Grooters Isnt Retiring Type

December 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — By all current notions, Chuck Grooters should be retired and his firm, Grooters Machine Shop Inc., shouldn’t even exist.

In this high-tech, throwaway age, there’s just no need for a fix-anything-and-everything shop, right?

Well … wrong.

The shop does exist. It serves area industry plus anyone walking in the door with anything from a broken rifle bolt handle to, in one instance, repairing a broken artificial limb on a while-you-wait basis.

Grooters will fabricate anything from new parts for antique cars to caster swivels for chairs. Moreover, the design on the fancy front doors of most suburban homes and a good many inner city homes likely was produced from a template that the shop designed and made for the industry.

“About 70 percent of the front doors of homes in this country come from our templates,” said Grooters, the firm’s president.

As to why he’s still working, he told the Business Journal that one of his sisters recently was scolding him about why, at his age, he still hasn’t retired.

“I asked her to explain what retirement is. She couldn’t answer, so I said, ‘Isn’t retirement doing exactly what you want to do when you want to do it?’

“She told me, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing.’”

Besides, he adds, the company has invented and is marketing a new product that Grooters believes will do very well in the information age. It’s called the Syde About. It looks like your basic red hand truck except that, with a slight tilt, it will move smoothly either right or left as opposed to only forward and backward.

“We showed it at the Deltaplex in the fall and then at the big show in Cleveland,” Grooters said. “It’s really the wrong time of year to introduce a new product, so sales are slow right now.

“But it sure got a lot of interest. And people were saying, ‘Now, why didn’t I think of that?’”

The cart comes in two sizes, either of which can handle a 600-pound load. It has two hard-rubber wheels where all hand carts do, but then if you ease the load slightly forward, it comes to rest on three wheels mounted perpendicular to the normal route of travel.

The purpose of the cart, on which a patent is pending, is to be able to move long items such as sheet rock down narrow corridors.

It was perfected from a gizmo that the guys had been using for years to move heavy machines around the shop.

Grooters has operated the firm at Madison Avenue SE and Cottage Grove SE since buying out other family members’ interests in the firm 32 years ago.

He began working at the shop when he was 16. His dad, Embert Grooters, founded the company as the Southend Machine Shop on the outskirts of town when Hall Street was the city limit. That was in 1922. Much of the trade was with area farmers whose machinery needed repair and with the furniture, automotive, food and logging industries.

Grooters said that when he began working in the shop, it had a blacksmith who never worked with horses, but did a great deal of repair to horseless carriages.

“You know, at first, blacksmiths were the only people who could fix cars,” he said. Welders and machinists took over fabrication of car parts from the blacksmith in 1950. Grooters said the company seems to have made parts for antique cars from the start. “My dad and my uncle were crazy about antique cars. They spent a lot of time fixing up an 1898 Kraften.”

You never heard of a Kraften automobile? “Most people haven’t,” Grooters said. “They were manufactured in two phases. The plant burned down in 1899 and they didn’t start production again until 1902 or so.”

The Grooters’ Kraften had been more or less shattered, he said, and his father and uncle had to rebuild much of the ancient wreck from scratch. Over the years, antique car enthusiasts all over the nation have written to Grooters to order parts made for their cars.

Amid all its repair work, the shop also has manufactured fire trucks, sod-cutting machines, roof truss handles and woodworking equipment. And they still tell the story in the shop of a young veteran who dropped by one day to have a grenade fragment removed from his finger.

Minor surgery and inanimate repairs aside, the shop also has produced jigs and fixtures for area industries that wanted to modify their processes and often were happy to have the company engineer the projects for them.

In 1946, the firm became E. Grooters Machine Shop, and then in 1954 in the wake of the Korean War, it assumed today’s name. At the time, the elder Grooters brought Chuck and his two brothers into corporate ownership. Today, Chuck’s son, Tom, is his understudy and corporate secretary.

The firm has employed as many as 30 people inside the shop. Grooters said that was during the Korean War when the company sub-contracted to many of the community’s defense industry suppliers.

Currently it has five machinists working inside the shop and eight outside people working in sales.

And what sort of work is the firm doing now, in addition to fabricating its Syde About cart?

“It’s never, ever the same,” Grooters said. “I suppose that’s what I like most about it. It’s something new, some different kind of repair, every day.”

Still, he mused, lately there has been a run on repairs of broken caster swivels on office chairs that were manufactured in the ’40s.

“I don’t know why,” he chuckled. “But people bring them in and we fix them.”

One aspect of the firm has remained the same from Day One of Grooters’ ownership. The company supports the Boy Scouts either through participation in adult leadership or in sponsoring troops.

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