A lot of people seem to believe that manufacturing in the U.S. died out and disappeared years ago, especially in our more rural areas.
There are, of course, plenty of cases that reinforced that notion, with shuttered plants and shut-down industries all around the country. But The Manthei (mon-tie) Group is an excellent example of how that story is far from universal. Today the company, headquartered in Petoskey, Michigan, a popular resort area in the northwest corner of the state’s Lower Peninsula, runs businesses that include five different business units: a heavy construction service company, a forest products business, mobile home and RV resorts in the southwestern U.S., a real estate portfolio operation, and a licensing business that creates business opportunities for concrete producers globally. And to balance it out, one of the cousins operates a successful microbrewery. With over 400 employees and over $100 million in annual sales, the firm has come a long way from its humble origins, and has a long growth runway.
It all started with a couple of German immigrant farmers.
Constance and Ferdinand Manthei immigrated to America around the turn of the last century, settled in the Petoskey area, and began farming. It was Constance who raised her family from poverty by establishing a flower-growing business, specializing in asters. Her sons Ted and Ernie continued the farming business, succeeding in beans after some difficulties and branching out into strawberries.
To support the fruit business, the brothers decided they wanted to make their own baskets for their customers to carry away their purchases. In 1942, they went shopping for wood basket-making equipment. It didn’t wind up as they’d planned. “They bought a veneer machine by mistake,” said Jake Manthei, President of Aster Brands, one of the company’s business units. “So instead, they set up a veneer mill on Walloon Lake.” Despite having mills burn to the ground not just once but twice in the decades since, the family continues to run the still-growing veneer business today.
It was the generation after Ted and Ernie that expanded into the sand and gravel business, concrete precasting, and construction. They’re also the ones who got into the resort business. “Ted and Ernie bought land on the other side of the mountains from Joshua Tree National Park,” explained Jake. “It had natural non-sulfur hot springs.” Eventually the family realized they had an opportunity for a resort operation, and set up an RV park. Over time, that developed into multiple parks with over 2,000 spaces, which continue to grow and expand.
Jake’s dad Ben, as well as Ben’s brothers and cousins, took over after the first veneer mill burned down. They rebuilt the mill on the original site, later also adding a second location a few miles down the road. They also expanded the concrete business when an opportunity came their way to build a wall for a local developer. Unable to find a suitable material for the large wall they were building, they designed their own, and that eventually led to their Redi-Rock brand of retaining wall blocks.
Jake’s generation took over after the second mill fire in 2017, consolidating the operation into one site with state-of-the-art equipment. The business also expanded to include plywood products, and it added a die board company with its 2013 purchase of Techniply.
The concrete side of the business has expanded as well. With the Redi-Rock business well-established, the new generation realized that while heavy concrete blocks couldn’t be shipped very far economically, machinery and intellectual property could. The Manthei Group established its Aster Brands business unit to market its Redi-Rock retaining wall block technology, along with its Rosetta residential wetcast hardscape products for pools, patios and walls, and its Pole Base precast lighting pole foundation manufacturing systems, to concrete precasters around the world. “Our purpose statement is, ‘Changing the world in a concrete way,’ Jake said. “We’re really into building partnerships, not just in transactions. We pulled these separate companies together into a combined sales, marketing, and intellectual property company that develops opportunities for concrete precasters. We make them a destination for growth by empowering our licensed network.”
Their customers are true believers. “I get excited about it because it creates a lot of opportunity for me,” said Jon Lowrance, owner of Excel Retaining Walls in Nashville, Tennessee, a Redi-Rock licensee. “It impresses everyone we install it for. It looks amazing and goes up fast. Lots of what people build is planned obsolescence–it’s throwaway. This will be around after I’m gone.”
Irvin Vittitow, co-owner of Redi-Rock KIT in Mount Washington, Kentucky, is another satisfied licensee. “I was at the World of Concrete show in 2006. I picked up one of their blocks and said, ‘I can sell this,’” he said. “I tried it out, and a few months later, I became a customer. It’s been a really good partnership over the years. I started in Louisville, expanded into Indiana, and down into Tennessee. They have their Redi-Rock University, which we go to every year.”
“Again, it’s about partnerships, not just transactions,” added Jake. “We actually became friends.”
That’s the case with their customers from all around the world, too. They routinely host them in northern Michigan, and have built communities both with, and among, those business partners. For Jake, it’s an integral part of doing business. “I don’t need a bigger house,” he said. “It’s about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
The Mathei family shares a deep Christian faith, and they credit that as a main reason their business is still succeeding as they head toward eventually handing off to the fifth generation. “That quest for significance is what will really bring you satisfaction at the end of your career,” said Abe Manthei, President of The Manthei Group. “The mission to keep unified in business is what keeps our family together.” He points to examples that were set in the family early on. “Our grandparents were very involved in making sure they did a true tithe–10% of every dollar they made. They sponsored radio broadcasting for Christianity in postwar Japan, and PTSD counseling.”
Jake agreed. “Our generation is picking up where the last one left off. We are working hard to grow so that we can create more jobs and give back to the community.” As The Manthei Group looks toward future opportunities, he says that will be the central theme. “We went to business school and learned that the purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value. However, that definition really misses the point. Maximizing value is a requirement to sustain business. It is like saying the purpose of a human is to breathe. You need to breathe to live, but the purpose of living isn’t breathing, is it? The purpose of business is to apply your faith to helping others, giving back to something bigger than yourself. This is where success and significance intersect.”