Company of the Year 16-50 Employees

By Ian Ross

ULI WALTHER AND MIRCO WALTHER
GRK Fasteners, Thunder Bay

GRK Fasteners bills itself as making the ‘toughest screw’ in the industry.

And if toughness is defined as the ability to take a hit and keep going, it’s an attribute that applies to Thunder Bay’s Walther family.

Since arriving in Canada from Binzen, Germany 17 years ago, the persevering owners of the industrial fastener company have survived the financial troubles of their early years and overcome personal tragedy to become a company known in home-building circles for quality and strength.

For the newly landed family entrepreneurs, there were many days of hard work and some decisive moments for the Uli, Gerta, Mirco and Thorsten Walther to simply pack it in and head back to Germany.

Raising his family in the foothills of the Black Forest, Uli went to work as a sales manager for German screw maker Reisser Schraubentechnik GmbH in Switzerland.

Reisser had made unsuccessful attempts to gain a North American foothold and offered Uli the opportunity to make it work.
But the family decided Canada was a better fit to run Reisser’s North American operation.

After scoping out four Ontario communities, it was the City of Thunder Bay that rolled out the welcome mat.

To the Walthers, Thunder Bay offered everything they wanted: a central Canada location, good transportation infrastructure, a local German-Canadian community and quality of life they couldn’t find elsewhere.

But the early 1990s proved to be a mighty struggle for the fledgling business.

Uli hit the road on sales calls while the family steadied the shop back on Rosslyn Road. Gerta managed the company’s books, while Mirco and Thorsten attended high school during the day, then slipped into work clothes to man the 7,000-square-foot warehouse.

There were many late night trips down to the U.S. border at Pigeon River to hand-deliver parcels to a waiting UPS driver for distribution to Midwest lumber yards.

There were months when they didn’t collect a salary. And there was plenty of grief coming from head office. The Walther’s depended on cash injections from Germany to keep going.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Reisser dove head-long into the newly opened Eastern European markets, while also attempting to expand into North America.

For Reisser, it was a case of too much, too soon. The Mother company was bleeding money leading to its bankruptcy in 1992.
It didn’t help that what little product the Walthers had was an inferior offering.

“The problem was there was no inventory to sell,” says Mirco, GRK’s president, “and the inventory we did get was junk they couldn’t get rid of over there.”

It was a tough way for a family of newly-landed immigrant entrepreneurs to make a good first impression.
“It was one hell of a deal,” remembers Uli, now GRK’s executive chairman.

Things only got worse. A leading Kitchener fastener company, Spaenaur Inc., feigned interest in buying GRK from Reisser.

Instead they were waiting for the Thunder Bay operation to go belly up in order to cheaply scoop up the assets. “They even offered our bank 10 to 12 cents on the dollar to take over the operation,” says Mirco.

The Walthers were extremely lucky to find three local white knight investors lead by Herman Hoerz, who believed in them.
With the company firmly in their hands in 1993, they had to mend fences with their Taiwan suppliers, who were owed money by Reisser, and convince them to continue selling them product.

And they decided to concentrate on the U.S. Midwest market, while extending their reach in Texas and Louisiana.

From the beginning, the Walthers were determined to sell a high-quality product that would not break or snap.

At 17 years of age, Mirco began making business trips to the U.S., setting up demonstration booths at lumber yards and trade shows.

“Things started snowballing at some point when wholesalers started to call us asking to carry our line,” says Mirco. “When that started happening, it was a big boost to the company.”

Today, their distribution network stretches across the U.S. Midwestern, Rocky Mountain and the New England states with other regions “coming on strongly,” says Mirco. Sales are also improving in Spain and the United Kingdom GRK’s Rosslyn Road warehouse has grown to a fully-stocked 42,000 square-foot building. Their Thunder Bay workforce now numbers 38, with 26 North American sales staff on the road and 12 more in Europe.

 

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