State - Wright Township Barrelling along DeWitt Barrels still thriving after 117 years

By Ron Cammel

The Grand Rapids Press

WRIGHT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- In the old days, when industries used wooden barrels to transport bulk goods, most people wouldn't have believed that metal drums would ever replace the classic container.

Today, they're used more as decorations.

DeWitt Barrels adjusted. Later, the 117-year-old company incorporated plastic barrels and larger totes called intermediate bulk containers.

That is partly the reason the business -- which has stayed in the same family for five generations -- has survived and thrived.

"We looked forward to see trends and adapted and made changes to meet demands," said Peter James DeWitt, vice president, whose great-great-grandfather started the business in Chicago.

The business, with 50 employees, earned the Michigan Family-Owned Business of the Year Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration recently.

Despite its name, DeWitt Barrels has never made barrels. It reconditions them for reuse. For decades, that meant cleaning and fixing the barrels, piling them on open-air vehicles and getting them back to distributors to fill with food and other goods.

Today, it mostly means cleaning 55-gallon steel drums for oil and chemical companies. The company strips paint, removes dents, seals leaks and repaints -- all with sophisticated machinery, chemicals and heated water. The company also reconditions similar-sized plastic barrels and the 300-gallon, cubical IBCs made of plastic with a metal grate.

What has remained the same is the family overseeing it all.

Peter James DeWitt, along with brothers Michael DeWitt, president, and Tim DeWitt, secretary/treasurer, took over from their father. Peter's son, Peter "Jason" DeWitt, is plant manager.

The brothers say their late father, Peter Sr., taught them the importance of running a business professionally and ethically.

"There are no shortcuts. You follow all the rules, even if it's expensive or you have to work more, specifically in the area of environmental care," Peter DeWitt said.

The company has been a Clean Corporate Citizen, designated by the state, since 1999.

Michael DeWitt said another secret to their success is availability and keeping promises.

"Our word is good. If we say we'll get it out Monday, we do it even if we have to work a lot more the day before. People really like that," he said.

Such attitudes helped when the owners had to decide what to do about a landlocked plant in Grand Rapids. DeWitt Barrels opened it in 1937, giving up the Chicago plant in the 1950s.

Around 1999, some of the 2,500 customers were pressing for more work, and the company could not keep up. "We had to sell out or move ahead," Peter DeWitt said. "We wouldn't make it if we stayed the same."

Soon after signing contracts for the 60,000-square-foot facility on 22 acres in Ottawa County's Wright Township, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to a 40 percent decline in business.

"It tested our resolve. We had a tough time," Peter DeWitt said. "But we stayed even when Michigan's economy was at its worst."

Today's challenge includes a move toward thinner-walled steel drums that do not last long and so are scrapped instead of reconditioned.

Buying the cheaper drums is shortsighted, Tim DeWitt said. A base of customers who look long-term stick with the long-lasting drums, but accountant-driven businesses go with the upfront low cost, he said.

Also, businesses overall are using barrels less often. Some sell used barrels for scrap. So the "raw material" for DeWitt is less available. The owners have watched many other re-conditioners leave the industry.

But Peter DeWitt is confident the company will adapt again and last another generation.

"Our father gave it to us with the same mandate he had -- to build it, take care of it and pass it on. When we pass it to Jason, it needs to be in a situation for him to make it grow," he said.

Published: Tue, Mar 23, 2010