Prospering Company: Helro

Kim Russell jokes that she once wanted husband Jeff to give her 51 percent of Helro, the Rochester-based business they co-own, so that it could be a certified female-owned company.

It didn’t happen, but no matter: Equality seems to work for the Russells.

“Our lines are pretty well-defined, so that’s good both for our company and our marriage,” says Russell.

And she has evidence to back up that statement. The marriage has lasted 28 years and produced two sons. The business? Well, the business is its own successful marriage of strategic planning, quality and customer service that has survived the tumults of the economic recessions.

Helro (The name is a blend of the original owners’ two names) has been in business since 1969, but the Russells only took it over from Jeff’s father 15 years ago. Since then, Helro has grown to be a leading supplier of diamond grinding wheels, which are used to cut belts for automotive companies.

Things were buzzing a long perfectly fine until September 2008, when the economic recession hit. With the auto companies taking an especially big hit in this area, the demand for diamond grind wheels nosedived by 80 percent in 2009.

The Russells had to start cutting costs — and cutting them quickly. They found these cuts in the expected and not-so-expected places. “My husband and I did not collect a paycheck (last year),” says Russell.

“Every little thing we trimmed back to the bone,” she adds. “We put together a business plan, not just for the year, but for each quarter.”

That type of planning helped divert disaster, but the real turning point came when the Russells decided to attend the Venture Forward program. Venture Forward is a 10-week series of training sessions offered by the Oakland County Business Center. The program helps existing entrepreneurs grow their businesses by developing sound business and action plans. The weekly workshops often include guest speakers, and one-on-one coaching and long-term mentoring from area professionals.

“It really helped us look at where we were and where we want to go in the future,” says fRussell. “We wanted to step up; we wanted to be a part of the Michigan that wants to employ people.”

For Helro, that made all the difference. The program “was the catalyst to make us decide to continue with Helro,” she adds.

It also meant the Russells made a choice that may have seemed unusual in tough economic times. “We also decided we had to invest in two businesses,” says Russell.

Kim Russell and her oldest son started a Vanguard green cleaning service, while she and her husband invested in NatureSan, a company that creates environmentally friendly disinfectants. “We had to provide for our families and we wanted to create new jobs,” says Russell.

That commitment to small business doesn’t end with Helro, Vanguard and NatureSan, though. Kim Russell has decided to run for the Michigan Senate as a Republican for District 12. She’s hoping to bring her passion and knowledge of small business to Lansing, where she believes it’s needed.

“I think they need a strong business person,” she says, adding that small businesses are the primary source of jobs in the U.S. “We are the job creators. If we don’t have small business, we will die.”

The state Senate run won’t distract her from her obligation to Helro, which she says is coming through the recession successfully and looking to grow once again.

“Our goal is to service our customers and to meet and beat their expectations,” she says.

Helro Corporation is located at 326 Albertson in Rochester. For more information, call 248-650-8500 or visit www.helro.com.