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East Jordan: Iron Works changes name, not commitment to hometown

East Jordan Iron Works, named for a small village at the bottom of the west arm of Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan, has outgrown its name but not its hometown. Nor its tradition as a family-owned business that has consistently turned down all feelers and offers to sell as it has grown a global footprint.

The company was founded in 1883 by William Malpass and his father-in-law, Richard Round, to make castings for machine parts, ships, agriculture and railroads, with a focus on companies involved in the lumber boom that was then supplying white pine to much of the U.S.

The company still runs two 10-hour shifts a day at its foundry on the eastern shore of the lake, in the heart of the small city. The foundry melts 40-50 tons of iron an hour to reshape into finished products, most of it recycled, some of that scrap hauled daily from auto plants in Southeast Michigan and the rest from large scrap dealers around the state.

For decades, the company grew organically. It 1968, it began a series of acquisitions of castings and foundry companies around the U.S. In 2000, it began expanding worldwide, with the acquisition of a foundry in Birr, Ireland, followed in 2004 by the acquisition of a foundry in Paris and later by acquisitions in Canada, Australia, England, Germany and Belgium.

Today, after two dozen acquisitions, the company supplies infrastructure projects in 150 countries across five continents, with 50 sales offices, 10 manufacturing facilities — including a state-of-the art foundry and distribution center it built in Ardmore, Okla., in 2001 — and R&D centers in East Jordan and St. Crepin, France. It also has a 5-acre sales and distribution center in Oak Park and a 70-acre distribution center in Sunfield, a village near Grand Ledge; every two hours, a truck loaded with 165,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight leaves East Jordan for the center.

The company designs, makes and distributes iron, steel and aluminum access covers and grates for water, sewer, drainage, telecommunications and utility networks. It also makes valves, valve boxes and meter boxes.

But as the company and its footprint grew globally, trying to market the name "Jordan" became confusing at best, a hindrance at worst. To most would-be customers, "Jordan" was associated either with a famous, historic river or with a country embroiled in Middle East conflict and religious turmoil.

And in the post-9/11 climate in the U.S., buy-American policies enforced at some American companies and municipalities got in the way of the East Jordan Iron Works. As Tom Teske, a vice president and general manager of the company's Americas business unit, told Crain's in 2011: "We'll have people say, 'What are those Jordanians doing here?'"

So, on Jan. 6, 2012, after much internal and occasionally heated family debate — and to the dismay of some townspeople — the company changed its name to the EJ Group Inc., operating as an umbrella under which a handful of operating divisions held on to their original names, which had important brand recognition, such as HaveStock in Australia, McCoy in Canada and Norinco in France.

But that's getting ahead of the full family, and small-town, story.

Five generations of Malpasses

Soon after the company's founding, Malpass summoned his brother James, a journeyman machinist in England, to join him. The company made castings for machine parts, ships, agricultural parts and railroads, with companies involved in the lumber boom of the day major customers.

As the lumbering era wound down at the turn of the century, the company expanded its markets into castings for water-works valves, fire hydrants and what would soon become its ubiquitous sewer grates and manhole covers.

In the 1920s and '30s, William Malpass transferred management to his three sons, William Henry Malpass, Dick Malpass and Ted Malpass. In the 1950s and '60s, the third generation of leadership emerged, with William's son, Bill, and Ted's son, F. Bruce, assuming control.

Since the mid-1980s, the business has been led by the fourth generation — Frederick, Bill's son, is chairman of the board, and Tracy, the son of F. Bruce Malpass, is president and CEO.

And five members of the fifth generation are working at the company, including Andrew Malpass, who is vice president of product strategy and sourcing for the Americas.

He says his kids are too young to work, but he expects a sixth generation of Malpasses to be running EJ in the not too distant future.

"We'll always think of it as a family business," he said.

When New York City wanted to install fancy new manhole covers to honor the millennium, it hired East Jordan Iron Works to do the design, cast the covers and deliver the finished product. When the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France and the Lisbon Portela Airport in Portugal needed new manhole covers, the company in the small town in northern Michigan got the contracts. You can look down and see its grates and manhole covers in a village in the middle of the forested nowhere of Alaska, in beach towns in Hawaii, in Majan villages in Central America, and in big cities and small towns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Given its global presence, has the Malpass family ever thought of moving the headquarters from a small town in northern Michigan far from freeways and major airports to a more traditional place for a company with well in excess of $100 million in revenue to conduct business? When asked that, Andrew Malpass screwed up his face as if he'd eaten a pickle long gone bad.

"This is our home. We grew up here. All of our families live in East Jordan. We're committed here," he said.
The commitment is more than psychological, and more than offering a lot of high-paying jobs, too. In the last 30 years, the Malpass Foundation has paid for a combination EMS and fire station, the police station, the high school football field and track, and the local public pool.

Tom Cannon is the city administrator in East Jordan. "In my 12 years here, I can't tell you how many things the family has done for the community, how generous they've been. But for all they do and all the people they employ, they don't throw their weight around. They don't try to tell us how to do things by any stretch of the imagination.

"You see the Malpasses at high school basketball games and at church and at restaurants. They're just a regular part of the community," he said.

Of course, Cannon might be prejudiced — he plays on a basketball team in an over-35 league with Andrew and his brother, James.

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