How Do They Do It

September 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Richmond Stamp Works just turned 100. It might still be around 100 years from now, assuming the competition doesn't kill it. Under its art-deco neon sign, the Ionia Avenue business looks to passersby more like an act of historic preservation than commerce in action. According to owner Paul Newhof, it's a little of both.

The same can be said for McKinney's Pro Shop a few blocks away. The squat, tan cinderblock building tucked among industrial sites just north of downtown is completely unremarkable except for a hand-painted sign that runs along the front windows, showing the shop's name and a bowling ball striking a few pins. A glimpse through those windows reveals owner Bill Stanfield behind the counter in a spartan showroom with fewer than 30 bowling balls and a small assortment of bowling shoes and bags. The sign by the door says "Open," but the building's somewhat shabby exterior shows that the best days of McKinney's Pro Shop are long gone.

Niche Markets

These are two small Grand Rapids businesses that serve dwindling niche markets. There are hundreds like them throughout West Michigan. They have just one or two employees. They have been operating in the same spot, doing essentially the same thing, for decades. But considering the competition from e-commerce and big-box retailers, the generally sour business climate in Michigan and the rising costs of just about everything, how do these businesses stay alive? Newhof and Stanfield have different ways of answering that question.

Newhof, a 39-year-old graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art, recognizes that he is a sculptor by training, not a salesman. Nonetheless, he knows that there is still a market for custom-made rubber stamps in 2005. That fact is verified by an Internet search for the words "custom rubber stamp." It yields 1.9 million results. But in light of the availability of rubber stamps and related products through Web sites, catalogs and major office-supply retailers, that market could shut out a small independent shop like Richmond. Pairing that with Newhof's aversion to putting out a sales pitch means that Richmond Stamp Works relies heavily on walk-ins and repeat business, with a little word-of-mouth referral business coming in as well.

That business comes in surprising shapes and sizes. Newhof admits that the traditional rubber stamp business makes up a small part of his sales. His only employee is a college student who handles all of the stamp work. In fact, Newhof said that he keeps the stamp business (and the eye-catching sign) around partly for the sake of reminiscence.

"Almost every day I have people coming in here who say, 'I used to come in here with my dad when I was a little kid,'" Newhof said. These drop-in sentimentalists sometimes turn into customers when they learn what goes on these days in the back room of a stamp shop.

Changing With Times

Newhof has brought the shop a long way during his decade of ownership. While his sole employee toils on the labor-intensive, handmade stamps, Newhof spends much of his time staring at a computer screen. He uses graphic design software to create patterns that are brought to life by a pair of automated laser cutting devices. The lasers were originally designed to cut fabric for the garment industry. Enterprising artists such as Newhof realized they could use the beams to cut materials like wood, paper and plastic into designs to be used as signs, business cards, and even works of art.

On a given day, Newhof might be working on a custom-cut art piece for one of his former Cranbrook instructors, making a set of signs for a tradeshow booth for Wolverine World Wide, or etching instructional markings on fighter-jet parts for an aerospace company in Holland. Just recently he began a test job etching logos onto stainless steel motorcycle transmissions for Baker Drivetrain in Lansing

Newhof said that he would love to get more of these steady, decent-paying projects. They'd help cover the $1,000-a-month heating bills in the winter. But recently business in general has been anything but steady. Despite semi-regular business from many of the stalwarts of the Grand Rapids business community, Newhof said that the company has been losing money for the past few years.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Newhof has suffered from the general belt-tightening of the West Michigan economy. Although his prices tend to be competitive with the larger office-goods suppliers, he said customers have been scared away from small independents like him, assuming that they cannot compete on price with companies such as Staples and Office Depot.

Streaky Business

Competition from the big national players is just one of several reasons why Stanfield's bowling pro shop is hurting. In the late 1970s, his annual revenues were over $300,000. That's about $1.1 million in today's dollars. Now, he said, he's happy to bring in $75,000 to $100,000 a year.

"This business just ain't quite good enough," he said. "It goes in streaks. Some days I'll do two, three thousand dollars. (Then) you'll go for a week or two doing 15 or 20 bucks. June and July you might as well not even bother coming in here."

