From medical devices to vehicles, Bob Cutler is still 'fixing stuff'

February 15, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — "We're still fixing stuff, just not people anymore," said Bob Cutler, the owner of Muskegon Brake for the past 11 years.

Muskegon Brake has never been in the people-fixing business, but Cutler was. A North Muskegon entrepreneur and former chair of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Cutler had a medical career of sorts for about 13 years, then took the plunge into the automotive industry by acquiring Muskegon Brake. Today, Cutler and his family run a multi-faceted business organization revolving around cars and trucks.

But Cutler isn't an automotive engineer or a doctor.

"I'm a salesman," he said.

He almost did become a doctor, however.

Cutler was born in Kokomo, Ind., in 1954. His parents moved to Muskegon in the 1950s when his father took a job with Misco, later known as Howmet. After graduation from Reeths-Puffer High School, Cutler attended Michigan State University for a couple of years, then left to take a year off "to be a ski bum." He is still an avid skier today.

But then Cutler surprised his doubtful dad and went back to college, this time to Northern Michigan University. He graduated in 1977 — magna cum laude, according to the registrar's office at NMU — with a degree in biochemistry.

He had been interested in med school and was accepted at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. But by that time, Bob and his wife, Jeanne, had started a family, and Cutler said he turned down the opportunity to go to med school because he knew it was a time-intensive career and he feared he wouldn't be able to spend as much time with his young family as he wanted.

Ironically, he began a career in sales that ultimately took him away from his family a great deal — including many hours spent in operating rooms dressed in scrubs, standing next to surgeons at work.

"I spent 13 years on the road," he said.

He did very well at sales, once he got the hang of it. His first commissioned sales job was in Muskegon selling word processors for The Copy Center.

"I failed. I didn't sell one thing," said Cutler, frankly.

But he and Jeanne were also selling Amway products and did very well, becoming direct distributors by age 26.

Bob Cutler
Company:
Muskegon Brake
Title: Owner
Age: 54
Birthplace: Kokomo, Ind.
Residence: North Muskegon
Family: Wife, Jeanne; two sons, one daughter
Business/Community Organizations: Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation, The Employers’ Association of West Michigan, Automotive Undercar Trade Organization.
Biggest Career Break: Landing a sales job with United States Surgical.

Then he landed a job with Xerox in the early 1980s, but that started out poorly. He wasn't selling much, and one day his boss told him he had to sell a copier that week or he was fired. Cutler went to a business owner he knew and begged the man to buy a copier so he wouldn't lose his job. Cutler told the friend he could even return the copier a week later, if he wanted to. The friend helped him out and bought one — and didn't return it, either.

Cutler said he didn't like being threatened, but he stuck with Xerox. He worked hard and eventually became the top-selling person in his sales group. Once he reached that plateau, he said, "I quit. I said nobody will ever threaten me in a job again."

Then he started selling for Diversitec, a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, throughout western Michigan. The product was an electronic billing system for doctors' offices, which was his entry into the world of medical-related sales. After that, he was recruited to become vice president of sales at a Grand Rapids company, Interleave, that sold bar-coded medical billing systems. Less than two years later, Interleave was bought by a group of Texans, so Cutler started spending a lot of time at the new headquarters in Dallas.

Then came 1988 and Cutler's first big break in his career: He was recruited to join United States Surgical, based in Norwalk, Conn.

"I had to learn anatomy, physiology, pharmacology …" said Cutler. "The intensity level was just unbelievable."

Training lasted several weeks. Cutler's class was housed and trained in quarters above a retirement home, and no one could leave on weekends. Each week there was a written test: Fail one, and you were out of the company. He said many of his classmates washed out.

They were trained in the intricacies of U.S. Surgical devices and also trained and certified in surgical protocol, permitting them to scrub in and observe surgery at a doctor's side in order to provide verbal technical assistance in the use of the company's sophisticated new laparoscopic equipment. For the first time, surgeons could remove gall bladders and perform other minimally invasive procedures working through a thin tube inserted through minute incisions, allowing much quicker recovery for the patient.

That close relationship between its sales reps and doctors at work also gave U.S. Surgical an edge in knowing what was needed in medical technology. The company grew quickly.

According to a 1992 article in Fortune Magazine, the U.S. Surgical sales force was "the most aggressive in the industry."

Cutler was at U.S. Surgical for five years, where he reached his sales quota 19 out of 20 quarters, working 60 hours a week.

"If you missed your sales quota two quarters in a row, you were fired," he said.

He reached the level of senior technical trainer, and taught surgeons in the use of U.S. Surgical devices at major hospitals from Bethesda, Md., to the University of California, Berkeley.

From U.S. Surgical, he went to work for Karl Storz, a German firm specializing in endoscopy and laparoscopic instruments. More years of medical device sales followed at three start-ups: Heart Technology, Interventional Technologies and Arterial Vascular Engineering.

The Cutlers moved back to Muskegon in 1996 from Cleveland. They had moved five times in six years, Cutler said, so they decided they would stay put in the Muskegon area. He and Jeanne began looking for a business of their own to buy.

"I looked at everything: foundries, ad agencies …" said Cutler.

Through a relative, he got to know Bob Scolnik, who owned Muskegon Brake, a company founded in 1945. Cutler said he decided to buy it.

"Why? Because it wasn't for sale," he said with a laugh. He figured if the owner didn't want to sell, it was probably a good business.

Buying it wasn't easy, however. That took about a year and a half and almost fell through two or three times. "We were leveraged to the max," said Cutler.

"Originally, I bought it as an investment. It turned out to be a lot more than an investment," he said.

When Cutler acquired it, Muskegon Brake had seven divisions and about 45 employees. It did well in the late ’90s, but things got tougher after 2000. He eventually sold two of the divisions and bought Muskegon Tire, a dealership. Muskegon Brake also sells, installs and services truck-mounted snowplows throughout West Michigan, and sells snowplow parts from New Jersey to Idaho.

Then last year, Cutler started another company: Great Lakes Wrecker Sales and Service. He has been traveling lately to increase those sales in other states.

 Today, Cutler's total employee count is about 23.

"I like having a small company now," he said.

Small, but very specialized in one particular niche. Serious Corvette owners around the country know it as the source of two key parts: composite springs for the 1963-1982 'Vette, and a heavy duty rear-end cover for the 1963-1979 'Vette.

"We sell to all the major Corvette catalog companies in the U.S.," said Cutler.

Muskegon Brake owns the patent on the Corvette composite spring, which is made for it by Muskegon manufacturer GMI Composites. Final assembly of the leaf spring takes place at Muskegon Brake. The rear-end cover is made for Muskegon Brake at a local foundry.

Muskegon Brake had "a very good year last year," said Cutler, although he does not divulge specific revenues for the privately held company.

As for the difficult economic times we are in, he is upbeat.

"You don't need to participate. You can be smarter, work harder," he said.

He predicts General Motors will survive — with fewer divisions — but he isn't so sure about Chrysler.

Domestic light vehicle sales may drop as low as 9 million this year but Cutler expects them to come back up to 12 million after that.

Muskegon Brake is a family business: Jeanne and Bob and their two sons are all involved. Their third child, a daughter, is an attorney with a major West Michigan firm.

"There's not one thing I won't do, in the company," said Cutler.

Sometimes that even means going back out on the road.

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