The Century Club – 2015

From engineering to clean water, firms and institutions evolve to thrive 100 years and beyond.
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Sponge John

In 2009, Walled Lake business owner John Armaly Jr. told his broker to buy Ford Motor Co. stock when it dropped below $2. Armaly, president and CEO of Armaly Brands, famous for its Brillo cleaning pads, wasn’t just following the conventional advice to “buy low;” he was convinced the Ford family would never let the company go under as long as their name was on the building.

He says the same kind of loyalty has kept his company afloat. His grandfather, W.J. Armaly, founded the company in the Bahamas in 1908 to process natural sponges. The company name became Armaly Sponge & Chamois Co. when John’s father, John Armaly Sr., set up shop at 284 Iron St. in Detroit in 1921.

“Our name was on the outside of the building,” Armaly says, “as well as on the back of the package.”

Actually, the Armaly family’s history with Ford precedes John Jr.’s stock purchase by many years. John Sr., whom Henry Ford called “Spongy,” used to trade bales of sponges for Ford’s autos.

A founder of another Detroit business, Sebastian S. Kresge, was also an Armaly customer. During the Great Depression, Kresge would pay Armaly in K-script. In turn, Armaly used the substitute currency to pay his workers, who used K-script to buy essentials at S.S. Kresge stores.

Dedication and drive bolstered the family’s pride in its business, which now includes Armaly, two of his grown children, his brother (vice president of manufacturing), and a sister (treasurer).

Over the years, processing natural sponges dwindled to less than 1 percent of the Armaly business; today it continues only as a family legacy. Synthetic sponges have replaced the ocean-harvested variety, and the company manufactures them for consumers as well as for the building trades — tile-layers use them when applying grout, for instance — and the automotive industry. The brand also includes Brillo, which Armaly purchased in 2010, and which makes its tough pads in Ohio.

Armaly’s Brillo purchase was slightly serendipitous. John Jr. was at the International Housewares Show in 2009, in Chicago, when an investment banker for New Jersey-based Church & Dwight Co. Inc. approached him with an intriguing question: Would
he be interested in making the soap-infused, steel wool pad part of his business?

“I go, ‘Really?’ ” Armaly recalls.
“(I said), ‘Brillo’s for sale?’ ”

Similar acquisitions helped Armaly Brands grow to a company with three locations and 125 employees. Although Armaly declined to disclose the valuation of the family-owned business, its acquisitions are adding up.

Armaly bought Estracell, a synthetic sponge, from Simonize in 1979 and moved its manufacturing operations from Benton Harbor to Walled Lake in 1983. Good Housekeeping magazine has featured the product, which the company claims is more sanitary than its cellulose cousins because they rinse cleaner and dry out faster.

When Armaly’s Georgia-based supplier of the nonwoven, heavy-duty scrubbing material the firm attaches to one line of its sponges went out of business, the CEO bought the equipment to make it. “We had no choice,” he says with a shrug and a smile. 

 

Purity Pioneers

Each time someone downs a glass of good-tasting, filtered water from Detroit’s massive supply system, they can thank George E. “Jed” Hubbell’s great-grandfather. That’s because Clarence W. Hubbell led efforts to build Detroit’s central wastewater treatment plant. Clarence, an engineer for the city, accomplished this in 1917, two years after founding the firm bearing his name.

Prior to Clarence’s pioneering work in wastewater treatment, Detroit’s residents and industries dumped their raw sewage and industrial waste directly into the Detroit River — which also was the source of all household drinking, washing, and bathing water. Little wonder, then, that tens of thousands of early Detroiters died each year of typhus, a disease as fearsome as Ebola that springs directly from contaminated water. 

Clarence’s leadership in cleaning up Detroit’s water supply was a monumental achievement. Just ask the American Society of Civil Engineers: The organization designated Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant in 1999 as one of Michigan’s Top 10 civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.

While today Clarence’s overlapping roles in the public and private sectors would be prohibitive, given the conflicts of interest, such dual roles weren’t that uncommon for early civil engineers, says Jed Hubbell, president of what today is Hubbell, Roth, and Clark Inc. in Bloomfield Hills. The business has other office locations that include downtown Detroit, Howell, Grand Rapids, and Delhi Township (south of Lansing).

Jed Hubbell says other firm members have served multiple interests at the same time. He includes himself, by the way: Jed once found himself meeting with representatives from Ford Motor Co., the Oakland County Drain Commission, and the city of Wixom — all clients of his firm — about a sewer matter at Ford’s former Wixom Assembly Plant.

Early company leader Homer W. Clark headed the Works Progress Administration for Detroit and Wayne County during the Great Depression, a national make-work strategy that focused on building the nation’s infrastructure. 

Since those difficult days, Hubbell, Roth, and Clark has diversified into a multidisciplinary consulting engineering firm, with municipal, industrial, and private clients. Today, it’s known as a national leader in combined sewer overflow systems.

That being said, it’s not just about pipes: The company also worked with Lawrence Technological University in Southfield to design the world’s first carbon fiber-reinforced polymer bridge, and they’ve worked on several road-building and environmental projects. 

