If you have lived in or visited Chicago in the last 75 years, chances are you’ve come into contact with products from Chemcraft Industries. It could have been at an iconic institution like Wrigley Field, The Shedd Aquarium, The Chicago Theater, or even at O’Hare airport. It may have been at a Chicago public school, a nonprofit organization’s offices or even in your own condo building. For 75 years, Chemcraft has provided cleaning supplies and equipment to every corner of the city to a variety of industries.
Today, Chemcraft’s inventory includes everything from cleaning chemicals and paper towels to janitorial equipment and facility maintenance supplies, but founder Leonard Kahn only sold one product at its beginnings in 1947: soap.
Chicago was a bustling manufacturing city back then, and Kahn was a great salesman and quickly expanded beyond soap. At the time, most other suppliers were selling cloth roll towels that had to be picked up and laundered every day. Kahn had the vision to start selling paper roll towels in the mid-50s to all the large industrial accounts in Chicago. These proprietary roll towels, called Tretex, included a natural towel and a bleach towel. Kahn ordered them by the rail car and used common carriers to ship them out to customers, including some of the city’s largest industrial manufacturers like Burny Brothers Bakery, Cuneo Press, Wilson Foods and Crane Co. plumbing fixtures.
Friendship and Family
When Kahn ran out of room to store his products, he turned to his best friend, Leo Munvez, who would store the inventory in his own factory. Upon Kahn’s passing in 1974, he left the business to Leo, and Chemcraft has remained in the ownership and care of the Munvez family ever since.
That same year, Leo’s son Marty graduated from college. “Dad needed a little help, and 48 years later, I’m still here,” he says, now President of Chemcraft Industries.
With help from his brother Ron, who came into the business in 1979, Marty started diversifying Chemcraft’s accounts. Previously, they had exclusively served industrial accounts, but under Marty’s leadership, they began to develop a niche in social service and non-profit organizations, which they still have today.
This diverse customer base is part of Chemcraft’s survival story. Many of the large manufacturing companies Chemcraft originally serviced are no longer in business, but their expansion to everything from public schools and museums to sports complexes and property management companies has kept them alive while thousands of other jan san distributors across the country have closed. “No one customer is going to put us out of business,” Marty explains, “If there’s a recession or something goes down in a particular market, we can and have survived that.”
The Next Generation
Chemcraft had something else that many other family-owned businesses don’t: a next generation ready to take the reins.
Marty’s daughter, Michelle, loved to come to work with dad. One day when she was eight years old and all the staff had gone home at the end of the work day, a customer came in looking for a bucket and ringer. Instead of going to the office to fetch her dad for help, Michelle pulled out a Rubbermaid catalog and showed the gentleman his options.
“She always had a business sense,” says Marty. Michelle worked part-time at Chemcraft during high school and was always helping out her dad and grandfather. They were as much a part of her business education as her time at Columbia College.
Recognized by ISSA’s Hygieia Network as the Rising Star of the Year in 2017, Michelle has brought a new energy to Chemcraft as Vice President. “She has the passion,” says Marty, describing his daughter as a leader and great salesperson. Michelle is also a master of making connections and developing relationships through Triple S and the Young Leaders Council.
Relationships are another vital part of Chemcraft’s survival story. “This business is still ‘go see the customer,’ Marty says, pointing out that not everybody wants to buy online. “People want choices, and they want to know that they have somebody local that can come take care of them. We’ve been small enough that we can respond quickly, roll with the punches and take care of the customers.” Staff might, for example, get a call that a customer ran out of something at 9am after the Chemcraft trucks are already out on the street. Marty will jump into action, toss whatever is needed into his car and deliver it himself. “All the customers are important,” he says, “and we always try to make them feel that way and take care of their needs. Whether it’s our assistance in training their staff, solving a problem or rushing delivery, we take care of it.”
A Long, Good Road Forged by Service and Innovation
When Chemcraft was founded in 1947, paper towels were an innovative solution. Leonard Kahn couldn’t have imagined the technology and options they offer today, from touch-free dispensers to ionized water that can replace chemical-laden solutions. Presenting the latest technologies to their customers keeps Chemcraft at the forefront of cleaning and reduces the cost of labor. “Cleaning is 90% labor and 10% product,” Marty explains, “so if we can help the customer reduce the labor, that’s where our value is.”
That value increased even more during the COVID pandemic. “COVID has shown people that cleaning is important,” Marty says, adding “The value that we provide as a business to the companies and customers we serve is peace of mind. They know with our assistance that they will be safe.”
That’s what the business is about for Chemcraft — the ability to create healthy, clean environments for the public. Marty says “It may not be glamorous, but it’s a great industry with great people that all have a passion for our industry.” He calls the cleaning industry a “life sentence” that tends to lure people back even if they try to leave, as he once did as a young man. Chemcraft called him back, and as they celebrate 75 years of service to the people of Chicago, Marty says “it’s been a long road, a good one, and I’ve made a lot of friends and continue to make some new ones. I look forward to the future.”