Firm Keeps Its Subterranean Roots

December 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — While the historical foundation of Michigan Natural Storage (MNS) Co. lies 85 feet underground, the third-generation warehousing and distribution company quite literally has pulled its business out of a hole in the ground.

"There are still a lot of people who think that everything we store is below ground," said MNS COO Jim Pietrowski.

"Our facilities are primarily above ground now — that's really the core of our business."

"The mine has always been a big part of our business," added President Ronald Kragt, "going back to when my grandfather started the company in the 1950s. We're here because the mine is here."

In 1947, Bert Kragt purchased an open-quarry gypsum mine at 1200 Judd Ave. in southwest Grand Rapids from the Alabastine Mining Co. He hoped to use the property as a furniture manufacturing site.

While the venture failed, the relocation of the local wholesale grocer to a neighboring property gave him an idea.

The mine's six miles of tunnel held a constant temperature of 50 degrees — perfect for storing and distributing produce. Bert and his son Paul cleared out the tunnels, poured concrete floors, and in 1957 opened a warehouse for produce storage.

As the business continued to grow, MNS slowly worked its way above ground, building its first freezer topside in 1973, with a second two years later and a third two years after that.

Today, the company's capacity is 4-to-1 above to below ground. The company has grown from operating a small warehouse to managing a 5,250,000 cubic foot facility — 3,500,000 cubic feet of refrigerated space above ground, 750,000 cubic feet of cooler space below and a combined 1,000,000 cubic feet of dry storage above and below ground.

While there is room for continued expansion underground, Ronald Kragt explained that the transition above ground had less to do with capacity than product flow.

"There is only so much you can handle so fast with the industrial-size elevators we have," Kragt said. "It's a good problem to have, but that shifted us above ground."

While the subterranean nature of MNS has changed over the years, the company's philosophy hasn't. Now in its third-generation of Kragts, Ronald believes that is the key component of the company's continued success.

"The first aspect that comes to mind is that we are a family-owned business," Kragt said.

"We're on site every day and this is a very hands-on business," he added.

"We're involved in the product flow and — as the managers of the company — we see what's happening each day and are able to use our experience and knowledge of different types of warehousing to provide a benefit to our customers that they may not get in different facilities."

"Our decision-making process can move forward very quickly," Pietrowski added.

"There's no bureaucracy. We have the ability to make the decision and do it. There is a flexibility and dedication that allows us to provide personalized solutions."

MNS has weathered the loss of some large customers in recent years as companies like Thornapple Valley Meats Co. and Ada Beef Co., among others, fell into bankruptcy. But other customers have grown to fill those voids.

"A number of our customers have grown over the years," Kragt said.

"One started out as a guy in a pickup truck who needed a place to distribute out of. Now that customer is still with us and using multiple trucks. Another started out with a pole barn behind his house making food product and now he's delivering product all over town.

"We've helped them grow by not making them adapt their business to the way we operate," he said. "We adapt our business to whatever the customer needs."

For customers ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small charitable organizations like ACCESS food pantries and Mel Trotter Ministries, MNS has evolved into a full-service warehousing operation offering much more than the cold storage and food distribution upon which it built its core business.

Many food vendors have opted to keep all of their storage needs in one place, making use of the dry storage space as well as the secured document storage facilities within the mine and MNS data center.

The document storage is performed by subsidiary Information Managers & Associates while the data center is managed by Underground Secure Data Center Operations.

Other specialized services, such as blast freezing, X-ray product inspection, and USDA export identification are also available on site.    

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