The Grand Rapids brand that took hold

November 30, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Tanglefoot is testimony to the durability of a successful brand name. It's also a case study in the unforeseeable ways markets change course over time.

The historic Tanglefoot company, located in a 109-year-old factory at 314 Straight Ave. SW, was acquired in October by Contech Enterprises, a 22-year-old company in Victoria, British Columbia, for an undisclosed amount.

Tanglefoot became famous as a brand of flypaper, but it now markets non-toxic products for controlling a variety of insect and animal pests. Described by Contech as a "pest-management pioneer," Tanglefoot had been owned and managed since 1986 by Joseph G. Skendzel. He will remain with the company as a consultant.

"I've always said Tanglefoot is the classic business case study. The company should have gone out of business" right after World War II, said Skendzel — but it didn't.

Tanglefoot was the name given to its brand of flypaper by the Thum brothers, whose father had a drugstore in Grand Rapids in the 1880s. Flies were a scourge in those days, fed by abundant horse manure in every city, and houses didn't have screens. It was customary for people to purchase glue and spread it on sheets of paper, which they typically placed on the dining table to trap obnoxious flies. The Thum brothers were kept busy making the flypaper adhesive sold at their father's drugstore.

According to extensive research done in the 1990s by Grand Rapids Public Library archivist Richard Harms, one of the Thum brothers came up with an adhesive formula using castor oil, wax and resins; the secret formula did not soak through paper and had a long shelf-life. That enabled the brothers to make large batches of flypaper and keep it in stock for customers. Soon they patented their formula and were battling in court to protect it from would-be competitors.

Tanglefoot flypaper production became an important part of the Grand Rapids economy. The Thums heavily advertised it, making it a national brand. By 1902, the O&W Thum Co. was one of the first Grand Rapids exporters. There were Tanglefoot warehouses in Italy, Germany, England and Russia. It wasn't until 1923 that the Thum Co. changed its name to Tanglefoot.

At one time, Tanglefoot was the largest producer in the world of fly ribbons, adhesive strips that are attached to ceilings in homes. Tanglefoot now distributes Aeroxon brand fly ribbons produced by a German firm.

Even as the Thums were expanding their business overseas, the U.S. market for flypaper began to weaken. Flies became less of a prevailing nuisance as automobiles replaced horses and Americans began demanding better sanitation services in the cities. Even so, the Tanglefoot brand was well-known throughout the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century, probably due to copious advertising.

World War II was almost a disaster for Tanglefoot, according to Skendzel. Although the company had some defense contracts, it could no longer get some of its key raw materials for flypaper adhesives. The resin and castor oil, for instance, came from Asia. Along with World War II came the development of DDT to kill tropical insects where U.S. troops were stationed. It was soon presumed that DDT would eradicate many types of insect pests forever, which didn't help Tanglefoot's prospects for the future. Then the company developed Tree Tanglefoot, which traps harmful insects trying to climb up ornamental trees and that is still widely used today.

John and Nicholas Battjes acquired the company in 1949 and developed new uses for Tree Tanglefoot, plus other products that could control destructive pests without using poisonous chemicals. One of the most important products was Tangle-Trap, a safe adhesive for coating traps used to detect and monitor the presence of crop-damaging insects.

Tanglefoot now markets a variety of products used in pest control for trees, including balloons and reflective ribbons that repel birds and other animal pests such as deer.

Skendzel, who bought the company from the Battjes brothers, said the popular concern for the environment brought new attention to the company's natural, non-chemical pest control solutions. Retail stores that carry lawn and garden products typically carry some Tanglefoot products, he said, including Fruitbasket Flowerland and Ace Hardware stores.

Tanglefoot only employs about 10 people today, according to Skendzel. He said all of the Tanglefoot-brand products with the exception of the coated sticky traps are still made at the Straight Avenue plant.

"We pride ourselves on adapting to the customer needs and being able to perform multiple production runs to meet demand. It gets hectic in the spring season, but we always seem to get it done," said Skendzel.

Skendzel said he didn’t really change anything when he took over the company in 1986, and he attributes its continued success to the "great group of people" who work there. The work culture is "more like a family type of thing," he said.

Although the products are sold nationwide, Skendzel said the West Coast is the company’s biggest market. Tanglefoot adhesive compounds are also still shipped to places in Central and South America where organic food crop production prohibits use of chemicals. Tree Tanglefoot is being used in experiments by entomologists as a potential means of controlling the emerald ash borer in Michigan, according to Skendzel.

Although he does not reveal the company's annual sales revenue, Skendzel stated that 2009 may be one of the company's best years since he has owned it. He described insects as "recession-proof."

Skendzel said he first met people from Contech last spring at a major trade show, and they told him they wanted to grow their business in the U.S. Skendzel said he had already realized that Tanglefoot needed more cash than it had access to in order to develop new products.

Contech describes itself as a "green technology company" that develops and markets environmentally friendly products to control garden pests and pets. Contech lines include insect traps, tree care and animal repellents. It was interested in Tanglefoot because the Grand Rapids company was selling similar products to city park managers, urban forestry departments and nurseries, in addition to consumers.

“Effective, green pest management and bio-pesticides are the future of the industry,” said Contech President and CEO Mark Grambart. “Tanglefoot has been a leader in the green pest management market since before most companies even knew the market existed."

A Contech news release said the manufacturing and distribution of Tanglefoot products will remain at the facility in Grand Rapids.

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