Thursday, May 15, 2003
By Rick Wilson
The Grand Rapids Press

What do a hardware store and a medical translation company have in common?

Strict values that customer service counts, according to the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Modern Hardware and Voices for Health were honored Wednesday as Small Businesses of the Year at the chamber's Small Business Celebration at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids.

Besting a field of about 20 area businesses nominated for the award, the chamber's selection committee chose the two because of their outstanding performances in customer service, according to Scott Ellison, co-chairman of the selection committee.

"Both of them have created very strong ties with their customers," Ellison said. "It's to the point that their customers are not just satisfied, they are loyal."

For Bob Vander Lugt, president of Modern Hardware, 1500 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, that means competing in a market dominated by so-called "big-box" home improvement giants that have left many smaller neighborhood hardware stores by the wayside.

Vander Lugt said his company's biggest challenge has been overcoming the big-boxes' massive advertising budgets that create an image that they can offer more products at lower prices.

"They have a lot of what they carry but not a lot of breadth to their product lines, and they're also not unbeatable price-wise," Vander Lugt said. "We do a good job of competing with them, and it's all based on creating loyal customers that are going to come back."

Founded in 1924, Modern Hardware began as the former Oakdale Fuel and Materials Co. that sold mostly coal and some building materials.

Its former owners added products, becoming a full-fledged hardware store during the 1950s. Vander Lugt's parents bought the business in 1970.

He and his sister and brother-in-law, Elaine and Rick Dreyer, bought the business from his parents in 1999.

Vander Lugt credits a decision his parents made during their tenure to focus on hardware and get rid of side lines -- such as housewares -- with setting a trend that has helped the business' success.

Modern Hardware these days is a major supplier to builders. Decorative hardware accounts for about 60 percent of the company's business, Vander Lugt said.

"Our most loyal customers that we deal with on a daily basis are builders," Vander Lugt said. "Serious builders can't afford to spend time wandering around Builder's Square when we'll go out to a job site and tell them what materials they'll need."

Michelle Scott, president of Voices for Health, sees similarities in the way her business approaches offering medical translation services. The company, at 894 Fuller Ave. NE, accomplished an estimated 10,000 translations between patients who don't speak English well and medical professionals last year.

"There are other companies who do translation, but we're the only one we know of that focuses on medical translations," Scott said. "About 80 percent of our business is from repeat customers who ask for us."

Founded by Scott in 1997 as Spanish Translations Etc., the company changed its name in 2000 to reflect its growth to include a broad spectrum of languages. Since Scott took on a partner, Carols Pava, in 1999 the company has expanded its services to more than 30 languages.

Along with translation services, the company also provides educational curriculum and seminars along with translations for food products and marketing materials. It also does the translations for WOOD-TV 8's 6 p.m. news broadcasts.

"I recall frequently hearing from my patients that when they went to the hospital, other patients who were also there to receive services were translating for them," said Scott, who also is a registered nurse. "I started the business because I felt as a bilingual nurse that I could help medical providers better understand their patients."

The company employs nine full-time and more than 100 freelance translators. Scott said they all undergo mandatory, rigorous training so they are sensitive to privacy issues and the extreme personal nature of the medical information they relay between patients and medical professionals.

"With oral interpretation, there is more than just the words. There's the cultural context that has to come across," Scott said. "I remember one woman who was in a lot of pain but couldn't talk so her husband answered for her.

"The staff at the hospital had this stereotype of the machismo Hispanic male and thought he was being dominating when in fact he was articulating exactly what the patient wanted."

©2003 Grand Rapids Press. Used with permission.

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