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Chemcraft Industries: A Story of Survival in Chicago

By Nicole Bowman | December 6, 2017 << Back to Articles
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When you’re on hold on the phone with Chemcraft Industries’ Chicago, IL, office, a friendly recorded voice greets you with some historical facts. “The year was 1947; the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in Jordan. Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Chemcraft Industries joined the industry…”

History plays a huge part in this family-owned and -operated jansan supplier’s story. It’s celebrating its 70th anniversary, including more than 40 of those years as a loyal ISSA member. The key to its longevity? “We’re a survivor,” says Chemcraft President Marty Munvez.

To understand Munvez’s statement is to travel through Chicago history, noting the many ways this service-oriented business has adapted to meet the demands of a city in motion.

The Early Years
In 1947, a young man named Leonard Kahn started Chemcraft Industries to supply Chicago’s factories with paper towels. It also was the year the Chicago Cardinals and their infamous “million-dollar backfield” went 9-3, beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL championship game 28–21. It was the first year the World Series was televised (which didn’t matter much for White Sox or Cubs fans; both teams finished sixth in their leagues). The Chicago Transit Authority was created, Martin Hennelly was mayor, and Al Capone died in January. It also was the year manufacturing employment in Chicago peaked with 667,407 of the city’s 3 million inhabitants working in factories; Chicago Steel was the city’s largest employer.

In the early 1950s, other suppliers were still selling cloth roll towels, which had to be picked up and laundered daily. Chemcraft was the first supplier in the region to distribute paper towel rolls and enjoyed much early success supplying them to Chicago’s busy factories. Its customers included some of the city’s biggest industrial accounts, including Wilson Foods, Burny Bros. Bakery, Cuneo Press, and Crane Co. plumbing fixtures.

Today, all of these factories are out of business, but Chemcraft is still supplying paper towel rolls—in addition to jansan equipment, supplies, and products—to some of Chicago’s biggest modern accounts, iconic institutions such as Wrigley Field, The Chicago Theater, The Chicago Botanic Garden, The Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, O’Hare and Midway airports, and the Chicago History Museum. Today, the City of Chicago is one of the top employers in the city—and a Chemcraft customer. While the city’s economic strongholds have shifted significantly over the past 70 years, Chemcraft has survived by adapting to its customers’ changing needs.

A Paper Towel Inheritance
In 1974, founder Kahn died. He shocked many when he left the company to his best friend, Leo B. Munvez. “At that time, my father knew nothing about the paper towel business,” recalls Marty. This was also the year Marty graduated from college. Marty was thinking about attending law school, but as the story goes, his father called him and asked for help running the paper towel supply business he had just inherited. “So I started selling janitorial supplies,” remembers Marty. “I was just short of 22 and was thrown to the wolves.” He’s been with Chemcraft ever since. When Marty started working at Chemcraft 43 years ago, one of the first things he did was urge his father to join ISSA. Since then, the company has been at almost every ISSA/INTERCLEAN® North America show. When Chemcraft joined ISSA, there were about 20,000 independent jansan distributors in the country. Today, that number lies between 2,500 and 3,500.

Marty’s daughter, Michelle Munvez, grew up in the industry. She remembers riding her bike around the Chemcraft warehouse when she was a little girl. By 11, she was answering the phones and entering orders, and by high school, she was doing everything from paying the bills and doing payroll to handling the marketing and fixing vacuums. Today she is vice president, running the business alongside her dad.

“It’s intrinsic,” says Michelle. “I learned a lot of the business vicariously just riding around on sales calls with my dad when I was 12. One day, I realized I could unclog a vacuum and fix it because I’d been watching my grandfather do it all my life.”

Surviving Into the Future
In the summer of 2016, Chemcraft moved its office to Hermosa on the city’s Northwest side, a blue collar neighborhood with a mix of residential and manufacturing space. Michelle just scored her first new client in the area, which has opened up the possibilities for even further growth.

Right now, Chicago is experiencing a development boom with more than US$20 billion worth of developer projects in the pipeline, including a redevelopment of the areas surrounding Wrigley Field and a proposal to develop more than 40 acres where the A. Finkl & Sons steel plant once stood. According to Michelle, that represents growth opportunities for every Chicagoan, especially Chemcraft. “I’m looking at all the cranes in Chicago with a new perspective,” she says. “We are going to continue what we’ve been doing while serving Chicagoland the best we can and incorporating new technology for its changing needs.”

One such technology is a fully integrated software system that allows jansan distributors to run their businesses, integrates training modules remotely, and makes sure their customers have access to the information they need to use the products and equipment at all times. “And I still remember when my dad told my grandfather that we needed to get a computer,” laughs Michelle.

Another innovative technology that Chemcraft is using is vendor-managed inventory (VMI), which takes a more proactive approach to keeping facilities stocked with what they need. Rather than customers having to keep track of inventory, Chemcraft manages their product supply based on regular site visits and past purchasing history.

Since most of Chemcraft’s accounts are located in the city, where storage space is an issue, pre-VMI Michelle and her sales team found themselves constantly fielding last-minute requests for supplies when inventory was running low. For example, they were supplying a college campus that was only two blocks from their warehouse. Every week, Michelle walked a dolly loaded with paper towels down those city blocks (which doesn’t work so well in a Chicago winter). That university eagerly participated in Chemcraft’s VMI pilot program!

Michelle is just as passionate about the future of the cleaning industry as she is about her family’s business. In fact, this year, she received the ISSA Hygieia Network’s Rising Star of the Year Award for her outstanding contribution to the cleaning industry’s inclusion and advancement of women.

Father-Daughter Team
Michelle and her dad make a great team. She brings enthusiasm for the future, including new technologies, such as software systems and inventory management technologies. Marty has a respect for the past and a deep commitment to past personal relationships. He describes his guiding business philosophy for the past 40-plus years simply: “Be fair, be honest, and hope that the people you’re dealing with are going to be fair and honest with you.

“And if I make you a promise that you’re going to get something today, then I’ll make sure that promise is fulfilled. So if I have to throw it in my car or hire a delivery company to get it there—my word is my bond.”

This article originally appeared in the Postconvention 2017 edition of ISSA Today.


Nicole Bowman started learning about the cleaning industry as web content coordinator for ISSA and now, as a freelancer, covers the cleaning beat for trade magazines and clients ranging from facility management companies to environmental groups.

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