One of the quieter but most remarkable business success stories in Northern Michigan has been playing out since 1883 at a company that until last year was called East Jordan Iron Works, but which now goes by the name of EJ. Today EJ is a global company with subsidiaries in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Australia and Europe and sells to nations around the planet, but the core business remains rooted in the product line that propelled it throughout most of the 1900’s: access covers- commonly called manhole covers, but the product line is much broader than that. “We provide access to whatever is buried underground all around the world,” says Tom Teske, vice president and general manager. EJ employs about 2,200 worldwide and about 470 in East Jordan.
The shape and growth curve of today’s company can be traced back to the recession of the 1980s, Teske explains. Until then, the firm had been happy to be a Midwestern foundry making mostly manhole covers and fire hydrants. But the early-80s recession hit hard and forced the company to think bigger in order to survive; the challenge came just as the Malpass family was transitioning to the fourth generation of ownership. The spirit of growth and a strategy of targeted diversification became part of the company’s culture, still nurtured by fifth generation members working there. “Our goal is to always have more products targeted to the existing client base,” Teske says.
The results of that strategy are visible in the kinds of skill sets the company is looking for these days. Global business means a globally savvy marketing strategy and accompanying website. “We’ve hired new marketing people and a graphic designer, and we are beefing up our web skills to handle the multi-lingual, multi-currency business we do,” Teske says. And of course, EJ is amping up the digital aspects all around: more backend IT support, CAD/CAM expertise, people who can work with programmable mills. But as a foundry-based company, EJ also still stands squarely in the 3-D world of things like molten metal. “We need electricians,” Teske says. “And in foundries, the biggest department is often the maintenance department.”