"Marlin saved itself by facing a truth that few threatened manufacturers can stomach: It was failing because it had gotten everything wrong. It had the wrong customers; it had the wrong products; it had the wrong prices. Greenblatt realized--just in time--that even wire baskets could be innovative. The simplicity of Marlin's technology is not what we typically associate with innovation--there's no algorithm, no microchip, no touch screen. Instead, Marlin learned how its products could help its customers, providing the quiet innovation that can give a fellow U.S. factory a critical edge and help keep jobs in the United States."
The American economy has some really quirky corners--places so esoteric or tucked away we hardly notice them. In 1998, Drew Greenblatt bought one of those corners--a company called Marlin Steel that specialized in a single product: wire bagel baskets, which bagel stores use to display their wares. Marlin had the market to itself. "You had the guy who made baskets for the doughnut stores, Dunkin' Donuts and the like," Greenblatt says. "You had the guy who made the metal chafer stands that buffet serving dishes sit on, with the cans of Sterno. And you had us, doing the bagel baskets." Marlin's customers were the big chains: Einstein Bros., Bruegger's. "Once in a while, we'd edge into each other's business," he says. "The doughnut guy would try to get some bagel stores. But mostly we did our own thing."
Marlin was based in Brooklyn then. Greenblatt, who was 31 when he bought the company, moved it down to Baltimore, near his hometown, along with nine families who wanted to stay with Marlin. It was really just a metalworking shop: 18 employees, most at minimum wage, using hand tools to bend and weld metal, with $800,000 a year in sales. Marlin didn't own a fax machine, and most of the equipment was from the 1950s. Purchase orders arrived by mail. The pace was methodical and unhurried--each employee made 15 or 20 baskets a day. Still, says Greenblatt, make no mistake: "We were the King of the Bagel Baskets."
But not for long.