Brow: Not A Lonely Repairman
Grand Rapids Machine Repair was founded in 1979 by Ronald J. Brow Sr., his wife, Esther, and their 15-year-old son, Ron Jr.
For a long time, Steelcase was one of the Brow’s major customers, but most of the Steelcase plants in Greater Grand Rapids are gone now. Today, one of Grand Rapids Machine Repair’s major customers is Checker Motors in Kalamazoo — again. While Checker no longer makes cars, it does produce a lot of auto parts for other companies. Ironically, Checker was one of Ron Brow Sr.'s first big customers.
The company’s first location was a 1,700-square-foot building on Stafford Avenue just south of 44th Street, only a mile or two from where it is today on Eastern Avenue near 36th Street. The original shop crew was just the Brows and two or three employees. Esther ran the office, and still is the secretary and treasurer for the company. Today, the company management also includes the Brows' daughter, Patti Fox.
Like many small business owners just starting out, it seemed as if the Brows were working day and night back in 1979 — and sometimes they were, Brow said. The repair shop was across the street from a residential neighborhood, which led to a favorite story.
Ron Sr., Ron Jr. and a couple of employees were hard at work long past midnight one hot summer night. Because of the heat, the large door was wide open for ventilation.
"We were driving a clutch shaft out of a big flywheel" — making a bit of noise, said Brow. Suddenly they noticed a woman standing in the big doorway, in her slippers and bathrobe. She had her hair up in curlers — and she was mad.
"Don't you guys ever go to bed?" she demanded.
"We quieted down as best we could," recalled Brow.
That was 29 years ago, and working on big industrial machinery is still a very hard and noisy job, and Brow still loves it as much as he did then.
Brow was born near Traverse City and raised on a small farm where the family grew a variety of crops.
"We did everything with horses," said Brow.
In 1953, at age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He still has the Marine Corps no-nonsense approach to getting the job done right, right now, every time. If a customer wants him to cut corners on a repair job, he won't do it, he said.
"What we built our reputation on is: We do good work," he said. "We've never had anyone hurt on anything we've done that we know of. Knock on wood!"
An industrial press can be an extremely dangerous piece of machinery if it is in disrepair. Presses operate quickly, exerting hundreds and even thousands of tons of pressure. Employees who operate a press get into its rhythm and implicitly trust it to respond to their control. If the clutch fails suddenly, a press can start cycling wildly out of control until the power can be shut off. Employees, who work quickly to remove parts from inside the press, can be caught by surprise inside the danger zone before they even realize the press is still cycling. That's what happened in 1991, when a 1,300-ton press in an Ionia factory crushed two workers.
In 1957, after his military service, Brow moved to Grand Rapids looking for work. He had a series of factory jobs, interspersed with periods of work as a house painter and house mover. Then he spent nine years at Leitelt Iron Works, which had a machine repair division at the time. Jack Williams, an expert in machine repair, took a liking to Brow and offered to train him.
"I followed him around like a puppy dog. We worked a lot of hours," said Brow. After several years he earned his credentials as a machine repairman. Then he went to work for Gelock Heavy Movers, where he started the company’s machine shop.
In 1979, he and Esther decided to take the plunge and start their own machine repair business.
"We started with nothing," said Brow, "just our tool boxes."
The Brows still have a handwritten ledger that lists their first job and first customer as Rapistan. The company does about 1,000 jobs a year now, with about 36 full-time employees, half of them machinists in the Grand Rapids shop and the other half repair technicians who are on the road constantly.
Grand Rapids Machine Repair has two semis for picking up and returning press parts throughout the central and eastern U.S. for repair back in Grand Rapids. Lately, for example, they've repaired equipment used by John Deere in Moline, Ill., and Eveready Battery Co. Inc. in Missouri.
When the company moved to Eastern Avenue in late 1979, it wasn't because Steelcase had factories there — that was a coincidence. But, Brow said, because the repair shop was so close by, it started getting quite a bit of Steelcase business. The Steelcase File Plant, which always had a lot of heavy presses going day and night, according to Brow, was literally next door. It closed in 2003, along with several other Steelcase plants nearby.
Brow said he believes the outlook for manufacturing in the U.S. is "not very good. It's all gone overseas — or still going." He has his doubts about the fairness of trade with countries like China. But the Brows are survivors.
Patti Fox said the company "lost a lot of customers" in the first few years of this decade. But she added that her parents are "very particular about everything being paid off — no loans.” That has helped get the company through the downturn.
And the good news is that business is up. Ron Brow Jr. said business is excellent at the repair shop. “We are in our busiest year in a long time."
Press repair is still No. 1, but the company also serves as a consultant to companies looking for a press to buy. A well-maintained press can last many decades — Grand Rapids Machine Repair often works on presses 40 and 50 years old. A large, modern industrial press is a very expensive investment, so there is a large trade in used and rebuilt presses. Employees have been sent all the way to Europe in a consulting capacity.
Grand Rapids Machine Repair has also started its own manufacturing division, making a device called a Dura-Glider. The device attaches to a press and efficiently moves scrap away before it can build up.
At age 71, Ron Brow Sr. has no interest in retirement. He still works on the shop floor every day.
"He enjoys his job so much — it's like a hobby to him," said Ron Jr.
"It's his passion," added Fox.
Ron Brow Sr. is a man who is very proud of the work his employees do.
"We've done a lot of things people said we couldn't do."