The origins of the Bradford Co. date back to 1897, when W.J. Bradford started a paper company on the south side of Chicago that made candy boxes and popcorn bags.
Twenty-seven years later, the W.J. Bradford Paper Co. incorporated, moved to a larger location in Chicago and a new generation of the family began to manage the business.
In 1952, the company opened a plant in Holland, which in time became the home of what in the mid-1980s was renamed the Bradford Co. Today the company is led by a fourth generation of the Bradford family and includes a fifth generation as well.
In the 124 years since W.J. Bradford first formed the company, the business has grown to more than $100 million in sales and more than 750 employees at eight locations in the U.S. and Mexico, including facilities in Holland and Zeeland.
Bradford Co. in the last four years expanded at a compound annual growth rate of 13 percent — most of it organically — and added more than 450 jobs.
In recognition of that success, the company recently received the Association for Corporate Growth West Michigan’s 2020 Outstanding Growth Award, a recognition that President and CEO Tom Bradford calls an “extreme honor” and attributes to West Michigan’s deep acumen and legacy in manufacturing.
“We feel that we live in one of the most progressive manufacturing areas in the United States and where a lot of collaboration and innovation takes place,” he said.
An ACG West Michigan committee reviewed 20 nominations this year for the prestigious Outstanding Growth Award. Bradford Co. was the unanimous selection, said Joel Brandt, vice president of commercial lending at Macatawa Bank and chairman of ACG’s Outstanding Growth Award Committee.
“Bradford showcases its ability to adapt and reinvent itself throughout the decades of technological change,” Brandt said in an award announcement.
Bradford Co. produces industrial paperboard partitions, sewn textile packaging and custom reusable and returnable protective packaging, primarily for the automotive and appliance industries, plus some medical.
In recognizing Bradford Co. with this year’s Outstanding Growth Award, judges at the ACG selected a family-run company that has grown as its leadership transitioned through generations.
“I’ve been a caretaker, so to speak, for 40 years,” said Tom Bradford, a fourth generation of the family who’s been president and CEO of the company since 1996.
Tom Bradford succeeded his father, Judson, who remained active in the company as a mentor for a few years after retiring.
Tom Bradford first joined the company in 1981 as a sales representative covering Southwestern Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. He credits the family’s earlier generations with creating, growing and sustaining the business, and then passing it down to the next generation to take the company forward.
“Our generation four helped add things, but that’s only because of what generation one, two and three were able to start and leave opportunity for generation four to be in a position to also try to find opportunity as well,” said Bradford, who’s one of three family members presently with the company.
His older brother, Jud, retired two years ago as chairman and senior vice president who led innovation. He worked for the company for 38 years. Tom’s son, Tommy, directs operational support and a nephew, Scott, works in program management as well.
Key to the Bradford Co.’s success has been a system Tom’s father — also known as J.T. — instituted many years ago when he led the business. He brought in outside professional consultants and instituted programs and a view of “running the business as a business,” not an enterprise to support the family.
“Yes, I’m a shareholder, but I’m also an employee. More often than not I wear my hat as an employee and as an officer of the company to try to help develop the growth of the business in that regard. I think we’ve done a pretty good job knowing what our roles are and running the business as a business,” Bradford said. “We kind of felt: If it was good for the business, it will ultimately be good for the family.”
Family members who were not associated with the company did not have an influence over the business, he said.
That practice was to ensure that if the “hit by a bus scenario” ever occurred, the next family member stepping into the leadership role was somebody who’s been through the “ups and downs,” knew industry cycles and “felt like they understand the business,” Bradford said. “It’s not in their best interests to be in a position that they can’t succeed in.”
Having the regular conversation and keeping the next generation in mind ensures continuity and future leadership, Bradford said. He recalls when he was young his father talking with him about the business and sparking his interest in some day leading the company.
“When you’re in a family business, those discussions are taking place just about business itself and general questions. You’re piquing their curiosity, even when they’re in high school and such. When someone becomes a captain of a football team, did they become the captain at the time they were appointed? No. They were on a journey long before that,” Bradford said. “I always had a curiosity in the business and just would ask questions, ‘What do you do and what are some of the things that you’re doing?’
“In a lot of family businesses, you have that dialogue going on before people advance their education.”
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