Making a clean sweep

October 14, 2011
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There are submicron particles that threaten to become a problem if they find their way into pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, aerospace components and research labs. It is Clean Rooms International’s mission to ensure that manufacturers of catheters, contact lens solutions, microprocessors and the like are kept free of particulate contamination.

The Cascade Township-based business designs and builds clean rooms, as well as a range of clean-room components, workstations and air-handling equipment that require a particle-free environment, all with non-shedding materials that do not emit particles from the surface.

Tim Werkema, president and CEO, said yes, Clean Rooms’ work extends beyond the dust people see floating in the air. And no, his company, which employs 25, does not provide housekeeping services, as some assume because of its moniker.

“We get lots of calls for maid service,” said Werkema.

“The overall goal of Clean Rooms is to protect the product from the outside environment from whatever might contaminate the product.”

It accomplishes that task through its hard- and soft-wall classrooms, air flow equipment, air filters and ceiling systems, terminal diffusers and related equipment that keep the outside environment from tainting products.

“It’s so any company (can) isolate or control their environment — that’s what a clean room is,” said Nelson “Nels” Werkema.

Clean Rooms was founded in 1982. Nels Werkema joined the company in 1992 as executive vice president and COO, became president in 1997 and CEO in 2007. He retired three years ago but remains a shareholder.

Parts for Clean Rooms’ products, such as sheet metal, steel fabrication, work surfaces and extruded aluminum, are outsourced to manufacturers, many based in West Michigan. Clean Rooms does the final cutting and assemblies, as well as packaging of the equipment.

“We sell our entire production line to all types of customers,” said Tim Werkema. “Distributors or contractors might purchase complete systems or maybe just the filtering equipment or just the ceiling systems or just clean room lights. We (also) sell to contractors who have a clean room or clean room components in the scope of what they are providing. We sell to end users directly when a contractor or distributor are not involved.”

Tim Werkema joined the company’s sales department in 1997 and became a shareholder in 2000. He was then promoted to vice president and director of sales. In January 2008, he became executive vice president and COO before becoming president and CEO in late 2008.

He said Michigan constitutes 5 percent of Clean Rooms’ business; 10 to 15 percent is international and the rest is based across the United States. “We have a pretty good network of distributors that sell our products,” he said.

Previously, Clean Rooms rented space in a building near the shuttered General Motors Corp. stamping plant in Wyoming before moving to 4939 Starr St. SE. It purchased the building in October 2010 and occupied it in February 2011. The 30,000-square-foot building sat unused for two-and-a-half years.

The building required extensive renovations, said Werkema. The firm received a U.S. Small Business Administration loan that funded 40 percent of the building’s purchase and renovation, a loan from Chemical Bank that funded 50 percent, and the remaining 10 percent Clean Rooms funded. Now, the office and manufacturing floor is inviting and bright, with its offices reflecting a professional, modern decor. The walls and ceiling in its manufacturing floor are the color of fresh snow.

Unlike some manufacturers, Werkema doesn’t fret over maintaining a just-in-time inventory.

“We’ve gained a lot of market share because our lead times are quick and that takes a lot of stock, so we don’t short ourselves if we have a lot of stock,” he said.

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