By Sue Moore
Five guys were at the top of their game in chemistry when they were with the Upjohn Company in the 1980s and 90s. They were contemplating what life would be like as Upjohn was being acquired by Pharmacia. They decided to take a leap and go into business together.
They landed in Vicksburg as a start-up in December 1997. Bridge Organics has thrived in its location on 311 W. Washington Street in a building erected in 1962 as the research and development building for Simpson Lee Paper Company.
At the 20-year mark, two of the five owners are still active in everyday operations, while the other three are peripherally involved. They have created a company that does testing of compounds in small batches for big pharmaceutical companies, with 31 employees at today’s count.
“We are pleased that Bridge Organics has been able to grow, provide good-paying jobs that are meaningful and in a way, help to make the world a better place,” said Harold Karnes, one of the two owners still involved. They do that by working on small batch compounds for other companies which don’t have the expertise or perhaps have an already overburdened research and development department.
Bridge Organics can create and test chemical compounds and then scale them up to the point where the larger companies can put them into production. They work with biotech companies and even the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In one instance, they were able to produce a pheromone that can attract female sea lamprey at mating time, allowing the DNR to capture the females before they can lay their eggs. It is still in the testing stage but offers an alternative to putting toxic chemicals in lakes and streams, a system that is currently being utilized by the DNR. Bill Rhodes, the company controller, describes the compound as Chanel #5 for the female lamprey.
Ed Hessler, president of the company and the lead chemist with a national reputation, age 79, often bikes to work in the summer months from his home in Kalamazoo. “Retiring early is not any good without anything useful to do,” he said. Their early idea was to give other middle age chemists a place to experiment and develop their own products. “We found that wasn’t such a good plan because unlike us, they really did want to go out and play golf every day,” said Karnes, who is 80 and still going strong.
Rhodes said these two guys have built a company where the employees can laugh and have fun everyday while still doing serious work. “They have built the loyalty of their work force that would be hard to beat anywhere else.” Who knew that PhD’s could be like that with eight currently on the job at Bridge, several with Masters degrees and all the others top-flight chemists and process operators? They even have their own plumber on staff because of the miles of tubing needed to conduct experiments.
The fun even continues on to the bridge table where Karnes is a Life Master and plays serious duplicate bridge. Hessler and he would spend their lunch hour at Upjohn playing bridge. They don’t get as much time for that anymore, but the name Bridge Organics was derived from the love of the game; Hessler’s wife suggested it might be an appropriate company name, as in “bridge the gap”.
They found the building in Vicksburg in a serendipitous way as well. David Buss, another one of the founders, was tipped off about an empty building in Vicksburg by someone in his Kalamazoo church congregation. They called on Don Flanders, village manager at the time who said he had just the place for their new company and offered the 10,000 square-foot building for lease at $40,000 a year. They had inquired about the Western Michigan Innovation Center space at $250,000 for the same square footage and after that it was a no brainer, Hessler said. They have since purchased the building, expanded two times, paid half million dollars in local taxes and paid $22 million in salaries.
Rhodes described the business of making compounds as Bridge does with an analogy. “It’s like a fine dining restaurant where you have the top chefs – at Bridge Organics it’s the owners and top chemists – and the sous chefs are the makers of the food that goes out to the customer. At Bridge, they’re the operators of the equipment and product producers.”