Like his father before him, Michael Ball, Jr., grew up with the family business, Woodrow Engineering Co. of Sister Bay.
As a college student in 1971, Mike, Sr., and his brother used a rented U-Haul van to move the family business from Illinois to Sister Bay. In 1972, he finished college and joined his father in the business of making professional measuring devices, and in 1986, he bought the business from his father.
“Now Mike (Jr.) is in Woodrow to continue growing with some really good ideas. Good enough for me to finance through the business,” Mike, Sr. said. “It was providential how it all came together.”
Mike, Jr., has been going to trade shows for the company since he was a teenager. He served as the sales and marketing manager for three years before moving to England, Malaysia and Thailand.
“My wife and I had worked in Kuala Lumpur for two years, but with the down economy, we decided we wanted to come back to the U.S.,” he said. “Business was just starting to come back and I had some ideas. I wanted to try to find a way to stabilize the business. I felt strongly that branching off into the consumer market would give us more stability.”
For its entire life, Woodrow Engineering manufactured professional scale rulers and a foot-measuring device called the Ritz. Those items were custom-made for specialty and promotional products dealers who buy the rulers as promotional items for their professional clients.
About a decade ago, Mike, Sr. came up with a plastic molded family foot measure called the Footer, which was a break from tradition for the company.
Mike, Jr.’s idea was to package the Footer with a memories and milestones kit that parents and grandparents could use to record details of their children and grandchildren, with a book called Watch Me Grow, with space for photos, drawings, foot and height measurements. The book comes with a Footer and a tape measure.
“It’s completely different from anything else we do,” he said.
“It’s like my endeavor with the Footer, an expensive project that you stick your neck out on,” said Mike, Sr. “His book is the same thing. I just really believe this is a cool idea, knowing Mikey is going to make it work. Jumping into this was scary, but I just had this gut feeling, ‘It’s going to work’.”
Mike, Jr., and his wife Mary, a 6th grade teacher at Gibraltar, don’t have children of their own yet, and Mike doesn’t remember how he came up with the idea for Watch Me Grow.
“It just sort of happened and I just kept on building on it,” he said. “I wanted to be able to expand the product line. I wanted to create the Footer family of products. I wanted this to be family fun.”
The project received a major boost when endorsed by the American Podiatric Medical Association and a forward written by Glenn B. Gastwirth, executive director and CEO of that august organization.
With the packaging just recently completed by the manufacturer, Mike, Jr. decided to hold a Watch Me Grow party with a group of children he could relate to – being homeschooled, he asked homeschoolers Megan and Jonathan Orrick if he could hold a party at their Sister Bay home. The Orrick’s four daughters were joined by other home-schooled children who ranged in age from 3 to 15.
After explaining what he was doing, he invited the children to dig into their Watch Me Grow books. Some of the kids sat down and started coloring in the books. Some took out the Footer and attempted to measure their feet. Some pulled out the tape measure and attempted to record their own height (it works best with help, kids!).
After the experience with the homeschoolers, Michael had two ideas. The first was to create a separate book for older children (the current Watch Me Grow is designed for children up to 9 years old). The second idea was to add a sticker to the cover to indicate that the book is meant to record data from four separate years and not to be filled in all in one sitting, as was sort of the case with the trial run. But that was the whole purpose of the event.
“Nobody’s done this before. There’s nothing like it,” he said. “Since September, this has been about 80 percent of what I do. A lot of weekends, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of laying in bed thinking about what can go wrong so I can make sure it doesn’t go wrong. It’s really stressful.”
“It’s fun to watch him go through it since I went through it with the Footer,” said Mike Sr. with a glimmer in his eye.
You can find Watch Me Grow at Book World stores and the Reader’s Loft in Green Bay.
For more information on homeschooling, visit “Door County Homeschooling” on Facebook, or contact Megan Orrick at [email protected].