Friday, November 9, 2012

Browne - Morse history

Photo above shows the Browne - Morse plant on Broadway in Muskegon Heights, circa 1970.

Browne-Morse, maker of office furniture for over 75 years, was never one of Muskegon’s high profile Industries. It never employed huge numbers of people (probably never above 400), nor were its products very visible locally, at least in comparison to those of Shaw Walker and E. H. Sheldon. Yet, for a time, the company was among the national leaders in the manufacture of steel office equipment.

The company had its beginning in 1907, when Frank Morse, a former executive at Shaw Walker, expressed a desire to start his own office equipment factory. Richard Browne, a retired plumbing dealer, offered to put up the money, and the two became partners.

Their first plant was located in the Heights, on Barney St, in the former Gray Brothers plant. Five years later the company was expanding, and took over the former Grand Rapids Desk Co. building on Broadway in the Heights.

In the 1920s, the firm began to produce steel office furniture along with its wood products. By the late 1920s, all production was steel. Employment during this period averaged about 200 workers.

Like many businesses in the depression era, Browne-Morse was forced by economic conditions into bankruptcy (1934). But by 1937, the company had recovered, paid off its creditors and resumed the business of making metal filing cabinets and office equipment.

With the beginning of World War II, came steel shortages. B-M faced the possibility of having to go back to using wood for its products. But the factory had long since disposed of all its wood working machinery. Fortunately, the company secured defense contracts to produce steel furniture for submarines and LSTs, and steel antennas for aircraft. (NOTE: Muskegon’s own LST 393, has some furnishings made by B-M, including a large map table.)

After the war, B-M enlarged its product line and began to make laboratory equipment. This included the manufacture of large fume hoods to draw off dangerous gases and smoke.

Sometime in the early 1970s, B-M patented a new type of filing cabinet, designed for the lateral storage of folders. This method provided for ease of inspection and withdrawal of files and was considered a marked improvement over the standard drawer filing cabinet. Called the “Montisa,“ system, it’s apparently still being made (according to info on the Internet) in Plainwell, Mich.

In the Fall of 1978, B-M benefited from a $400k grant to Muskegon Heights from the federal Economic Development Administration. This allowed the city to purchase B-Ms old plant on Broadway and tear it down. The city hoped to build a high rise apartment building for the elderly on the site. Meanwhile the company would consolidate all its manufacturing in the former Norge building at the corner of Sixth and Broadway. The plan was to completely modernize its production facilities so B-M would be able to compete for business on a global scale. The plan also required additional financing, such as loans from the federal Small Business Administration.

Unfortunately, a combination of labor problems and bad timing by both the city and the company caused the plans to go awry. Browne-Morse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In early 1981, it looked as though Browne-Morse was back on solid footing. Marketing expert, Robert Manchester, was brought in as new president. (Manchester was no stranger to B-M; he had worked at the company in the 1950s, before leaving to found his own successful marketing firm.) Using fresh capital from stock holders and loans from city and county development corporations, the company was reorganized. A new contract with local Allied Industrial Workers Union also helped. Employment increased from 60 to 75 workers.

Manchester kept the operation going for three years, but ultimately the company was not profitable enough to pay back all its creditors (including the IRS). The company was forced to liquidate in October of 1983.

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