Chicago’s big. It’s the third biggest in the United States with nearly 3 million residents occupying 237 square miles of land. Back in 1914, it earned the nickname the City of Big Shoulders – but not because of its size. It earned the moniker because of how hard its people worked.
Knowing its reputation – plus its size – one would assume that making it on a list of the city’s fastest-growing businesses would be slim to impossible. After all, the competition is fierce. Chicago is home to thousands of businesses, including 11 Fortune 500 companies within the city limits and another 23 in the surrounding suburbs.
But Morgan Li, a manufacturer of retail and hospitality fixturing, managed to do just that. It was listed 12th on Crain’s Chicago Business’s Fast 50, an annual accounting of the area’s 50 fastest-growing businesses. It did so by earning $24.1 million in revenue in 2017, a 1,168.5 percent increase over the past five years. The company was the highest ranked manufacturer on the list.
For short runs, one-off projects and prototyping, Morgan Li invested in a Bystronic BySmart fiber laser 3015 and Xact Smart press brake, among other critical fabricating equipment.
Long shelf life
Growth like the type that Morgan Li has experienced doesn’t happen by chance. It requires thoughtful, measured and strategic planning. And it certainly doesn’t hurt when a business is founded on a solid bedrock of experience.
Long before landing on Crain’s list, Morgan Li was the product of a decades-long family tradition of manufacturing. Andy and Jonathan Rosenband launched the company in 2009 in the same facilities in which their grandfather had founded a radiator cover manufacturing company more than 70 years ago. Years later, their father, Phil, took over and reinvented the company as a shelving solutions business, producing products such as shoe shelves, library racking and eventually, shelving and fixturing for front-of-house retail environments.
When the baton was passed on to Andy and Jonathan in 2009, the country was still reeling from the Great Recession, so the brothers came up with a novel idea to open a refurbishing business. While much of the company’s work entailed producing new shelving fixtures in sister facilities in China, Taiwan and Vietnam, the brothers began refurbishing old shelving in the 500,000-sq.-ft. factory and warehouse in Chicago Heights, a suburb just south of the city. Both sides of the business brought in huge customers – some of the biggest in retail, such as Walmart, Old Navy and The Gap.
“Walmart would send us their shelving from remodeled or relocated stores, and we would simply put them on the paint line and ship them back out,” explains Andy Rosenband, CEO of the company. “Since it was right after the recession, we were confident that the program was going to go gangbusters. It offered our customers a huge cost saving versus buying new, not to mention a green, sustainable option for their older shelving.”
The paint line at Morgan Li plays a big role in the company’s refurbishment program.
Because of the nature of shelving refurbishment, many of the customers that took advantage of the service had to be large enough that they not only had a surplus of shelving but were also constantly opening new stores or remodeling existing ones. To ship the old shelving to Morgan Li at an affordable cost, many of those customers also leveraged their own fleet of trucks. So although Morgan Li’s refurbishment business was chugging along, the brothers recognized a need to diversify their work.
“In 2012, Walmart decided to limit their scope of refurbishment,” Rosenband explains. “Because there aren’t many companies large enough to have surplus shelving and the trucks to move it, Walmart’s reduction in orders was a hard pill to swallow. But, manufacturing is in our roots, so we just ponied up to diversify our offerings. And that’s where the growth has taken off.”
Based on those years of experience, diversification came fairly easy. It also came thanks to in-house engineering and design departments and a strategic partner based in San Francisco. Branching out beyond retail fixturing, the company began producing furniture for boutique hotels and pop-up retail shops, ranging in all sizes from tiny to massive. Including new retail customers, some of the new accounts that have come on board include Vans, Adidas, Macy’s, Claire’s and the Ritz Carlton, to name a few.
“Anyone can make furniture, but our niche is in affordable luxury hotels where each room is often sized and, therefore, designed differently from the next,” Rosenband says. “Everything needs to be customized, so we leveraged our retail expertise to offer these new customers a range of ideas. It’s been successful for us and cost-effective for them.”
In addition to hotels, Morgan Li also has its sights on manufacturing corporate and healthcare furniture. To date, the company has already completed a large order for a Chicago-based data analytics company.
Diversification is the name of the game at Morgan Li, a company that processes a range of materials for a range of end products.
The equipment equation
In addition to opening up new lines of business, the brothers also agreed that they needed to perform more than just refurbishment and assembly in-house. To take their business to the next level, the brothers knew that large capital investments in key equipment would be necessary. So, they invested in a BySmart fiber laser 3015 and an Xact Smart press brake from Bystronic Inc. Additionally, a robotic welding station was installed as was a vacuum material handling solution for the new laser cutter.
Morgan Li’s new BySmart laser was chosen for its fast processing speeds as well as its low operating costs, which are applied to a range of material thicknesses. That was important to the team at Morgan Li, considering the range of projects they’re constantly working on.
“The laser has opened up so many doors and customer opportunities for us,” Rosenband says. “I joke with my dad that the laser takes the place of 30 machines that he used to have. That thing is incredibly fast and efficient.”
As for the Xact press brake, it, too, was chosen for its versatility. It can bend simple angles all the way through to complex parts while at the same time being incredibly user friendly. Part of its ease of use is thanks to its interface, a 22-in. touchscreen display that offers operators a realistic 3-D part animation and step-by-step bending sequence instructions.
Together, the two machines – paired with the robotic welding – give Morgan Li a highly productive fabrication cell. To add to that capacity, the brothers plan to make further capital investments in additional laser and press brake machines from Bystronic, including an Xpert 80/1350 press brake and another BySmart fiber laser cutter.
Despite their long-standing customer base, new streams of business and cutting-edge equipment, the brothers still attribute their unprecedented success to the company culture at Morgan Li. Without the employees – 70 full-time employees and another 140 seasonal temps – the company’s impressive growth wouldn’t have been possible.
“Everyone has an infectious can-do attitude,” Rosenband says. “Everyone wants to do well because they want the team to do well. We’re a family-owned business, and although everyone here isn’t related, it certainly feels like one big family.”
And Morgan Li thanks them for their dedication. The company boasts a full gym and trainer on-site so employees can get in a workout in the morning before they start their shifts. And recently, as a celebration of the Crane’s nomination, the entire staff piled onto three buses and headed to a Chicago Fire soccer game.
In addition to having a tight-knit staff, being family-owned gives Morgan Li a major leg up. Unlike larger companies that have to go through layers of administration to make a decision, the company is quick and nimble on its toes.
“A lot of our competitors are lined with red tape because they’re large corporations,” Rosenband says. “We can jump through hoops and make decisions on the fly. We also do a good job of offering a menu of production items, whether it’s imported or manufactured domestically. We’re thoughtful about our approach because we want to deliver a quality product while also being cost-effective for our customers.”