Exports helped in slump

May 1, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The recession hurt Bandit Industries, as it did practically every other Michigan manufacturer of industrial machinery, but the company’s overseas customers “really helped us,” according to Bandit founder Mike Morey Sr.

Exporting “is a lot of work,” he said.

“I’ve been to Japan twice in the last six months. I’m getting too old for that — it takes young people,” he joked.

Bandit Industries will be honored today at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids luncheon as the West Michigan World Trade Association’s World Trader of the Year, joining the ranks of companies such as Wolverine World Wide, Haworth, SoundOff Signal and Gentex.

“Bandit Industries Inc. was selected as our World Trader of the Year in recognition of their impressive global success and strategy,” said Martha I. Gabrielse, a board member of the WMWTA and vice president of global trade at JPMorgan Chase in Grand Rapids.

Bandit has more than 170 dealers, including about 20 in Canada and more than 30 on other continents — “everywhere in the world there’s trees,” according to its president, Jerry Morey.

The company has about $80 million in sales annually.

Bandit is going great guns in design and production of heavy equipment used to reduce entire trees to chips, which are the major fuel for the expanding biomass energy industry worldwide.

“Although most of us think first of Bandit’s association with the forestry and landscaping industry, Bandit has become a very important equipment supplier in global green industries,” said Gabrielse.

Some Bandit machines are now designed to grind up metal, too, making scrap metal easier to store and ship for recycling.

“Imagine throwing a refrigerator into a chipper. It happens!” said Gabrielse.

Mike Morey Sr. founded the company in 1983 in Remus, a small agricultural community 23 miles southeast of Big Rapids. It started in a 6,000-square-foot converted repair shop, with six employees, but the company has repeatedly expanded since then. Manufacturing now takes place at plants in the central Michigan communities of North Winn and Millbrook.

Morey said he founded Bandit “on a shoestring,” without enough money or marketing expertise to become large enough for exports until his cousin, Jerry Morey, joined the company a few years later.

Bandit was up to about 340 employees but the recession forced a layoff “back when everything kind of came to a screeching halt” in 2008, according to Jerry Morey.

The company is now regaining the strength lost during the recession, he said.

“We’re expecting a good year this year, and a better one next year,” said Morey. He estimates that about 30 percent of the company’s machinery is shipped out of the United States.

From its original 65-horsepower chipper in 1983, the Bandit product line has expanded to include wood chippers and “recyclers,” which can grind up construction debris, wooden pallets and even old asphalt shingles for use in hot mix asphalt to pave roads.

Bandit’s strongest export markets are where biomass energy plants are being built, “which has been Europe and some of the Indonesian countries, and now into South America,” said Morey.

“It’s also a strong market for us here, as well,” he added.

“People don’t realize how much energy is produced from biomass — many times the energy that we get from all solar and wind,” said Morey. “As far as renewables are concerned, biomass is going to lead the way in the U.S. and throughout the world. We get roughly 3.5 percent of our energy supply in the United States from biomass. That was in 2009, and with the plants that are under construction now, that’s going to more than quadruple by 2014.”

Morey said production of electricity in a biomass plant is “probably a third the cost of solar, and as far as wind, it’s comparable — but wind is only 30 percent reliable.”

Of course, biomass energy sources are not limited to wood. Morey said the Bandit Industries recycler machines are “used in Europe quite extensively to process agricultural crops” such as hay, straw, rape and other plants that can be used in energy production.

“One of our Beasts is leaving this week to go to South Africa, and it will process sugar cane,” said Morey. “They will extract the sugar and then pelletize the cane waste, which will be shipped to Europe for a biomass plant in Belgium.”

Mike Morey added that Bandit also shipped a big grinder recently to Russia. Exporting, he said, “is expensive to do. It’s expensive to take care of problems. But, in the end, once you’ve learned it, you’re glad you have it.”

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