Tucked away on a back road in Gary's Miller neighborhood, Kidstuff Playsystems makes playground equipment that's sold in all 50 states and abroad.
The 36-year-old playground manufacturer is experiencing its best-ever year for sales, and revenue is up 25 percent over last year.
“Kidstuff is an asset to our city and the region as they continue to donate their time and talents to a myriad of community projects," Gary community builder Jessica Renslow said. “The interesting thing about this little mom-and-pop-that-could is that they do a ton of national and international projects, but a lot of folks in Northwest Indiana don’t even know Gary has a playground manufacturer, despite their being in business for decades and committing to hiring local.”
The business was founded as Olympic Recreation in 1982 by educator Richard Hagelberg and union carpenter George McGuan. Hagelberg was looking to buy a playground for his childcare center and realized there was an untapped market.
They made a wooden playground in a classroom and sold it to a nearby town. At first, Hagelberg and McGuan designed, cut, drilled, and routed every piece of wood for their custom playgrounds in McGuan's basement. Within a few years, they had grown to the point where they had to move into a manufacturing facility and moved to their current Miller Avenue location in 1998.
The company manufactures playground equipment, swing sets and other play structures. About 20 workers weld and powder-coat climbers, sliders, overhead ladders, freestanding swings and other playground equipment that's now made with steel and plastic. Ladders and other fitness-oriented equipment have grown increasingly popular.
"For the most part what we do here is metalworking," said Hagelberg, who serves as CEO while McGuan serves as president. "It's all made-to-order from set designs."
Customers include schools, parks, childcare facilities, early learning centers and apartment complexes. Kidstuff Playsystems, which has invested in its internet presence and search engine optimization, relies on a network of sales representatives and dealers to get its products in front of clients.
"Ours is a business that depends on personal contact," Hagelburg said. "Our sales reps have been doing a better job of getting in front of people. The strong economy helps. When schools have money they're going to update their playground equipment. We've also benefited from all the new charter schools that have been opening."
About 70 percent of the customer base is schools, which typically need to replace playgrounds every 15 to 20 years. The company does some local jobs including a recently installed playground at the Village of Hope in Gary paid for by the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which carries on the legacy of the trainer from Cedar Lake who was killed by the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando. Kidstuff Playsystems has sold its playgrounds internationally, sending shipments to countries like Vietnam, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
The company normally grows at about 5 percent to 10 percent a year unless the economy is in a recession, but has been growing at 25 percent, double the industry average.
"We're competing with customers that are 50 times bigger than us," he said. "But we're also able to sell slides to other small companies that can't develop the molds, which is expensive. With our sales people and the internet, we're growing fast."