Warming to New Ideas

Gary Gerds says he did not know a hand warmer from a hockey puck 13 years ago when he got hired as a salesman for Grabber Performance Group. And his wife's reaction was cold.

"I said 'Look at what I'm going to sell' and she said, 'What else?'" recalls Gerds, now the general manager of the Wyoming-based company. "I said, 'No, you don't get the vision for the range of application here.'"

That scope, already broad, is widening this fall for the local company that last year moved from Kentwood into a larger Wyoming warehouse and now plans a building expansion as it supplies the marketplace with an increasing inventory of innovative products.

For example, Grabber last week launched a kind of alter ego to the warmer. And this weekend, Gerds will pitch a super-sized hand warmer at a conference of anesthesiologists in New Orleans.

The "Heat Treat" disposable blanket conceived by Apricity, LLC is inserted with warmers to maintain patient body temperature before, during and after surgical procedures. Using the same technology as Grabber's air-activated hand, foot and toe warmers that are popular this time of year among hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, the blanket heats to more than 100 degrees for up to 12 hours.

With 12 warmers in each 3.5-foot by 5-foot blanket, and more than 200 million major medical operations performed worldwide each year, the innovation could be a hot one.

"Prospects would just be endless," says Stephanie Feyen, Grabber marketing director. "This has a huge market opportunity."

Breaking into New Areas
Last week, at a trade show in steamy Florida, Feyen shopped another Grabber innovation: Magic Cool. The reusable device gets wet and, with a snap of the packet, stays cool using versatile technology, not invented by Grabber, that can be applied in many forms such as bandannas. The company's first venture into cooling products was welcomed by buyers, she says.

"They went crazy over a cooling product," Feyen says. Snapping the Magic Cool allows air to come into contact with moisture in the packet that drops in temperature as it evaporates.

Both new products could create more warehouse and distribution jobs in Grabber's plant at 5760 N. Hawkeye Ct. SW, off Clyde Park Avenue south of Gezon Parkway. The company says sales already are growing by double-digits annually, and revenue this year has spiked 30 percent after acquiring a company that sold outdoor survival equipment including a NASA-inspired blanket.

A division of Nevada-based John Wagner Associates, Inc., Grabber's warmer division was started 24 years ago at a time when the company locally sold only construction products. John Wagner was in Japan sourcing drywall screws when he came across a pair of warmers. John Menold, now national operations manager for Grabber Performance Group, remembers the company sent two cases of warmers to each construction warehouse.

"The company has always been a company interested in new things," Menold says. "I was a little apprehensive at the beginning. We had them for a while. They just sat there and got dust on them."

Then came surprising news that more loads were en route to the Kentwood warehouse. Unbeknownst to local company leaders, the corporate headquarters started writing orders for warmers. And soon, the writing was on the wall. By 1990, Menold jumped from the construction side of Grabber to the warmer side. The local construction arm moved to Toledo, Ohio last year, while the warmers moved into bigger digs here.

"We originally brought it back here because I had a big warehouse here," Menold said. "It was better to have our inventory and our shipping location back in the Midwest.

"It became apparent as we took more of the construction warehouse space that the warmers were taking on a life of their own and needed more attention. I thought, 'Well, warmers is a whole lot more fun and it seemed like there was huge potential.'"

Grabber now has 27 full-time and 5 part-time employees, plus seasonal crews that vary from about 15 to 40 people at a time. A chemical engineer based in Atlanta creates specifications for the warmers, which are made in Atlanta, Japan and China. The warmers are shipped to the Wyoming plant for repackaging and distribution to retailers including Meijer, Dick's Sporting Goods, Cabela's and MC Sporting Goods.

Hot Seller
When exposed to oxygen, the hand warmers heat to about 150 degrees and foot warmers average 95 degrees. They may be great for hunting season and watching college football games, but the warmers also have proven useful in offices where the air-conditioning runs full blast, or in tropical locales where tourism promoters put them in mid-winter mailings, or even in the soles of Gerds' wife's golf shoes.

Grabber annually sells more than 40 million pairs of warmers. Many also have been donated through Operation Gratitude to U.S. troops around the world. The company shipped more than 400,000 units this month for holiday care packages, Feyen says.

"The best thing is putting it into somebody's hand," she says.

But it's not all warmers at Grabber. The company searches out new products like Magic Cool in the same way its curiosity brought warmers into the corporate fold a quarter-century ago. For example, Grabber last year bought RopeLok, the invention of a Plainwell man Gerds read about in the newspaper.
Grabber last year also purchased New Hampshire-based MPI Outdoors, which produced the Space-brand blanket, a NASA-inspired lightweight metallic blanket used in disaster relief and draped across marathoners at the finish line. A large roll of the reflective material that looks like tinfoil occupies part of the 32,000-square-foot, 10-truck-bay warehouse where Grabber moved last year from an 18,000-square-foot plant with two truck bays at 4600 Danvers Dr. SE. The company has been approved for a 25,800 square-foot expansion of its Wyoming building, though no construction timeframe is set.

The planned expansion is driven in part by the acquisition of MPI. Gerds says the blanket should smooth out seasonal peaks and valleys in Grabber's existing product line and help the company introduce warmers into new international markets. And now there is the medical venture, too.

"Our business is becoming less and less seasonal," Gerds says.

A showroom in the newly remodeled mezzanine of the Wyoming warehouse also features a Tecnu-brand outdoor skin cleaner for poison oak, Mitigator-brand sting and bite scrub and a StaphAseptic First-Aid MRSA gel. All of it falls under the Grabber tag line: "Providing warmth, comfort and protection."

As Gerds and his wife have found through the years, that tag line has wide reach. Certainly, she has warmed to the idea. And, yet, the company may be only just begun heating up. Recent deals have placed Grabber products in female-focused retailers including Kohl's, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx.

"Are there more cold housewives than hunters?" Gerds asked. "It's a huge market."

Matt Vande Bunte writes about business, government, religion and other things. His work has appeared in newspapers including The Grand Rapids Press and Chicago Tribune and in assorted sectors of cyberspace.

Grabber product line (5) Courtesy Photo

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