The Tuway American Group has been manufacturing mops and janitorial equipment for more than 90 years. The company got its start in 1923 when jansan distributor Otto Schaefer decided to capitalize on the burgeoning manufacturing scene in Detroit, MI, and started manufacturing brooms and mops under the Tuway brand name.
With the onset of World War II, Schaefer began to fear for his business. Not due to a decline in sales or a rising competitor, but because of something manufacturers would probably not even consider today. The original Tuway mop and broom plant was located near a military facility that built tanks. Fearing his factory might mistakenly be targeted by Axis bombers, Schaefer moved manufacturing operations to Rockford, OH, a rural community where he had relatives some 180 miles south of Detroit.
A Pair of Aces
After relocating, Tuway experienced modest growth over the next decade under Schaefer’s leadership, but the company started to waver in the early 1950s. Looking to exit the janitorial supply business, Schaefer sold the company in 1956 to two practicing attorneys – Dana Griffin and John Wilson. The two kept the Rockford manufacturing facility in tact, but moved administrative offices back to Michigan.
The partnership of Griffin and Wilson took Tuway to new heights as each complimented the other perfectly. Wilson brought a keen financial sense to Tuway while Griffin, a former ISSA president, was a jansan industry veteran with an eye for innovation. During the 1960s and 1970s under their steady hands, Tuway grew both in terms of products in profits. Griffin was instrumental in developing the company’s flat-mopping system and introducing Velcro to Tuway’s mop heads in the 1970s.
In the early 1980s, Griffin and Wilson, wanting to step back from the business, started looking for a prospective buyer, but they did not want to sell to just anyone. The two wanted to ensure that the Rockford plant stayed in existence and that Tuway’s family-like atmosphere continued. The Koester family seemed like the perfect match.
Two of a Kind
Jim and Trudy Koester always had strong ties to Tuway—and to the owners specifically. Trudy had worked with Wilson as legal secretary since the 1960s. “When I first started with Tuway, it was very different,” she recalls, “We couldn’t even imagine some of the technology that exists today like automation and the Internet. One thing that was unique for the industry, and still is today, is that due to our rural location a majority of our employees, both in administration and on the plant floor, were female. Local ladies came to us for jobs with insurance since their husbands were either farmers or truckers.”
Wilson proved to be as shrewd at matchmaking as he was at financing, “Wilson was an accounting teacher on the side,” Trudy recollects. “Jim was one of his students, and he introduced me thinking we would make a good couple.” Not long after that first meeting, Jim and Trudy were married.
While Jim spent the next few years working as an accountant, Trudy maintained her position with Tuway. “After several years as a CPA, Jim was looking for a change,” says Trudy. “I recall one day I said almost jokingly – why don’t you see if Wilson would like to sell his company to us? And to our surprise he said yes!” On May 4, 1983, the husband and wife team officially took over ownership of Tuway from Griffin and Wilson.
Jim and Trudy were exactly what the previous owners were looking for in buyers. Wilson even kept an office and assisted with what proved to be a rather seamless transition. Jim, like his predecessor Griffin, turned out to be quite the innovator in his own right. “Jim brought in new technology, applying computers not just to Tuway’s finances but to the company’s inventory and manufacturing,” says Trudy. “During a trip to Europe in 1987, Jim discovered microfiber and added it to our product line.” By 1991, microfiber had been fully integrated into Tuway’s mops and other products, making it one of the first janitorial supply companies to offer such products.
One Big Family
As Jim worked on growing the company’s product offerings, Trudy worked on growing relationships with the employees. “I used to drive to the Rockford facility every other week from our home in Michigan,” she says. “It’s almost 200 miles door to door, and I knew every single pothole. I made a point of personally getting to know all of our employees, their spouses, their children, their pets. And when you have that sort of relationship in a small company with your employees, it is easy for everyone to carry it over to the customers as well, making it feel like one big family.”
That spirit of family helped carry Trudy and Tuway through some of their darkest times when Jim passed away suddenly from a terminal illness in 1998. “I feel that without the people at the plant, there is no way that this company would be around today,” Trudy says. “Jim died rather quickly, and they all stepped up to the plate and really helped me take the reins. Had I not known the employees so personally, I’m not sure if I would’ve continued on as owner. But just about any buyer that approached me after Jim’s death wanted to move the company out of Rockford, and I couldn’t do that to my people.”
While the family ties of Tuway are strong, the company’s connection to ISSA runs almost as deep. “Tuway was one of the earliest members of ISSA, and we greatly value that relationship,” says Trudy. “The association is a wonderful group and does so much not only for its members but for the cleaning industry at large. It’s really amazing to see something that began so long ago not only still be influential but continue to promote and move the industry—keeping ideas and products new and innovated and sharing with all members of the association.”
But Tuway is not a passive participant in ISSA’s history. “Tuway has always been involved with ISSA,” says Trudy. “Our previous owner (Griffin) served as association president in 1977, and I’ve been on the ISSA Exhibitors Committee more times than I can count. It’s important to give back to ISSA as the association gives so much to its members. ISSA is beyond helpful, it provides so much research and studies, things that would not be available to us under normal circumstances.”
Trudy retired from running Tuway in 2002, but still maintains an active presence with the company “I still drop by the Rockford plant to visit, just not as often,” she says. “I love all the employees there; it is like catching up on with my extended family. I’m really proud of the company as a whole. It is a pleasure being around the people that are there and that work so hard for us.”
Tuway still very much remains a family affair. Trudy’s daughter Barbara served as Truway’s human resources manager from 1993-2011 and her son Doug, who joined the company in 2002, now serves as President. With the lessons learned from his parents’ decades of leadership, Tuway is poised to succeed for many more decades to come.