West Chicago’s Vator Accessories has eye on growth.
Vator Accessories, Inc., was founded by Lisa Grimes and her stepfather, Frank Wieckowski, eight years ago and has enjoyed success selling elevator accessories such as rail clamps, scavenger pumps, door detectors, ladders, lights and fans, primarily in North America, but also worldwide. Wieckowski used what he learned during his approximately 50-year elevator career to tweak the design of products, such as the scavenger pump (which recycles oil that drips from the piston back to the main tank), so they would better appeal to customers. Grimes remembers he told her: “We know what products people like, and we know what they complain about, so we’re going to make improvements to them and start out with those.”
From a starting inventory of four product lines, Vator now sells approximately 35 product lines, and its inventory continues to evolve as a result of attending trade shows and forming new relationships, Grimes says. The company recently added door detectors from Columbia Elevator Products, Co. Inc. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and fans and emergency lighting from Man-D-Tec of Scottsdale, Arizona, to its lineup. Of the Man-D-Tec relationship, Grimes says: “We have our own fans and emergency lights, but by talking to them at many shows through the years, I realized theirs have some options that could enhance our product line, instead of competing with it.”
Vator’s five employees (not counting Grimes and Wieckowski) work out of a West Chicago light-industrial park, where approximately 75% of its products are manufactured. Wieckowski is semi-retired and lives in Florida, but Grimes sends him reports each week. Grimes is a familiar face at events such as those organized by the Elevator Conference of New York, National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC) and Elevator U. She believes face-to-face contact is vital to her business and that competitors can also be partners, as is the case with Man-D-Tec. Grimes states:
“Going to shows helps me meet new customers. I remember when I first started, I was afraid to even talk to other vendors because I thought they would not like me for starting a new business in the industry. My mom would always tell me, ‘Don’t worry. They will turn out to be your best friends,’ and that’s exactly what happened. You go to these shows together, and you end up being friendly — you buy from them, they buy from you, and they are someone you can call if you have questions about something. Everyone is like a big family.”
Business and family have always gone hand-in-hand for Grimes. She remembers when she was about 12 years old “working” alongside her mother, Michele Virchinsky-Wieckowski, who founded Quality Elevator Products in Niles, Illinois, after leaving Adams Elevator in the early 1980s. After graduating with degrees in Marketing and Psychology from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Grimes held several marketing positions with international retailers before coming to work for Quality officially in 2002. She says her background has helped her run a business, stating:
“Working in retail marketing for 10 years prior to joining Quality full time helped me hone my marketing skills, learn the importance of being customer focused and gave me insight into the operations of large corporations. My time at Quality gave me product knowledge [and] industry familiarity and taught me the difference between big-corporate operations versus small-business operations. All of this has allowed me to effectively apply strategies as we formed and continue to grow Vator.”
Twenty-five years after Michele Virchinsky-Wieckowski founded Quality, she sold it, and Grimes was let go. She and her husband, Chris, were expecting their second child, and Grimes wanted to continue her career. She turned to Wieckowski, who had previously helped her mother start Quality. He owned manufacturing and maintenance company Automatic Elevator in Niles at the time.
When Vator first began operations (before it could afford “real” employees), Chris Grimes worked with Wieckowski to set up the warehouse and racking, working weekends to assemble products and get them on the shelves. The family tradition continues today, with the Grimes’ children, eight-year-old Piper and 10-year-old Ben, spending a lot of time in the shop (and sometimes at home) lending a hand. Grimes says she would not be surprised if Piper ends up following in the footsteps of her mom and grandmother as another “crazy elevator lady.” Grimes says, “She will match invoices and staple them together, and I pay her [US$2] an hour for that. That’s what my mom used to pay me.”
Vator operates in a streamlined fashion, especially with one of its employees out on maternity leave now. Looking ahead, Grimes plans to focus even more on networking, with an eye toward expanding business in Canada. Vator recently joined the Canadian Elevator Contractors Association (CECA) and plans to attend United (a joint show with the NAEC, CECA and International Association of Elevator Consultants) in Montreal in September.
Vator has experienced double-digit growth every year since its inception. Along with New York City, Chicago is a big market for Vator. “A huge portion of our business right now is in Illinois and in the Chicago area,” Grimes says. “But we also do a lot of business on the [U.S.] East Coast, with New York/New Jersey being our biggest market.” Vator has sold to customers as far away as Australia, the U.K., the U.A.E. and Iraq.
One of the biggest challenges of running a small business, Grimes says, is cash flow. Fortunately, she says her instincts have been right about most customers, and Vator has been out-and-out stiffed only twice.
So what does the future hold for Vator? Besides growth in Canada, Grimes wants to continue expanding the product line so Vator can become more of a “one-stop shop.”