When Carl Miller swept aside the curtain, he found himself the master of small parts. Miller, the owner of Stateside Industries/Great Lakes Canvas Co. of Fennville, Mich., had seemingly found his niche after 15 years of making safety side curtains for gymnasium bleachers.
He’s still making those, but with business partner David Van Der Velden, he’s found a starring role making mobile parts bags for large assembly operations such as Ford and Toyota, and (relatively) small ones such as Haworth Industries of nearby Holland.
Miller got his start in the fabrics world working for a bleacher manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Mich., that was looking for someone to sew the safety curtains that hang on either end of the seats. He left that company to work full time on similar jobs, working out of a 5,000-square-foot pole barn at home. He also makes wing curtains for restaurants, and sun and pull-down shade systems for porches.
“We do the bleacher curtains as Great Lakes Canvas Co.,” he says. “We do the bags as Stateside Industries Inc.” An organization chart would indicate Miller is president of Great Lakes Canvas, while he and Van Der Velden are co-owners of Stateside Industries.
The bags are mobile parts bags, each with individual components for a manufacturing operation—constructing headlamp assemblies for automobiles, for example—that can be wheeled from one work location to another. Several companies make the racks-on-wheels, but relatively few make the compartment bags.
During their busy season, Miller might employ as many as eight additional workers, seven days a week. In the off season, he and Van Der Velden can handle things on their own.
Van Der Velden initially knew Miller socially and went to work for him making sales on the curtain business for about five years. When the mobile bag system opportunity popped up, they decided to become partners. “We work really well together,” Van Der Velden says, “and this was just a good fit.”
The partners share an affinity for reading CAD (computer assisted design) drawings. “We get a drawing of a bag and figure out how to cut the fabric and put it all together. You could say we have the same thought process,” says Van Der Velden. “We always seem to get to the same answer and how to get there.
“We are geared to doing projects, rearranging our workroom very quickly to do quick turnarounds. We can handle orders from 50 to 500 bags. Fortunately, we’re both attached to our phones and we get credit for answering things right away. We specialize in quick answers and are known as problem solvers.”
Van Der Velden says that one of the unique aspects of their mobile bag system is its construction using the German fabric Evolon, known for its low shredding. “It’s a really soft fabric, felted with water but really strong. It looks like really durable paper towels that breathes and doesn’t shed fiber.”
Sourcing through IFAI
Miller and Van Der Velden are recent members of IFAI; they joined in the past year, Miller admits, to “make connections and drum up business.”
They’re hoping to get to IFAI’s Specialty Fabrics Expo in Orlando this fall. “We’d been having trouble getting materials for the bags and thought this would be a good starting point for us, and we’ve gotten some people contacting us about thread and other material, so those connections are being made,” Miller says. Van Der Velden sees in those the opportunity to possibly expand into other businesses.
In addition to their work place compatibility, they have a shared love of dogs. Van Der Velden has a rescue pug named Ellie Mae. “She came off Craig’s list,” he says. “It was a terrible story, and I just had to have her.”
Miller spends his free time remodeling his 1885 farmhouse that sits amid 40 acres of land, devoted primarily to running space for his two Great Danes, Bill and Larry.