Here’s a story of tech success by immigrants with a rather sad ending – that of the wood screw maker GRK Fasteners. I came across these products in Home Depot, where they get a whole bay to themselves:
They’re the best screws I’ve ever used! They have star heads, are self-tapping (meaning they start their own holes), are made from tough case-hardened steel, and are plated against rust and corrosion from treated lumber:
The first couple of threads have little W cuts in them to help saw through the wood. The star bits grip so well that you can hold a screw horizontally on the driver and it won’t fall off. They’re way better than Philips, never mind the absurd slotted head. The wide flat head sets against the wood, clamping the piece down.
Metal screws have been common for over 200 years. How is it that people are still improving on them? Who came up with this? The boxes have little black-red-yellow German flags on them, and they’re called Uber-grade. Is this another case of Germans looking at a problem carefully and doing it right?
Not quite. The company was founded by a guy named Uli Walther. He had been working for a German screw company called Reisser, and living in Switzerland, and they wanted him to open a North American office. He looked around the continent and settled on Thunder Bay, Ontario, a town on the northwestern edge of Lake Superior. It connects rail lines from western Canada to shipping on the Great Lakes, and is also a significant industrial center, notably of Bombardier light rail cars. Walther liked it because of the good amenities and its German immigrant population. He moved his family there in 1990. Meanwhile Reisser tried to expand into East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and promptly went bankrupt in 1992. The Walthers were left high and dry in a foreign land. But Uli still knew a lot about screws, and had contacts in Taiwan for the actual manufacturing. He started GRK in 1993 with money from local investors.
They had a hard slog in the 1990s. His sons worked at the plant starting in high school. Uli started to file patents on screw features in 1996, and ultimately got 5 US patents, the last in 2002. He and his son Mirco filed the most significant one in 1999, US 6,152,666, that patented the W-shaped saw cuts in the threads. Mirco took over the company in the 2000s, and has 5 patents himself. They did well in the 2000s, selling to independent hardware stores and contractors, and opening their own manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay. They even opened a German subsidiary. The biggest hiccup came in 2004 when the Canadian government imposed a punitive tariff on their Taiwanese imports, largely at the request of China. They fought the tariff for 5 years and finally got it overturned.
By the 2010s, Uli wanted to retire, so the company was sold in 2011 to a conglomerate, Illinois Tool Works, which has a lot of fastener lines. They then closed a deal with Home Depot to offer them across the continent, and that established their brand. ITW promised to keep the Thunder Bay factory open, but closed it three years later in 2014. Everything is now made in Taiwan, and there’s nothing of GRK in Thunder Bay any more.
So the Walthers came to the New World and used their experience and ingenuity to build something genuinely new and advanced, only to be shut down by global capital. Both parts of their story are fortunately and unfortunately common.
But there’s s sequel! Uli could not stay idle in retirement, and started a new firm, U2 Fasteners, in 2016. They have even more advanced features, like a bulge on the shaft that opens the wood up as it screws in, and little cutters under the cap that improve the counter-sinking. Here he is at a trade show with a model of one of his products:
They’re not sold at Home Depot, but contractors love them and there’s even a screw-off video comparing U2 and GRK on YouTube. Here’s hoping that all the Walthers keep advancing the state of the art!