|The “Web of Jewels” guitar Shiraz Balolia made with Grizzly tools.|
Shiraz Balolia is no master guitarist, he readily admits with a laugh. But he’s a whiz at making guitars. Of course, he has an advantage. As the founder of Grizzly Industrial Inc., maker of the world’s largest selection of woodworking and metalworking machinery under one brand, he can make just about anything he wants.
If you want to make a metalworking machine, you need a lathe. As the saying goes: You need a lathe to make another lathe. So that’s where Balolia started when he founded his Bellingham-based company in 1983. He named it Grizzly, since all other animals are afraid of grizzlies, and then he transformed what had been a woodworking hobby into a multimillion-dollar growth business.
“I wanted a working lathe for myself, but I didn’t have any money,” the Kenya-born Balolia says about his pre-Grizzly days living in Vancouver, B.C. He bought used lathes, fixed them up and sold them, eventually making enough money to buy a new one. Quickly, Balolia realized “this could be a good business.” He was right.
Soon, people clamored for woodworking machines, so Balolia took night classes, taught himself woodworking and learned the machines for that new world of users. It turns out he had plunged into two massive markets.
Grizzly now has warehouses and showrooms in three cities—Bellingham; Muncy, Penn.; and Springfield, Mo.—and two engineering offices in Asia, where quality control personnel oversee the creation of new Grizzly machines, from table saws, band saws, planers and sanders on the wood side to milling machines and lathes on the metal side.
Grizzly has created viability by staying true to both the hobbyists as well as the nation’s largest manufacturers. The ornate showrooms cater to all, but the online and catalog orders have the more than 300 employees hopping. With no outside sales, Grizzly’s client list of 1.5 million customers—plus targeted magazine advertising—keeps business moving. As one of the first tool companies with a web presence in 1996, now approximately 30 percent of all sales come in through the website, meaning the 674-page Grizzly catalog is a vital company asset. (The Grizzly client list reads like a who’s who of major corporations, including John Deere, Alaska Airlines, Weyerhaeuser, every branch of the United States armed forces, Nike and countless more, although companies wouldn’t comment on their relationships due to legal restrictions).
|Lummi Island woodworker Alan Rosen works with a Grizzly 37-inch Wide-Belt Sander.|
“We have a targeted audience and have worked very hard to build a reputation,” Balolia says. “We also have a word-of-mouth business. When you see our equipment in your neighbor’s shop, you order a catalog and now you are a buyer.”
Grizzly’s headquarters cover 10 acres in Bellingham, which includes the company’s first warehouse. With a second Bellingham warehouse, Grizzly has another 250,000 square feet of space in the city. Another 400,000 square feet opened in Pennsylvania in 1987, and 450,000 square feet opened in Missouri 10 years ago, now making Bellingham the smallest of the destination showrooms. The Pennsylvania showroom alone fills 35,000 square feet and features ponds and demonstration shops.
The company keeps costs down by having all machines made to its specifications in Taiwan and China and by selling them directly—cheaper overseas manufacturing on the one hand and not having to work through a network of dealers on the other. Grizzly is the only major machinery maker in the nation without a dealer network.
“Another key element is that we are fast losing the pool of skilled tradesmen in this country,” Balolia says, mostly because students no longer learn those trades in shop classes. “The long-term impact of this in our industry is very detrimental to the manufacturing and trades industry,” he says.
|An Extreme Series 14-inch Bandsaw.|
Ed Polf, a hobby woodworker in Lynden, says that Grizzly products are “darn good machinery” and he enjoys the competitive pricing while toying around making furniture.
With 20 models of lathe under the brand—a lathe is a lathe, except when you add in factors of size as well as other bells and whistles—Grizzly has something for the hobbyist who wants to store it on a shelf in the garage or for machinists in the U.S. Navy.
Make that the entire U.S. Navy. Once Balolia personally purchased the South Bend Lathe Co. in 2009, maker of the so-called Harley-Davidson of lathes, and revived the once-proud 104-year-old company, Grizzly became a dealer of the high-quality machinery. South Bend clients Lockheed Martin and the Navy clamored to get the South Bend brand.
“I had been trying to buy South Bend Lathe Co. for two years,” he says. “I bought an American icon.”
Selling South Bend equipment is a small piece of the Grizzly brand. Once Balolia realized that with machines come consumables and peripherals, Grizzly has expanded into offering blades, sander belts, discs and every imaginable item needed in conjunction with the machines. That niche continues to grow. And while Grizzly isn’t inventing new machines, creating options—such as the 20 models of lathes—holds growth opportunity, too. Then comes the worldwide market. Grizzly started shipping into Canada in 2010 and also hit trade shows in Mexico, just the tip of the iceberg in worldwide sales opportunities.
As Balolia’s hobby flourishes as a business, he continues to work his “other” hobby: making guitars. And not just any old six-strings: Balolia’s axes are elaborately crafted instruments carved from rare woods, with inlays of gold and abalone and other precious materials. One example, the “Web of Jewels” guitar is adorned with 18-carat gold spiders, ivory knobs and more than 20 carats of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The guitars are on display at company headquarters as well as on the Grizzly website. They are a good demonstration of what luthiers can do with Grizzly machinery, and Balolia often takes them to trade shows like NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants)—the largest music tradeshow in the world—as a way of drumming up what amounts to just a small fraction of Grizzly’s sales. As a result, his guitars have helped him land deals with some of the top guitar manufacturers in the country, from giants like Gibson and Fender Musical Instruments’ custom shop, to the high-end acoustics of Taylor Guitars and the boutique electrics of John Suhr Guitars.
Ed Yoon of Suhr Guitars says they rely on the “precision and reliability of Grizzly’s machines” to service the most demanding professional musicians in the world. “It’s something we take very seriously to do the job right.”