Honda really likes this mom n pop shop

May 6, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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“We’ve got our own niche here and we’ve kind of exploited it,” states Dan Vander Molen, owner of Van’s Pattern, located in a quiet, old, industrial neighborhood on Grand Rapids’ north side.

“Kind of” is an understatement. Started by Dan’s father, Ebel Vander Molen, in the basement of the family home in 1960, Van’s Pattern is said to be one of the 10 or 20 best-known industrial pattern makers in the United States, with customers from Detroit to Europe to Japan. About 85 percent of the firm’s work is ultimately for the major players in the worldwide auto industry.

Vander Molen said Van’s is Honda Motor Co.’s preferred vendor for expanded polystyrene foam patterns in the U.S., which gives the company great pride — but they don’t brag about it.

Honda “fed us for 17 years, and they are good people,” said Vander Molen.

He noted that Van’s has “really good people” for employees. “They’re a key part of our success. Everybody works really hard,” said Vander Molen.

Business is good: Over the last three years, employment at Van’s Pattern went from about 24 to 34.

Despite the pounding that the Great Recession gave the auto industry, Van’s came through all right.

“We were really doing well, anyway,” said Vander Molen. But some of the weaker pattern companies that weren’t as financially stable did not make it, with the result that, when industry began picking up again, “there were fewer places to go” for patterns, he said.

Van’s has CNC machines that follow CAD drawings to cut and grind EPS into pieces that will be glued together and hand-finished as models, or patterns, of sheet metal car parts such as doors, roofs, fenders, side panels and trim. The patterns are the first tangible step in the manufacturing process, used to make molds that are then used to make steel dies, which are used in the stamping plants to make the actual parts.

EPS, or expanded polystyrene, is often referred to generically by the brand name Styrofoam. Vander Molen said Van’s was one of the first shops to begin making patterns from EPS foam in the 1960s; before that, they were generally made of wood. EPS proved to be more practical for manufacturers that wanted a fast and less expensive model of a proposed product.

Ebel Vander Molen had been a supervisor in the pattern shop at Oliver Machinery in Grand Rapids. It was bought out in 1959 and the new owners brought in their own bosses, so he was let go. Dan Vander Molen said his father decided to start making patterns in the basement of the family’s home on Leonard Street. He soon moved his works to the garage. Dan, who was about 9 or 10 at the time, started working for his dad, gluing wood pieces together into complete patterns, which earned him “a nickel a board foot.” By 13, Vander Molen was actually making patterns himself. (He modestly added that he wasn’t an expert at that age; he just knew the basics.)

Vander Molen bought the business from his father in 1980, when the firm had a total of five employees working in a rented area in an old warehouse. That was when they built their own 4,000-square-foot facility.

“We thought, ‘What are we going to do with all this room?’ We thought maybe we’d rent out the part we didn’t need,” he said.

That didn’t happen. Instead, they have expanded the plant 11 times over the years. It now is 40,000 square feet and “busting at the seams. We use every square inch,” he said.

Van’s Pattern isn’t limited to the auto industry; when it slows down, it still gets orders from other types of industries. Van’s made a pattern for a huge cast valve of some kind; Vander Molen said he isn’t even sure what process it would be used in. They can make big stuff — for instance, the pattern for the die for the huge end cap that goes on railroad tank cars. They made a pattern for a gear box in a commercial wind turbine.

Despite their success, the Vander Molens still prefer to keep a low profile.

“We don’t have that big corporation feel,” he said. “We have that ma-and-pa type of operation feel.”

If an employee has a birthday, somebody from the front office is liable to bring in donuts for an impromptu celebration. “That hokey stuff — we still do all that kind of stuff,” said Vander Molen.

While the company has always been fiscally conservative and cautious, Vander Molen said they have been “flexible” in their thinking, which led to them investing in CNC machinery. Capacity has subsequently increased by 35 percent or more over the last three years.

“All the guys that didn’t do that — they’re all gone,” he said.

However, he said: “I don’t want to be the point on the cutting edge. I want to be right behind that.”

Their conservative, careful nature is reflected in the way they deal with customers and employees. Van’s has no sales force, “but we have a rock solid reputation. You can’t buy a good reputation,” he said.

When asked what kind of technical education is required of Van’s new, inexperienced workers, Vander Molen said, “We teach them here.”

Vander Molen said he does not buy into the idea that Michigan has lost its manufacturing edge and young people should be discouraged from considering a career in manufacturing. Industry is still here — and thriving, he said.

“There is a ton of businesses out there just like mine,” said Vander Molen, companies that have been successful for decades, working out of the public eye.

He is amused when people in Grand Rapids are surprised to learn about his company for the first time. It’s been located in the same spot for decades “but nobody knows” what Van’s Pattern does, he said.

But he doesn’t worry about the company not being famous. “We count our blessings,” he said.

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