That's how far the family-owned JSJ Corporation reaches back in time.
The company has survived fire, famine and fate to become a player in the global economy, with its leaders never forgetting its roots.
Swedish immigrants Al Jacobson and Paul Johnson met in Muskegon in the late 1800s. They were boys — soon to become men — with big dreams.
“My grandfather, Al Jacobson Sr., and Paul Johnson Sr. grew up together,” said Nelson Jacobson, who is now the CEO of JSJ Corporation, headquartered in Grand Haven. “They were very poor. When they were 13, Mr. Johnson was sent to be a machinist and my grandfather, a carpenter. It was very common in those days.”
Their friendship, and their drive to succeed, never wavered.
“When they were about 27 they decided to start a business,” Jacobson said. “They wanted to do something more with their lives.”
Al and Paul, scraping together the little money they had, with the help of family members, bought the Grand Haven Brass Foundry, which stood between the Grand River and Jackson Street, roughly where Culver's is now. It was a 40-by-40-foot building that employed nine people.
They manufactured brass hinges for ice boxes and also piano hinges, conveniently close to the Story & Clark Piano Factory in downtown Grand Haven.
“That was the beginning,” Jacobson said of the company that is now celebrating 100 years in business.
But on December 23, 1919, a furnace malfunction ignited a ferocious fire. A horse-drawn fire engine headed to the scene, but an axle broke and the fire engine couldn't reach its destination. The building crumpled into ashes.
Call it fate or call it destiny — the flames didn't char the duo's ambitions. A phoenix arose, in the form of B.P. Sherwood, 13 years older than Johnson and Jacobson.
“If it hadn't been for the fire and hadn't been for the broken down fire engine, this partnership may not have come together,” Jacobson said.
Sherwood, who held the prestigious title of “president” of the Grand Haven State Bank, eventually put the “S” in JSJ.
“He had heard about my grandfather and Mr. Johnson,” Jacobson said. “He saw they were hard working men. He trusted them. On Christmas Eve, he said he would loan them the money to get back in business. They had no collateral. There was no insurance in those days.”
The loan buoyed their business. They moved into a building on Hopkins Street that the local tannery had abandoned.
“They learned a lot working together,” Jacobson said. “They enjoyed each other. They had common values – trusting people, learning and working together. They really wanted to build something special.”
In 1924, they purchased a failing business on Taylor Street and renamed it Grand Haven Stamp Products.
“That when they became formal partners,” Jacobson said of the Jacobson, Sherwood and Johnson trio.
“They kept looking for more businesses,” Jacobson said.
JSJ currently owns five businesses, producing products for automobiles, appliances, medical components, conveyance products and more. They operate in more than 30 locations, including Mexico, China, Japan, Germany and the United States, employing more than 3,000 people.
“We are a global company,” Jacobson said. “It's important to participate in the global economy. We make highly engineered products.”
But 100 years? That's a long time. Be it a life, or be it a business.
“Our founders had a clear set of values in which they wanted to operate,” Jacobson said. “We have been able to sustain that over 100 years. The values were, and are, earn trust, have a passion to learn, be open and collaborative in working together and have a commitment to stewarding the legacy of those before you so you're able to give back to your community. Build the business, and leave things better, with more opportunity, than when you started.”
In the early 1930s, the company sold its first product to General Motors.
“GM has been a customer ever since and now is a customer for us globally,” Jacobson said. “I just got back from China, When we started, for the first 50 to 60 years, we primarily converted raw materials. In 1970, we converted from five partnerships to JSJ Corporation. The ownership stayed the same. We just changed our legal form. The second generation had joined the company.”
These days, third and fourth generations are at the helm.
“About 25 descendants, third and fourth generations, are active in the business,” Jacobson said. “We've evolved our businesses to remain relevant and profitable and we continue to grow.”
But profits and growth are only part of the business plan. Jacobson stressed that community, employees and family are key components in the JSJ philosophy.
“Every year we have a family event for lineal descendants,” he said. “We have well over 80 family members come every year. We're stewarding the legacy. We want to be important and impactful in every community in which we operate. It's important to us and every member of JSJ.”
Jacobson said he remembers his grandfather, who lived into his 80s, as a commanding presence. And that his grandmother, Edna, was also a driving force behind the family business values.
“It was clear he had a lot of passion for the family and for the community,” Jacobson said. “He just had a tremendous business mind. He was a very, very special person. He had a very warm heart and was deeply passionate about living these values and giving back to the community.”
That “giving back” tradition has continued in modern times.
“There isn't really an initiative we haven't been deeply involved in,” Jacobson said. “My grandfather set a standard to make sure that Grand Haven remained a very special place to be. Look at what a special place Grand Haven has become. If you do right, it's going to work out.”
Value doesn't mean a good deal in the JSJ family. It means holding them, treasuring them, and putting strong values above all else.
“The key is those three founders just had a tremendous vision that we needed to have a common set of values,” Jacobson said. “That's why we're able to keep moving forward. Because of those values, we've taken some pretty bold chances in reinventing ourselves time and again. Whether you're a family member or associate, whether you're in Grand Haven or Shanghai or Tokyo, we're all going to strive to the same values. It's the number one reason we're still around and relevant.”
Grand Haven City Council recently commended JSJ Corporation and its leaders for 100 years in business, and all they have given back to the community.
“You have to constantly reinvent yourself, what's important to people, how quickly things become obsolete," said Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb. "To stay viable, you have to stay ahead of the curve and you have to realize where things are going."
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, JSJ is sharing 100 stories, videos or anecdotes throughout the year at http://www.jsjcorp.com/100-stories.