Firm Has Fifth-Generation Owners

September 24, 2004
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SPARTA — As one might expect, Handy Wacks Corp. has grown up some over the past 75 years. But now welcoming its fifth generation of family ownership, the Sparta waxed paper manufacturer has proven to still be young at heart.

“When you think of all the generations, it’s impressive,” said president H.B. (Hank) Fairchild III. “Each of those generations certainly had time to sell it if they got tired of it, but they didn’t. They kept it going and passed the torch.”

First organized in July 1929, in part by Daniel Atkinson in a facility on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, the name was a take on the company’s product: waxed paper. Upon Atkinson’s death only a few years later, his daughter Lou Keller assumed ownership along with her siblings Pearl Atkinson-Burch and Walter Atkinson.

In 1936, the company relocated to Sparta

At that time, the company’s primary product was a 12-by-13½-inch carton dispenser of waxed paper designed to hang from a cupboard door. The majority of sales were achieved via the consumer market and fundraising groups, with a far minority accomplished through wholesale distributors.

In 1945, Lou Keller’s daughter Irene Keller-Anderson and husband Clarence Anderson took over day-to-day operations, the third generation to do so. Keller remained president of the company until just before her death in 1971, when her husband assumed that role.

The Andersons’ daughter Marcia joined the company in 1962 and was elected to the board of directors in 1972, acquiring majority ownership from her parents in 1976. Fairchild joined the company as sales manager in the late ’70s and married Marcia not long after.

Since 1985, Hank and Marcia Fairchild have held the company’s reins as president and chairman. Their sons Steven and Timothy have both since become board members, with a sixth generation now working its way through elementary school.

“Hopefully we can keep it going,” Hank Fairchild said. “Family companies are like dinosaurs; it’s tough these days.”

Fairchild will be the first to admit that Handy Wacks hasn’t lasted this long by doing business “like a dinosaur.” Over the last 20 years Handy Wacks has found itself constantly adapting to the ever-changing requirements of the disposable food service product industry.

“When you’re a small company like we are, you have to be fast on your feet. You have to be flexible,” said Fairchild. “Our competitors are companies like Georgia Pacific; their Dixie division is just huge. But they tend to shoot themselves in the foot, and we have to be ready to jump in when they do.”

One of the first clients Fairchild brought to the company was Gordon Food Service, a strong example of how the business has changed. Now almost all of Handy Wacks’ sales are done through wholesale distributors, many times with a private label.

When those distributors began to fill in the gaps across the United States in the early ’80s, Handy Wacks experienced an unprecedented time of growth. The company quickly became an international vendor, and the facility was nearly doubled in size to 80,000 square feet.

Innovation and flexibility have led Handy Wacks to survive tough times. When the paper market went berserk in the ’90s, Handy Wacks responded with a pair of new product lines.

Until that point, many of its products were commodity based. With all its competitors carrying nearly identical product lines, and all forced to carry each and every possible item (for convenience, distributors will only go to vendors with every conceivable waxed paper product it may need), there was little room to add value.

Success was determined by the ability to market, something Handy Wacks had done well for a small company, aided by an investment in advertising and a wide variety of updated point-of-sale sheets.

Handy Wacks embraced a new competency by offering custom-printed waxed paper for use by restaurant chains and aimed for a market it had something in common with.

“We weren’t looking for the McDonalds or Burger Kings,” Fairchild said. “Most of our competitors aren’t as interested in printing as we are, so they have a higher minimum. We go after the smaller restaurants.”

The printing business and private-label distribution are both examples of the key ingredient of Handy Wacks’ long-term success: customer loyalty.

“That has an effect on the distributor,” Fairchild said. “They feel that if we’re willing to go out and help them get business, that’s an asset for them. We’ll show their sales people how to sell prints or we’ll turn over a lead that may come through one of our trade journal ads. It’s bringing something to the table.

“With these food brokers, you need to get selling time,” he added. “They’re going to get more volume selling something like Campbell’s Soup, so you’ve got to get them interested in selling disposables.”

While the printing business has been a boon, another new product line began generating a stream of revenue from an entirely new market.

“We’ve had parrots for a long time, and everybody was using newspapers or other scraps to line the cages,” Fairchild said. “My wife started cutting deli paper for the cage and found with a dozen or so sheets, it would contain everything right on the sheets.”

The Fairchilds shared the idea with a local pet store, and when it embraced the idea Handy Wacks responded with the launch of its Cage Catchers line of hypoallergenic, treated paper cut to fit most bird cages and available to be custom cut for unusual shaped cages.

Since 1991, that division has grown by 15 percent to 20 percent each year.

“The thing has just gone bananas,” Fairchild said. “We’ve already got the paper, and people are willing to pay good money to have this cut to fit their bird cages.”

For another company to produce a similar line, it would require a capital investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars just for machines to cut and fold the paper. For Handy Wacks, there was no capital investment whatsoever. On top of that, only one employee has been needed to operate the entire pet division.

Today, Handy Wacks continues to grow at a steady rate of 8 percent to 10 percent a year since 2000, when it experienced its last major growth period in the wake of the printing and pet division launches. In the past five months, the facility has been expanded twice.

But while much has changed since 1929, one thing never will: the Handy Wacks name.

“It’s a funny name,” Fairchild admitted. “But we take it serious.”    

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