customer."

This role as a marketing arm has been extremely useful to companies because of Cooper's heritage. In addition to being ISO certified, IMC has attracted large accounts with its MMBDC certification. That certification has been useful in the contract management function, as the firm has been able to serve as a bridge between eager companies and customers in need of fulfilling minority quotas.

"Of the people who have come to us for that reason, I always strive to make them not feel that they have to do business with us," Cooper said. "I've met with people who have felt forced to deal with us, and I try to alleviate that fear. We don't want a customer to feel like that, especially when there are so many things we can do for them."

The colleague that convinced her to travel to Muskegon, George DeMeyers, now serves as her vice president of operations at IMC Products.

Cooper splits time between Chicago and Muskegon, where she serves on the board of the Muskegon Chamber of Commerce. IMC is derived from her initials, Irmgard M. Cooper.           

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