All of that work and innovation has paid off; Hubbell and the firm’s 150 employees posted $23 million in revenue last year. “It was always drummed into us that you do your very best job for your clients,” Hubbell says. It’s a philosophy he says was handed down from his great-grandfather, Clarence, and another early company leader, Albert Roth.

Hubbell’s pride in his company goes well beyond the Detroit wastewater treatment plant, and includes their achievements in the aforementioned projects such as roads, water mains, sewers, and bridges that have helped to improve people’s lives. “You’re successful when what you do is taken for granted,” Hubbell says.

 

Sail On

The dust had barely settled after the July 4, 1929, grand opening of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club when the stock market ran aground and the world economy began sinking amidst the Great Depression (the club was formed in 1914). 

But whatever happened to the economy, the new Lakeshore Road clubhouse started off on solid ground. The founding members hired Guy Lowell, an architect from Boston, to design the Grosse Pointe Shores facility. Lowell, who got his start in 1899, drew such commissions as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Charles River Dam in Boston, the New York State Supreme Courthouse, and other public and private work.

Before the Italian Renaissance clubhouse could be erected, 1,200 logs were pounded into the lakebed of Lake St. Clair to support the foundation. In addition to a 187-foot-high steeple that doubled as a navigation aid, the architect included a swimming pool in the basement, a bowling alley, three restaurants (the main dining room, the Spinnaker Room, and the Binnacle Room), and a wine cellar where members could store their prized vintages. Appointments included two sets of china that were manufactured in Bavaria.

Although Lowell had estimated a $250,000 price tag for his work, the actual costs multiplied to $1.1 million by the time the club was finished — equivalent to $15.1 million in costs today.

“It evolved into the Taj Mahal of clubhouses of yacht clubs anywhere,” says Dr. Larry Stephenson, a 25-year member who recently wrote a history of the club, The Grosse Pointe Yacht Club Centennial Book. In turn, Yachting magazine named it the most beautiful yacht club in America.

The clubhouse’s luxury matches that of some of the yachts that have been moored at its docks in years past, including Horace Dodge’s 238-foot Delphine, Frederick Fisher’s 235-foot Nakhota, and Walter O. Briggs’ 225-foot Canbronia. Even Henry Ford docked his 223-foot Sialia at the club, although he was never a member.

Unfortunately, debt from the club’s construction and the fallout from the Great Depression forced members to lock the doors in 1935 and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Three years later, however, many of the members regrouped and raised initiation and yearly membership fees — and required former members to rejoin — to raise $100,000 and buy the building back from the bank for 10 cents on the dollar, Stephenson says.

“A lot of the people who saved the club weren’t members, but became members,” he adds.

The strategy saved the club, which had started with a group of 33 sailing and iceboat racers and has since become home to 800 members. Through the years, the club has served as a gathering spot for sailing and motor boating enthusiasts; supported the U.S. Coast Guard in patrolling local waters during World War II, when Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy; and hosted the USS Sequoia, a presidential yacht used by presidents ranging from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter. The club also counted among its members Bob Kaiser, who set a world offshore American Power Boat Association racing record in 1987 by averaging 108 mph over a 150-mile course.

That kind of history makes current club Commodore Kevin Granger proud. “I grew up in the club because my parents joined in 1959,” Granger says. “I can’t imagine not being a member there. It’s everything I know.”

Engineering Marvel

Before Meetup.com and LinkedIn, there was the Engineering Society of Detroit. Formed in 1895 as the Detroit Association of Graduate Engineers by 13 University of Michigan engineering students, the group renamed itself the Engineering Society of Detroit in 1936.

It eventually grew to become “the only other society you need to belong to” in the Motor City for engineers, architects, and those in the construction business.

In 1942, the club completed work on a spectacular headquarters at Woodward and Farnsworth, directly south of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Harley, Ellington, and Day in Detroit designed the Horace H. Rackham Education Memorial Building, named after a lawyer who was instrumental in incorporating Ford Motor Co. in 1903 and went on to donate land for the modern Detroit Zoo and the Rackham Golf Course.

Original appointments at the Rackham Building when it opened in 1942 included a 1,000-seat
auditorium, a ballroom that could accommodate 700 guests, a six-lane bowling alley, a dining room, and a billiards parlor.

The society, which shared the building with the University of Michigan Extension Service, used to sponsor annual ski trips and road rallies; historic photos show couples dancing to live music in the ballroom in the 1960s.

Birmingham native and actor Tim Allen entertained more than once at the annual awards banquet, and one Young Engineers Council Christmas party in the early 1970s featured circus camels and elephants in the auditorium.

“It was a lot like the Detroit Athletic Club,” says Doug Allen, president and CEO of Bridges International Group in Ann Arbor. Allen, who moved to Detroit from Dayton, Ohio, in 1976, says: “(A business contact) said, ‘You’ve got to join ESD.’ Clearly, that was a huge deal back before the Internet.”

Roy H. Link, chairman and CEO of Link Engineering Co. in Plymouth, first stepped through the society’s doors in 1960, when he was 16 years old, and credits his involvement there with helping his business and personal development. “I’ve always had people to go to when there’s a problem or an issue,” he says.

