It was in 1978 that John Frerichs, a local insurance agent, and Mike Brown, who operated a metal-fabrication firm, were playing golf at Tracy Golf and Country Club.
John, who was then president of the Tracy Community Memorial Hospital’s board of directors, mentioned to Mike that the hospital, now Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, was having difficulties handling infectious waste.
New state restrictions on emissions from incinerating hospital waste material, which became an issue with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, would soon make the traditional method of shipping the waste to a commercial incinerator outside of Tracy obsolete.
With that opening, John and Mike agreed that Mike and his partner at Bromac, Don Stortroen, would see what they could come up in the way of a machine that would both sterilize and compact potentially infectious waste.
The result was San-I-Pak, a Tracy firm still in business that has become a world leader in manufacturing and installing machines that sterilize and compact infectious waste.
After Mike and Don, who both had skills as machinists and developers of electronically controlled machines, had developed San-I-Pak, they installed their first machine at the local hospital.
I happened to be there that day, Jan. 30, 1980, when the two partners were setting up the first San-I-Pak. There are now more than 600 in use worldwide.
As they installed the machine, hooking it up the hospital’s boiler system as a source of steam used in sterilization, Don voiced optimism about the project.
“We’re fortunate that we’re more than just a guy with a good idea,” he told me. “We have an operating facility with the tools and personnel to get this thing started.”
Mike and Don, who became partners in Bromac through their involvement in auto racing, ran San-I-Pak on their own for nearly two decades and then sold a majority interest to John Hall, also a Tracy resident, who continues to be the firm’s president.
Both originators stayed with the new corporation for a time — Don longer than Mike. Don died in February 2011, but Mike, who preferred operating independently, is still working with metal at his shop off Linne Road south of Tracy.
“Yes, I remember Don and I getting that first machine installed at the hospital,” he told me yesterday. “We had made several trial machines, but that was the first put into use after we had obtained all the needed permits.”
Ruth Bolton, hospital administrator, and her assistant, Catherine McGowan, were at the back of the hospital that day watching the installation. So was Bill Enyeart, a hospital employee in charge of a hospital-expansion project, who joined them for a time in San-I-Pak and gave a lot of encouragement, Mike recalled.
“Bill thought the concept of a combination sterilization-compaction unit and ease of operation — you didn’t need an engineering degree to operate one — provided a lot of potential. He thought we would sell a lot of the machines in a hurry.”
It didn’t quite work out that way, Mike said. San-I-Paks didn’t sell like crazy, as Enyeart had predicted. Many of the hospitals contacted were intrigued, but they didn’t want to change the way their contaminated waste was handled, no matter what the cost.
But six years later, in 1986, Don told Press reporter Andrew Moore that San-I-Pak had experienced an uptick in sales, bringing the total to 40. Sales continued to climb as word got around the hospital field that the machines worked, were inexpensive to operate and were pollution-free. By 1995, more than 400 units had been sold.
Mike said he left San-I-Pak with good relations with John Hall and other new owners and hopes the firm is successful in reaching the potential that Enyeart had predicted in 1980.
It took a while to get there, but the new Ebola-spurred interest in the safe handling of infectious medical waste is bound to keep San-I-Pak busy filling orders.