From West Virginia to China to Pure Michigan

August 2, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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A practical idea by two former athletes launched a useful clothing accessory that was first produced in China but now is made in Grand Rapids with the help of Intrepid Plastics Mfg. and three other West Michigan companies.

String Guards are small plastic discs that prevent neck strings on hoodies and waist strings on sweatpants from being pulled inside the casing and out of reach. Developed and owned by an Ohio company called Jet 21, String Guards can display a team or university logo and are being marketed as products a school, sports team or organization can sell in fundraising campaigns.

Leigh Engelbrecht, vice president of sales and operations for Jet 21 and a Rockford resident, said the first U.S. production of String Guards was shipped in June from Intrepid Plastics, 2100 Nelson Ave. SE.

According to Engelbrecht, String Guards were invented by two close friends from West Virginia, former athletes who were in a business school master’s degree program. Their joint master’s thesis, which spelled out commercialization of their idea, impressed the professor, who insisted they should try to launch it.

Engelbrecht said the two inventors, Perry Jeter Jr. and Franz Pego, hooked up with an importer who had the first String Guards made in China. Later, however, the corporate goal was to have the product sold in college campus bookstores. The Barnes & Noble chain was targeted because it operates more than 600 campus bookstores nationwide. However, according to Engelbrecht, Barnes & Noble only wants legitimately licensed college logo items and avoids logo products made in China.

Engelbrecht said last fall the decision was made by Jet 21 to have him find a U.S. or Canadian manufacturer.

“With the auto economy not doing well, I said there’s got to be a plastics manufacturer in Michigan that would love to try something different,” said Engelbrecht, although he didn’t confine his search to Michigan.

He made dozens of phone calls to injection molders but received very few return calls. One company said it was an interesting product but that it was not able to produce plastic pieces as small as String Guards, which are about the size of a 50-cent coin. Finally, Engelbrecht got a return call from Bonnie Knopf, head of Intrepid Plastics, who was able and willing to try making String Guards.

In addition to college logos, Jet 21 also has acquired licenses to reproduce a variety of Nickelodeon cartoon characters, including SpongeBob SquarePants. Engelbrecht said they also are able to put photography on String Guards and have used a photo of the Mackinac Bridge. He said String Guards are now listed in the Pure Michigan catalog of goods promoting tourism in the state.

Sales reps are at work on String Guards in about 11 states. In the Grand Rapids area, they are sold at Robinette’s Apple Haus & Gift Barn on Four Mile Road.

“In Iowa, we’re doing extremely well,” said Engelbrecht, particularly among small independent retail stores.

The discs come two in a package, plus there is a small String Guard ring that can be used as a zipper pull. Engelbrecht said the suggested retail price is around $8.

Middleton Printing Inc., located at the Kent Industrial Park on 32nd Street, was hired to make the dome decal bearing the logos or images that are attached to the center of each String Guard. According to its president, Steve Middleton, the company is a label manufacturer that has been in business for 50 years producing labels, decals and stickers.

Display Pack, another Grand Rapids company with a clear plastic packaging factory on Monroe Avenue, is producing the packaging for String Guards.

Jet 21 also provides retailers with wire racks for displaying String Guards. Engelbrecht found a supplier for them at Pentwater Wire Products, a small factory two streets in from the waterfront marina. PWP has been quietly at work in the Oceana County resort town for more than 50 years.

String Guards also can be threaded through laces on shoes for decorative purposes. Some bearing the Mopar logo were on shoes worn by models at the Mopar booth at a recent auto show in Chicago. Mopar is part of Chrysler Group and markets auto parts and accessories.

There seems to be no end to the creative and promotional possibilities of String Guards. Engelbrecht said they are working on a Tom Izzo guard for MSU fans.

Engelbrecht, 45, is a Grand Rapids native who has worked in marketing and advertising in eastern Michigan, and later at Meijer corporate in Grand Rapids.

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