Stanfield said that his business has changed, but so has the sport of bowling. When Jim McKinney opened the business in the early 1950s, bowling was one of the most popular pastimes in the country. Bowling alleys abounded throughout West Michigan, and they were all packed with leagues. All of those leagues needed custom embroidered shirts. They needed bowling balls that were custom measured and drilled to fit. They needed bags and shoes. The lanes needed to be refinished. The pins — which were then made of wood — needed refinishing, too. Small, rural bowling alleys needed a wholesaler to provide them with balls and do their custom drilling. McKinney's Pro Shop could do all of that.

"We used to order bowling balls in here in the late '50s — you'd get a semi truck," said Stanfield, who began working for McKinney at the age of 19. "Now I order bowling balls in ones, twos. I used to order by thousands. I used to ask, 'How heavy of a plain black rubber ball do you want?' There was no such thing as colors or anything else."

Stanfield worked for McKinney through the heyday of bowling in America. He bought the business and the building that houses it in 1975. A business that was rolling nothing but strikes then began heading slowly toward the gutter, drawn by forces outside of Stanfield's control.

As bowling leagues began to disappear, so did the alleys that housed them. By the 1980s synthetic pins had replaced the wooden ones. New, more durable materials were used to finish the lanes. McKinney's sanding business disappeared. The shop's wholesale business disappeared, too. Two major companies — AMF and Brunswick — now control the vast majority of the lanes in the country. They have cornered the bowling supplies market, as well. They have not left much room for independents like Stanfield.

"The big factories wouldn't sell to independents anymore. They only wanted the big distributors," he said. "They got sick of these little pro shops like this."

The company that once had over 20 employees keeping every inch of the 6,000-square-foot building buzzing with commerce is now down to one. Stanfield only uses about 500 square feet for the showroom. He lets friends use the rest of the shop for storage.

"It was fun then. It's not working down here now. It's getting to be a pain in the ass," he said. Stanfield owns the building outright and has for many years. His expenses are low — utility bills, taxes and whatever he chooses to take home. But he admits that the business is on its way out.

"If I had any overhead in this, I would have locked up a long time ago," he said.

Developers Hover

Although Stanfield's business is slowly dying, the value of his building is growing. Developers have been snapping up former industrial properties in his North Monroe neighborhood for the past several years. He said that he's had a visit from just about every developer, commercial real estate agent and broker in town. At 64 he's not ready to retire, but he is ready to sell the building and figure out what to do next — but not until the right offer comes along. A developer working nearby recently showed an interest in Stanfield's building.

"He came in the door and said, 'You wanna sell this place?' I said no. He came in again, 'You wanna sell this place?' No. He comes in the third time, and he sticks his nose in the door and says, 'What if I give you $1 million?' So I says, 'Wait a second.' He says, 'Where are you going?' I say, 'I'm getting you the keys. I'm walking out the door.'"

But that sale never happened.

The buy-out offers have come fast and furious for Newhof, as well. But he's in no position to sell for two reasons. First, his mother, Jackie Newhof, owns the building and rents it to him. Second, the former owners sold the building to her in part because of her son's interest in buying the business and keeping it alive. Newhof is aware that a custom rubber stamp shop may not be the best use for the three-story building in the midst of an exploding retail and residential downtown area. He has considered moving the shop to the top floor and getting tenants into the bottom floors. He also has some ideas of how he would renovate the building if he is eventually able to buy it from his mother. The upper two floors are essentially empty brick shells that could mean endless options for condos, offices or art studio space. Regardless of the long-term plans for the building, Newhof does not plan to shut the doors on the stamp business anytime soon.

Superior Service

Stanfield, on the other hand, is still waiting for the perfect offer to roll through the door. He said that he'll keep the business open another year or two at the most. He'll walk away with a check and a lot of free time, and he'll take a 50-year tradition with him.

Jim Bowhuis knows that. He dropped into the shop during Stanfield's interview with the Business Journal. Stanfield popped up to help Bowhuis decide on a new ball.

"I came in here a couple weeks ago and told him that my ball wasn't hooking like it used to," said Bowhuis, who had purchased the ball from Stanfield years earlier. "I wanted to get a new one, but he told me to take my old one home, clean it up real good with some steel wool and see if that helped."

It did, but Bowhuis still wanted a new ball. So Stanfield took his measurements, chose the right ball, excused himself into the back room and emerged a few minutes later, bowling ball in hand. Bowhuis spent a total of 15 minutes and $129 in the shop and walked out with a new, custom-fit ball.

"I figured it would be, 'OK, come back in a few days,'" Bowhuis said. "Where else do you get service like that?"

In two years, the answer might be "nowhere."    

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