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Humans of Manufacturing

Looking Forward to Monday

Business Owner Ann Kirkwood-Hall Works Past Tragedy, Takes Over Manufacturing Business

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The death of a loved one is a difficult thing to bear, but especially when that person is your spouse. After Ann Kirkwood-Hall’s husband Jim Kirkwood passed, she picked up the broken pieces of her life and took over the family manufacturing business.

“I was numb at that point,” said Ann Kirkwood-Hall. “I just got up every morning and kept moving forward because it's what I had to do. Each day was hard. And I remember reading in a book once where a widow said that she used to look forward to Friday, but she now looked forward to Monday. Immersing myself in work—in Jim’s work—was how I coped with my grief.”

Bulman Products Inc., a Grand Rapids, MI, manufacturer, opened its doors in 1906 after founder Elvah Bulman invented the Gem Take-up Twine Holder, a dispenser used to hold a ball of twine or string and keep it from getting tangled. Over the years, Bulman established itself as a leading supplier of rolled paper cutters, packing tables, tape dispensers and store fixtures. The business passed to Bulman’s son Orville before being sold to the Rospatch Corp. (now Ameriwood), and then to Jack Kirkwood in 1982.

Kirkwood-Hall’s late husband was preparing to purchase the business from his father Jack when tragedy struck. Realizing that it’s what Jim would have wanted, Kirkwood-Hall soon approached her father-in-law about buying Bulman Products. He was open to the idea, but suggested “why don’t you come work here for a while and see if you like it.”

“I was numb at that point. I just got up every morning and kept moving forward because it's what I had to do. Each day was hard. Immersing myself in work—in Jim’s work—was how I coped with my grief. … I was promoted to general manager with the plan that I would buy the company, which I finalized in December of 2012.”
Ann Kirkwood-Hall

Aside from what she’d picked up at the dinner table over the years, she knew nothing about manufacturing, but she took his advice and got to work.

“I had a business degree and had already worked in human resources for a number of companies,” said Kirkwood-Hall. “I already had a fair amount of business experience. I came to Bulman and started in customer service, then just kind of figured out how things work around here. I was promoted to general manager with the plan that I would buy the company, which I finalized in December of 2012.”

Bulman plant manager Nils Reichert said that the sudden death of Jim together with an economic downturn put the company into a tailspin. “Ann set aside her grief and rose to the occasion,” he said. “She worked hard to purchase the business, keeping all 20-plus employees on board until we could regain our structure and get a fresh start.”

When Jim passed away, it was Reichert who stepped in to lend a hand. Later, he would show Kirkwood-Hall much of what she now needed to know about manufacturing. “Everyone here helped out after Jim’s death, especially Nils, I’m very fortunate to have him,” said Kirkwood-Hall. “He was a great help during the transition.”

Kirkwood-Hall has made investments in the company since taking the helm. She’s upgraded equipment, negotiated union contracts and developed new products. Her efforts to grow sales have led to a straight five years of revenue increases that have exceeded the GDP growth rate each year. This new sales approach included a complete ERP system overhaul, plus new company branding and a new website. She then moved from a single channel sales model to a multi-channel model, including a direct sales eShop, www.bulmandirect.com, and the ability to ship to 48 countries via the website.

Under her leadership, Bulman Products was named one of Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch in 2014 and World Trader of the Year in 2015 by the West Michigan World Trade Association. She’s also continued working with the Grand Rapids non-profit organization Hope Network to employ adults with special needs.

During this time period, Kirkwood-Hall remarried, gained two step children, and worked with her husband to create a stable, grounded blended family. “My son, who was seven when Jim died is now a junior in high school,” she said. “A lot has happened in the past nine years and life goes on even when grief strikes. Each day I choose happiness and it no longer matters if it’s Friday or Monday.”

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