Kauramaki Crafts New Messner

September 2, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Nine years ago, Kline Kauramaki couldn’t sleep. It was 1999. He had just agreed to try to salvage J.W. Messner, once the largest advertising agency in Grand Rapids, after General Motors pulled Chevrolet advertising worth $100 million.

What was keeping Kauramaki up at night? More than 100 layoffs. Closing seven offices around the country. Scrambling for new ways to make money. It was a painful time, and even now Kauramaki doesn’t like to talk about it.

Today, J.W. Messner doesn’t dabble in cars, other than a lone account for engine filters. The company emerged from the GM debacle intact, but different from the one that rocketed from Grand Rapids into a regional automotive marketing powerhouse: smaller, more diversified and in a slow but steady growth mode.

“Marketing Tools is a bigger part of our business. We do embroidery,” Kauramaki said.

“We’re very much a different company than we were 10 years go. We do no automotive now.”

Kauramaki grew up as the youngest of five children in Newberry in the Upper Peninsula, where his father, Chester, worked for Michigan Bell while his mother tended the brood and gardened. Kauramaki recalled that the “only time I’ve gone out of business” was when, at age 5, he helped himself to his mother’s flowers and peddled bouquets door-to-door.

Content to spend his time hunting and fishing in the countryside, Kauramaki didn’t venture below the Mackinac Bridge until he was in his teens.

“I think it was a great place to grow up, a small town. The freedom and experiences I had up there I thought were great,” Kauramaki said. “Everybody knew you and you knew everybody. It’s just an awful hard place to make a living these days.”

College took Kauramaki first to Traverse City, where he attended Northwestern Michigan College, then to Big Rapids and Ferris State University for a degree in accounting. His first job in accounting, with what is now Deloitte & Touche, was an education in itself.

“That was probably the best business experience I’ve had in my career. I got to see the inside of so many businesses and talk to so many successful people. It taught me what it takes to succeed and how hard you have to work.”

After nearly five years, Kauramaki became director of administrative services for the Michigan Association of Realtors, working under the scrutiny of the board of directors as he worked to straighten up a situation that had been left by his predecessor.

Then Kauramaki, a CPA, became vice president and controller of a company that had varied interests, anchored by several auto dealerships. That’s when he hired Jim Messner, who founded the Grand Rapids advertising firm in 1977.

“I hired Jim and J.W. Messner to be our ad agency,” Kauramaki said. “They were very, very heavily in automotive marketing. I met with Jim for lunch, he pitched our company, won the pitch and got our business.

 “It was interesting, because I also had to let Jim Messner go.”

Dismissing your future boss might not be an obvious résumé-builder. But Kauramaki said he tried to handle the situation as delicately as possible when his boss decided to toss the company’s business to his niece’s new advertising firm.

“It was not due to anything the Messner corporation did,” Kauramaki said. “I felt terrible about it. I met with him in person over lunch so I could explain the situation to him. I was the messenger with a message I didn’t necessarily agree with, but I had to deliver it. And he was just as gracious as could be.”

Kauramaki moved on to an assignment in Detroit. But two years later, in 1988, Messner was on the phone. Three weeks later, Kauramaki came to work as CFO for Messner in Grand Rapids.

That was the beginning of a 20-year long, white-knuckle ride.

“We went from approximately $26 million to $110 million in sales in about eight years,” Kauramaki recalled. “I could attend any meeting I chose to attend. I sat in creative meetings. I went to every sales pitch I could go to. It was fascinating for me, and I wanted to diversify my skill set. They were also kind enough to send me to the University of Notre Dame to get my MBA, which helped me tremendously. It led me to the position I’m in right now.”

With regional advertising for half of U.S. Chevrolet dealers under its roof, the Messner agency was the largest of a half-dozen similar firms, until the day G.M. pulled the plug.

“They were going to take their $200 million and give it to their national ad agency,” Kauramaki recalled. “So we have to take a business down from the $110 million — knowing we were losing $100 million of that — 140 people and seven offices. We had to dismantle it in 90 days. That’s what they gave us to take this thing apart.

“It was the worst part of my career, by far. From $110 million down to $5 million in 90 days, it’s beyond devastating. It was a year and a half before it was to where I was sleeping regularly.”

Messner retired. Several people tried to save the business but were unsuccessful. Kauramaki said Messner then turned the company over to his care.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Kauramaki said. “It was the ultimate challenge, I think, to go through the rubble and try and find things you could keep and build off of, to look for that foundation, to try and keep six or eight or 10 good people and try and start over again.”

Kauramaki found one pillar for rebuilding sitting on his own desk. Several years earlier, frustrated by suppliers who couldn’t deliver on promised promotional goods, Kauramaki had launched Marketing Tools Inc. to serve J.W. Messner accounts.

A proponent of the SWOT analysis — identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — Kauramaki and his staff used it on the company.

“I knew we had that (Marketing Tools) to work with. I knew we had a revenue stream. I knew we could build it. I knew the business. I knew I had some talented, creative people. I knew I had some loyal clients that would stay with us.

“The key was to stop the bleeding, to get the cost structure down so it matched our revenue base. Then you start knocking on doors, like anything else, and begin to build that.”

Today, the company’s umbrella is Marketing Tools, and divisions include J.W. Messner, operated by Vice President Mike Murphy; Marketing Tools/Marketing Tools Embroidery, overseen by Vice President Brett Youker. Marketing Tools has become the largest provider of advertising promotional items in West Michigan, Kauramaki said. It has a 20,000-square-foot warehouse on the southwest side and ships items across the U.S.

On the advertising side, National City Bank is a major client, but J.W. Messner has a diverse client list that includes Mann-Hummel USA, Alticor, Bench & Field Pet Foods, Adamy & Co., Michigan Medical PC, Lakeland Boats, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon County Museum and the nonprofit Disability Advocates of Kent County, a personal passion for Kauramaki.

Messner, Kauramaki and Youker hold equity positions in the company, he said. The 18-employee company is about one-10th the size it once was, Kauramaki said. But 2008 is proving to be a good year, and he expects 24 percent growth by year’s end.

A traveler, avid reader and sports fan, Kauramaki said he likes to attend high school and college athletic events and recently returned from a summer getaway to Charlevoix and Beaver Island.

Kauramaki’s experiences as a youngster may have set the stage for his approach to the resuscitation of J.W. Messner.

“We didn’t have a movie theater when I grew up; we had to go 60 miles to see a movie in the theater. But at the time, when you don’t know anything different, and you’re a kid, it’s fine.

“You take advantage of what you have and you have fun with your friends. And if you don’t have things, you make things up.”

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