The club’s standing began to fade when evening activities with affiliated societies, a major source of revenue, started to trickle away after the 1967 Detroit riots. The group suffered another financial blow in 1974, when a fire gutted its half of the Rackham building.

After renovating the structure, the club moved its headquarters to Southfield in 1992. Today, it leases the Farnsworth building to Wayne State University; it was also used by the Detroit Institute of Arts when the museum undertook a massive renovation.

In Southfield, the society continues its mission to be a group that supports and connects area engineers, contractors, scientists, and allied professionals. In fact, the ESD is a hub for 130 technical societies in Michigan, including the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

It hosts an annual energy conference with DTE Energy, and presents yearly awards for construction and design, innovation and technology, students, and young engineering professionals. It also promotes education in science, technical, engineering, and math fields through its title sponsorship of the Michigan Regional Future City program, aimed at upper-level elementary school students.

Historically, the ESD was the founder of the Science Fair in southeast Michigan, an annual event that gave students an opportunity to show off their scientific knowledge. The society’s Young Engineers Council initiated the Programmable Controllers Conference in the early days of software development. ESD eventually sold the conference to the Society of Automotive Engineers for $2 million.

More recently, ESD launched a program that focuses on recruiting new members from Michigan’s engineering schools. Lawrence Technological and Wayne State universities already have student chapters.

Link says the group’s current director is on a mission to attract new members in a number of ways, through job fairs, professional meetings, the society’s tutorial for engineering certification exams, and its annual awards banquet.

He also thinks ESD can help power the city of Detroit and Michigan back to prosperity. “The auto industry, power-generation, health care, and most other industries are dependent on technology to prosper,” Link says. “The ESD is unique in representing all technical disciplines, from science through construction, from an apolitical disposition not influenced by outside forces.”

As times have changed, so has the society’s membership. It has 130 corporate, 674 youth, and nearly 3,000 professional members, reduced from the 8,000 head count at its centennial in 1995, when the ESD was the largest metropolitan engineering society in the world. 

Sweet Sales

Mackinac Island’s The Original Murdick’s Fudge has survived for 128 years by focusing on what it does best — using quality ingredients, avoiding artificial additives, and employing just the right technique to turn out sweet, melt-in-your-mouth confections.

Of course, there have been tweaks along the way since the day Sara Murdick brought her copper kettles and fudge recipe to the island, where her husband and son were commissioned to make awnings for the Grand Hotel.

Bob Benser Jr., who now runs the company and started making fudge at age 14, says one of his latest ideas has spurred sizeable revenue and new sources of income. In 2013, the confectioner began shipping gift boxes of fudge, brittle, toffee, and caramel corn for winter holiday gift-giving.

The first two holiday seasons kept a dozen people busier than Santa’s elves for three weeks in December, and quickly accounted for more than 5 percent of annual sales. “I just kind of kick myself for not doing it earlier,” Benser says.

The winter online and phone gift-ordering stretches out what ordinarily is a seasonal, May-to-October operation for Murdick’s customers. Benser declined to reveal financials or output for the family-owned business, but says it’s not uncommon for the operation to make 1,000 pounds of fudge a day from its locations on Mackinac Island. 

The company also engages fudge lovers through its Facebook page and a blog, both outsourced to experienced writers and social media experts. Murdick’s customers are encouraged to suggest new flavors via Facebook; the most recent addition is Michigan Honey Butter, a flavor that Murdick’s added in June using honey from Hardy Honey Bee Farms in Sterling Heights.

Naturally, Murdick’s business has grown along with the popularity of Mackinac Island as a tourist and vacation destination, and with the local food movement. Murdick’s butter and cream come from Upper Peninsula dairies, and its sugar is from Bay City. The boxes that hold slices of one of 20 different flavors of fudge are printed by Tepel Brothers in Troy.  

In fact, Murdick’s sourcing is so local to the state that it’s earned the right to print the Pure Michigan logo on its boxes — a designation that requires 75 percent of a processed food’s ingredients be sourced in-state. “I’d say we’re 90 to 92 percent,” Benser says of his confections’ Michigan ingredients.

Just as local is the lineage that has kept Murdick’s humming through wars, economic downturns, and other obstacles. Jerome Murdick, Sara’s son, sold the business to Bob Benser Sr. in 1969. Benser had opened a Tastee Freeze next door to the fudge shop in 1955, and became like a son to Jerome and his wife.

While the senior Benser, 85, still plays an advisory role in the family business, his namesake son teaches fudge-making and other aspects of the concern to several of his nieces and nephews.

The family still owns Mister B’s Tastee Freeze, a pizzeria, and a bed and breakfast operation, and partially owns two hotels — all on Mackinac Island. Bob Jr. is the island’s tax assessor and president of the tourism bureau.

As the business branches out to include more family members, it is also expanding to additional locations on Mackinac Island, as well as in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. It even boasts three stores and a bakery on Martha’s Vineyard, all established by a family friend.

All locations are part of the family-
owned business, and the family intends to keep it that way. “We get asked to wholesale quite a bit,” Benser says. “But that way, we’d lose control.” db

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