Owners at Mercantile Development Inc. firmly believe that being an independent, family-run operation works to the 70-year-old company’s advantage in a competitive market dominated by a corporate giant. Serving both domestic and international customers, the Shelton firm has focused on its core product brand, Pro-Series wipers.
Not windshield wipers, that is, but high-quality cleaning cloths used for various industrial and specialty applications by janitorial and custodial staff, workers in the automotive and health care industries and more.
The major player in the space is the corporate behemoth Kimberly-Clark, whose product line includes paper towels, tissues and diapers as well as cloth wipers. “But they don’t offer the support for customers on a smaller scale, like we do,” said Lucia Furman, president of Mercantile Development Inc. “We turn our orders around in two business days and handle all the logistics. We’re laser-focused on our category and our customers.”
Furman represents the third generation of her family to run MDI, which was founded in 1947 in New York state by her grandfather, Joseph Marcolla. Originally in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, the company leased space in Westport and Bridgeport before building its own 155,000-square-foot facility at 10 Waterview Drive in Shelton about 25 years ago.
Marcolla’s son-in-law, Alan Fankhanel, kept the business in the family and it’s now run by his three daughters: Furman and her sisters, Calla Morgan, vice president of operations and Jenna Fankhanel in sales. Now a women-owned business, MDI recently was certified as a women’s business enterprise by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.
The Fankhanel siblings spent time in the business during their youth doing work like packing boxes, driving forklifts and sweeping floors. A career at MDI “was not a given, and never expected” by her father, Furman said, “but I thought I’d give it a try.” After a few years working in sales at Bloomberg, she said she eventually “fell in love” with the idea of returning to MDI. She started full time at the company in 2001.
One of the biggest challenges the company faces today is maintaining its identity in an ever-changing environment, Furman said. “We’re still a little old school. We don’t sell our products on Amazon.” With about 50 employees, “We want to stay the size we are and although we’ve had offers to buy, we want to keep it as an independent, family-run business.”
(MDI). While declining to provide sales figures, Furman said that MDI is growing in the single digits year-over-year-a trend she expects to continue this year — with about 80 percent of its orders from U.S. customers and 20 percent international orders.
The company originally was “a trading company — you name it, they sold it,” Furman said. She credited her father with transforming MDI into a company specializing in nonwoven cleaning products beginning in the 1970s, when the Italian military was looking for durable, nonwoven wipers. Western Europe remains the Shelton company’s primary international market, she said.
The company is continually acquiring state-of-the-art equipment to stay up-to-date, Furman added, and has made strides to become more energy-efficient, phasing out corrugated boxes for packaging and installing a 325.5 kW solar array on the warehouse roof.
“Anything we can do to be more efficient is good for the environment and also makes sense for us financially,” she said. “All of these improvements and investments are based on the company’s founding principles to build a sustainable family business for generations to come.”
Having grown up in Connecticut and residing in Wilton, Furman says she’d like MDI to remain in the state, “but the high cost of doing business here can be a challenge. We do not want to move out of the state and I personally have no desire to go somewhere else. But it would be foolish to not at least consider our options.”