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(Janesville, WI) Neil Johnson, Gazette

Industrial supplier W.W. Grainger has started to push past the Great Recession blues and into growth mode in Janesville.

The impact is apparent in construction work to the company's business offices at its sprawling facility at 401 S. Wright Road.

And the change is perhaps most tangible right now in Grainger's 320,000-square-foot warehousing and distribution space, which less than a year ago was half empty.

Now, one Grainger subsidiary, vehicle fleet supplier Imperial Supplies, is filling that open warehousing space.

After relocating to Janesville from Green Bay earlier this year, Imperial has hired 47 warehouse workers, all but a few of them local workers, and it's ramping up distribution operations here.

Imperial officials said Thursday that Imperial could double its workforce in Janesville in just a few years as the company continues a growth spurt that led to it relocating from a smaller warehouse space in Green Bay to Janesville.

Grainger announced the addition of Imperial's distribution to Janesville late last year. It's one change that has pushed Grainger's employee headcount at its Janesville facility to 960.

That's more employees than the company had in 2015, prior to a wave of outsourcing that sent 30 Grainger support jobs to Panama. And it's more employees than the 920 that Lab Safety had at Grainger's Wright Road facility in 2008, when Grainger opted to combine its supply lines with Lab Safety. 

The facility now has the second-highest employee count of any of Grainger's 384 U.S. locations, Grainger officials said during a tour and a ceremonial grand opening of its Imperial operations Thursday.

That's a change from the period between 2013 and 2015, when Grainger was shedding jobs to outsourcing and was moving its distribution work out of Janesville after selling to implement manufacturer Ariens three subsidiaries that distributed out of the Janesville facility.

Almost all Grainger employees affected by that sale got jobs at Ariens in Grainger's Janesville facility, Grainger spokesman Joe Micucci said.

Grainger in the last few months has been holding hiring fairs amid a whirlwind of interior construction to reconfigure and add space in its business offices, half of which it shares with Ariens.

Ariens leases office space at Grainger, and the two companies are separate. Its offices are split for legal reasons. Ariens also leases about half of Grainger's warehouse space in Janesville.

A construction project that spanned last fall through March this year added 300 office spaces in Grainger's facility, and another office build-out on the second floor is underway.

On the fourth floor, a newly renovated area reorganizes sales, marketing, finance e-commerce and distribution and customer support divisions. Already, a few clusters of office workers have been set up in overflow areas.

“We're literally starting to grow faster than our construction can keep up with,” Grainger Vice President Bill Koenig said Thursday.

Grainger is based in Lake Forest, Illinois, and it supplies a range of facilities maintenance products, mainly to other businesses.

In the Midwest, companies have begun to expand in the past two years, and Grainger is seeing growth in demand for its products, particularly through e-commerce, Koenig said.

Koenig would not specify how much Grainger could grow, but he said the fact Grainger is adding more office space signals the growth could be significant.

"Anyone walking around here should be able to see that," he said. “We're planning to grow in this market, and we will because it's a great market for labor,” Koenig said.

He said Imperial is poised to grow the same way.

“There are still lanes here that aren't open yet, so, as you start getting more product to receive, we need more people to put it away, and more people to pick, pack and ship it. That's the growth,” Koenig said.

Imperial's shift in distribution work from Green Bay to Janesville came because Imperial was out of space at its facility in Green Bay.

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