New London: Dahmes Stainless Steel continues to expand
If you've eaten any kind of processed food -- and who hasn't -- you've most likely eaten a product that was made with equipment manufactured in New London.
Dried milk, powdered eggs, bullion, dried meat found in "just add water" meals or the flavoring that coats snack crackers are just some of the types of food items made with the help of commercial food spray dryer systems that were hand-made at Dahmes Stainless Inc.
"Anything you can think of that's powdered," said Forrest Dahmes, who claims nearly every Minnesotan has eaten a product that was processed with a piece of his equipment.
With customers that range from big-league names like Land O'Lakes and AMPI dairy processors to companies that dehydrate unique items, like squid, Dahmes has been able to work his mind around food processing problems to come up with stainless steel solutions to turn "hundreds of different products" into shelf-stable food items.
His uniquely engineered and hand-crafted evaporation, drying and dehydration systems are not only installed in commercial/industrial food processing plants but also pet food companies and non-food facilities that process everything from water treatment chemicals to white and red blood cells.
His equipment is used in all 50 states and Canada, and he's now forging a business relationship with a company in New Zealand.
Not bad for a company that Dahmes started 18 years ago in a "very small garage" in rural Pennock in northwest Kandiyohi County, when he was the sole employee.
Dahmes Stainless Inc., which now has about 50 employees and more than 12,000 square feet of manufacturing space at its New London location, has expanded every year since Dahmes left his day job as a stainless steel welder and pipe-fitter to start his own company.
Growing up as a Minnesota farm boy who "fixed everything in my life," Dahmes thrives off of figuring out how to solve problems and dream up new mechanical designs that will get his equipment into unusual niche markets.
How else can you explain dried squid?
With a strong work ethic, an ability to see how things work, and by surrounding himself with "very intelligent engineering-type people," Dahmes has grown the business through numerous expansions, including a project currently under way to double the office space.
When he needed to move his company out of his garage, Dahmes looked at larger towns in the region but decided to make New London, with a population of 1,000, his business home.
"New London was very inviting. Friendly people and it was affordable," he said. "The small town feel is what I was after."
With a demand in the commercial food processing business, Dahmes quickly added staff and space to design and build large -- yet intricate -- pieces of stainless steel equipment that blends his refined spin on existing spray dryer technology with hand-crafted durability to make systems for drying products.
The systems work in a "very controlled environment of introducing a liquid product into a hot air stream which evaporates the water out of the product," said Dahmes. "And then we utilize other pieces of equipment to separate that powder out of the air stream."
The styles of dryers depends on the needs of the customers and whether the end products are to be granular or bits and chunks of various sizes.
While much of his equipment is used for commodities, like dairy, he has a fondness for developing systems to handle challenging and "obscure" items.
Yes, like squid.
"I like to build neat, interesting, fun products," he said. "I like to figure things out."
His business is "not a production shop," said Dahmes. "We don't do the same things twice."
Besides manufacturing systems that are designed and installed in plants, Dahmes also has a pilot facility in New London that's used to demonstrate how various products can be processed to meet the customer's demand.
Testing a new product to get the desired results can take anywhere from four minutes to six months, said Dahmes.
The test site "gives customers an opportunity to see how things could work," he said. "And hopefully they buy a system from me."
The company also does customized processing for smaller companies that can't afford to purchase their own equipment.
Volatile pricing for raw materials and increasing costs for transportation and health care for employees are constant concerns for the business, said Dahmes.
"The economy is always a challenge," he said, noting his company experienced a downturn in business the year after the Sept. 11 attacks, but that they've weathered the current recession because their large customer base continues to make repairs and upgrades to equipment.
Besides profitability, Dahmes gauges his company's success by strong employee retention, adding that his employees are smart, talented and dedicated.
But there's a limited employee base of qualified workers, from engineers to manufacturers. Some workers don't want to live in a small town and some lack the hand skills, basic know-how and work ethic to match the jobs in his company, said Dahmes.
In the late 1990s he purchased welders and grinders and offered to teach technical skills -- for free -- in order to increase the pool of manufacturing employees.
"It failed miserably," said Dahmes, who is now considering expanding out-of-state to tap into a larger employee base.
While reluctant to go into details, Dahmes said he's also started a new company that's involved with manufacturing excavating equipment that could be used in the gas, oil and drainage industry, perhaps for use in the booming oil patch in western North Dakota.
Like his business, Dahmes' personal life is both down-to-earth and adventurous. He is a pilot with his own plane, an avid fisherman and a hobby farmer with horses, mules and poultry.
Even though his business ventures are continuing to grow, he said he's actually putting in fewer hours than in the past.
"A 48-hour day was nothing when I was younger," he deadpans. "The record was 52."