Taking a plunge into product development

November 7, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — With a young, growing family, it seemed like 35-year-old Jeff Disher was in no logical position to risk losing a good, secure job in engineering management at one of the nation's leading automotive suppliers — back when the auto industry was king and the sky was the limit for professional careers like his.

But he didn't just risk it, he gave it up — to start his own business.

"Getting the guts to start my own business — that was something that took some effort," said Disher, founder and president of Disher Design and Development in Zeeland.

Today, one of the clients occasionally served by his successful 10-year-old company is his former employer, Johnson Controls.

Disher said he felt he had to take the plunge as an independent entrepreneur.

"I think I realized I didn't want to look back on my life and wish I would have tried it," he said.

So he tried it, he made it and other people took notice. Disher is just completing a one-year reign as the Small Business Person of the Year, an honor presented to him by the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce.

What inspired him to take such a risk in January 2000, when he was chief engineer in JCI’s electronics group?

"A combination of things," he said. At JCI, he was on the buyers' side of engineering services, outsourcing some of the firm’s engineering needs to small product development firms.

"So I got to see what I liked and what I didn’t like" in the small companies he was dealing with. "I also saw things that I thought should be out there but weren’t."

Eventually, he said, he realized he was developing his own vision for a product development firm that would be unique and provide better service than what was out there.

Another part of the combination was the particular way Disher is "wired" — that's his word.

"It's a personal thing, but I wanted to kind of find out if I can survive out there in the business world. Can I start something from scratch and survive?"

He wanted to test his capabilities to the max.

Out of the chute, Disher had a $50,000 line of credit — "enough to get started with," he said, "but we definitely had to figure out a way to make the business viable rather quickly."

"We" means Disher and one employee, working on a card table in a conference room. Today, Disher Design has about 35 employees and about $4 million in sales.

Disher was born in Russellville, Ky. When he was 3 months old, his parents moved to Lakeview, Mich., in Montcalm County. His father was a veterinarian, the only one in the Lakeview area that took care of all animals, said Disher, from farm animals to dogs and cats.

He attended high school in Lakeview, and then earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering at Hope College, followed by a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Disher's first career job was at Prince Corp. in Holland as a manufacturing engineer, starting in 1989. The privately held company was a major supplier of components for automotive interiors, and very innovative: Prince introduced the lighted vanity mirror on sun visors it made for Cadillac in the early 1970s. It was also known for its integration of electronics in vehicle interior components, such as the HomeLink transmitter that allowed remote operation of garage doors, gates, security systems and lights.

Prince Corp., which had 1996 sales of about $850 million, was bought that year by Johnson Controls Inc.

Disher Design and Development became profitable about a year and a half after it was launched, according to Disher. Did he have any fearful moments in the interim?

"I didn’t think about that. I keep looking forward and plowing ahead. We had to. I never really looked back," he said.

"We've had some tough moments, obviously. But it's like a football game: You've got only so many seconds before you have to run the next play, so you can't sit there and fret about it."

Disher said his company has a degree of flexibility built in to it; part of its employee base is made up of contracted engineers — "very talented folks" with whom he tries to maintain strong partnerships.

Unfortunately, the firm's flexibility was sorely tested during the last year or more when the recession brought a drop in business to most companies in Michigan. About 10 contracted employees had to be laid off, said Disher, but some have since been called back to work.

Most of his customers, he said, are located in West Michigan, but there are some in other states, and the firm had an office in Eastern Europe for about five years that closed due to the worldwide recession.

Disher said he has seen signs that the economy is slowly beginning to recover. Some of his customers have recently decided to "spend money on new product development again."

Today his company serves a wide variety of industries — including furniture and automotive, which have long been the two mainstays of the West Michigan manufacturing economy. Other clients represent the medical device industry and food/pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The company is also involved in design and development of consumer items. Disher Design and Development employees are named on more than 50 patents.

"We do have some clients that come in and say, 'We need to fill some shelf space at Wal-Mart with a product. Help us figure out what that product should be.' That's one extreme. The other is, they come to us and they have exactly in mind what they want; they just need somebody to help them develop it," said Disher.

"I think what's happening is, our customers are developing new products but they're not going to hire their own internal engineers. They're going to find partners on the outside, like our firm, who can help them get the job done," said Disher.

Disher said his company is focused on three main areas of business: product strategy and marketing, product engineering and development, and technical/engineering support for manufacturing facilities. The largest group is product engineering/development: "That's where we got our start," he said.

Support for improving manufacturing facilities has become a critical issue in recent years. Disher said his firm has helped clients "save a lot of money annually through lean manufacturing techniques."

Product strategy and marketing is heavy on research and market analysis, in both retail and business-to-business markets. Disher employees seek out potential buyers for a given product proposal and try to learn just how much of it might sell and at what price points.

Obviously, the worldwide recession has made changes in most markets over the last 12 months.

"Frivolous spending is being scrutinized heavily, but the important things are being purchased less on price and more on quality of the product," said Disher. He explained that when a decision to buy is made these days, "They don't want to buy something that's just going to break soon. They buy on value and higher quality.

"People realize cheap has its risks," he said, and that is the extra cost associated with a shoddy but necessary product that fails.

Disher Design and Development has developed two consumer products of its own. One that has been on the market for about six years is Roll Buddy — C-shaped plastic clips that people use to keep rolls of gift-wrap, blueprints, ribbon, fabric, posters and wallpaper from unrolling without damaging the roll, as tape and rubber bands tend to do. The Roll Buddy, which is manufactured overseas, is sold in catalogs and at Target, according to Disher.

The other product is a toy that involves use of sidewalk chalk. Disher said it will be on Toys 'R' Us shelves this Christmas. He said he isn't sure how well it well sell, "but getting it there is 80 percent of it."

Disher is quick to note that his firm scrupulously avoids development of a product that would compete in any way with any of its clients' products.

"The foundation of our business is our mission statement," he said: “Make a positive difference."

"It's very simple and yet it says exactly what we, as an employer and a business, are trying to do with our customers, our employees and our community.

"Our belief is, we want to leave things better than when we found them," he said.

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