W.W. Grainger looking to grow in Janesville

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Sunday, March 14, 2010
— Start with a national economic downturn punctuated locally by plant closures and mass layoffs.

Toss in changes to a Janesville company’s business structure, and it’s understandable how rumors ranging from significant layoffs to impending closure got started.

Such talk about the demise of Lab Safety Supply is ridiculous, said Ralph Howard, who came to Janesville in September to lead the hulking distributor on South Wright Road.

“We’re aggressively looking to grow in Janesville,” said Howard, vice president of specialty brands for W.W. Grainger, the Chicago-based company that bought the homegrown Lab Safety Supply in 1992.

Howard has heard the rumors since arriving from the Kohler Co., where he managed operations for Canac Cabinets, the largest frameless cabinet manufacturer in North America.

“There was general angst in the community as people saw what had happened with several other manufacturing operations,” he said. “In addition, the economy has affected everyone, and people start questioning the long-term viability of their company.

“And in our case, integrating the standalone Lab Safety with Grainger created apprehension.”

Howard is a Wisconsin native with an engineering degree from UW-Platteville. He is a graduate of The General Manager Program at Harvard Business School and also has worked for Pella Corp. and Master Lock.

“I’ve gone through business integrations before, and what’s happened here is not unique,” he said of employee apprehension. “It’s a normal human reaction.”

The Janesville company probably always will be referred to as Lab Safety. It’s technical name, however, changed Feb. 1 to GHC Specialty Brands, and Grainger signage will appear in April.

That’s because of the ongoing integration of Lab Safety into other Grainger operations, Howard said.

Local changes

Up until 2001, Lab Safety in Janesville was just that, a distributor of safety and laboratory products.

The facility has since become the distribution, service and support home for brands that range from products for woodworkers to those for tow truck drivers.

Grainger is a broad-line distributor of maintenance, repair and operations products. It’s specialty brands, however, are vertically integrated companies that require extensive knowledge and support that typically differ from each other.

For example, the technical support people for Highsmith know the product line for schools and libraries inside and out. The same can be said about the Ben Meadows team that serves forestry professionals.

“Janesville has become much more than just Lab Safety Supply,” Howard said.

The 320,000-square-foot Janesville facility is split nearly in half between office space and a distribution center laden with forklifts, conveyors and racking systems that reach to the 45-foot ceiling.

Every day, nearly 2,000 incoming products land at one of the 19 docks on the north side of the facility. About 7,000 orders exit the building at the 20 docks on the south side.

In between, the inventory itself—if stacked together—approaches 1 million cubic feet.

Distribution has been a key component of the integration of the Janesville facility into the Grainger network. Last fall, Grainger moved some of the product distribution that had been exclusive to Janesville to facilities in South Carolina and California.

“We discovered that having just one distribution point for all the brands caused us some timing problems with our customers on the coasts and in the Deep South,” Howard said. “No matter how fast you pick, pack and ship, we’re still at the mercy of the carriers, and some customers weren’t getting their orders for three or four days.”

Howard said about 60 percent of the distribution still will be done out of Janesville. But the addition of two centers reduced the size of the local distribution staff by about 50 workers, all of whom either took early retirements, voluntary severance packages or transferred to South Carolina, he said.

Grainger employs about 800 people in Janesville, a number that’s fluctuated mildly in the last few years. About 600 of those are office jobs, with the remainder on the distribution floor.

Howard said gains in customer service, technical support and Grainger corporate positions have mitigated losses on the distribution side. In fact, he said, a favorable economy could add up to 100 office jobs in Janesville in the next three years.

That’s the message Howard has been sharing with employees.

Community connections

“We’ve cranked up the internal communications with our folks,” he said. “We’ve had all-company meetings and detailed our five-year strategic plan for the business.

“That’s maybe something that hasn’t been done here in awhile, and I think it was appreciated.”

Grainger and Lab Safety always have supported their employees, but the companies often have been perceived as flying under the community’s radar.

That will change, Howard said.

The company recently rejoined Forward Janesville, the community’s private economic development organization. It recently awarded scholarships to technical education students at Blackhawk Technical College.

“We will try to do more to connect with Janesville as a community,” Howard said. “That’s something that’s important to me, and it’s a commitment I will make for us to be more visible in the community.

“Janesville is a great market for us. We’ve got a solid, dedicated workforce, and we plan to grow this business here.”

That thrills business leaders such as John Beckord of Forward Janesville.

“It’s important to the community in a lot of ways to have companies with the profile and size of Grainger adopt the attitude and commit to the redevelopment and rebirth of the local economy,” Beckord said. “Grainger wants to be a part of that, and we’re thankful for that.”


W.W. Grainger’s specialty brands serviced and distributed from its Janesville operation include:

-- Lab Safety Supply, serving lab technicians.

-- Highsmith, serving library and school professionals.

-- Gempler’s, serving those who work outdoors.

-- McFeely’s, serving professional woodworkers.

-- AW Direct, serving towing and service vehicle professionals.

-- Ben Meadows, serving forestry professionals.

-- Rand, serving facility and warehouse professionals.

-- Professional Equipment/Construction Book Express, serving inspection, electrical, HVAC, engineering and building professionals.

-- Imperial, serving the fleet trucking industry.

Last updated: 1:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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