Southwest Minnesota finds itself a diversified and relevant manufacturing center
Renville County is known as a leader in agricultural production, but there is a different type of production that plays a big economic role here too. Manufacturing firms employ 15.3 percent of the workforce and account for 25.6 percent of the total payroll in the county, according to figures for 2010 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Manufacturing's big footprint in this agricultural county is no accident.
Southwest Minnesota offers fertile land for a diversified manufacturing economy, according to Sherry Ristau, president and CEO of the Southwest Initiative Foundation. "In our region we have an unprecedented, above the national average number of people who go to work every day in a manufacturing plant,'' Ristau said. "Manufacturing is really key to our region's success.''
She was speaking recently in Fairfax, where the Renville County Economic Development Agency hosted an event to highlight the county's manufacturing economy. Ristau is among those who believe that farming creates an environment favorable for manufacturing.
Farmers are often mechanically minded and like to tinker, are risk takers and entrepreneurial, and often have the resources -- be they a farm shed or shop -- to launch their own startups.
A short ride on Minnesota Highway 5 connecting the Renville County communities of Hector and Fairfax more than makes the point:
In Hector, Loftness Manufacturing is expanding again, adding two new buildings. One will provide much needed room for the company's in-house engineering, drafting and research and development centers.
The company employs 105 full-time workers, and sends products all over North America and into foreign markets ranging from Australia to the Ukraine.
All of this thanks to a farmer who liked to tinker, according to Gloria Nelson, who along with her sons, Steve and Dave, leads the company today.
Back in the 1950s, Dick Loftness built a snowblower he could attach to his tractor. Neighbors wanted them too. Soon, he was hiring other farmers to build them, Nelson said.
By 1970, her husband took to the road to sell the snow blowers. Marv Nelson, now deceased, also was a farmer. In 1979, the salesman and his school teacher wife purchased the business.
Snowblowers are great sellers when it snows, not so much when it doesn't, Gloria Nelson told her audience in Fairfax. The husband and wife began the company's diversification by developing crop shredders for agricultural markets. Today the company builds a wide range of machinery for agriculture, ranging from windrowers to grain loaders and unloaders, as well as a line of equipment targeted for the forestry industry.
The emphasis is on quality, Nelson said, and that's where a rural work force is important. The company values its workers and uses a "hiring up'' policy to keep its experienced workers in its ranks, she said.
"Surround yourself with great people,'' Nelson said. "No one gets the full deck in life.''
Mike Schweiss was surrounded by a barn full of cows when he got his start.
Today, the former dairy farmer is the owner and founder of Schweiss Doors.
The company builds bi-fold and hydraulic doors for use on farm buildings, airport hangers, and all other manner and style of structure found anywhere in the world. It has shipped -- and installed -- doors in Qatar, on the mansions of Hollywood stars, and on landmark buildings like the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Other Schweiss doors open to views of the Hudson River in New York City and the beaches of Maui, Hawaii.
The company employs 74 full-time workers at a sprawling complex located on Schweiss' original farm place north of Fairfax in Renville County.
The idea for this venture came from a man who approached Mike at a wedding dance in 1980, and told him: "Mike, you like to tinker, you should build bi-fold doors.''
"What are bi-fold doors?'' Mike said he responded.
That man died just over an hour later on the dance floor of an apparent heart attack.
Schweiss said he made his first bi-fold doors for farm buildings. One day another friend offered him yet another inspiration: "You ought to go to Oshkosh,'' Mike said the man told him. "What's in Oshkosh,'' Mike said he answered.
He made it to Oshkosh, Wis., site of the annual Experimental Aircraft Association show, and discovered the immense market for large, bi-fold and hydraulic doors in the aviation industry.
Today, most of the doors built by Schweiss are destined for aviation markets. Among the more recent is a door built to withstand winds of 190 miles per hour. It is destined for an aviation museum holding World War II airplanes at the Granite Falls Municipal Airport.
One of the company's mantra's is to "never say no,'' said Schweiss when it comes to the sizes and expectations for its products.
Never mind its rural location when it comes to tapping markets all over the globe. Schweiss said the company markets heavily over the Internet, and spends thousands every month on print advertising to guide potential customers to its website.
"We're stuck out in the woods here, but we're making it happen,'' he said while leading visitors on a tour of the plant.
"I am a diversified farmer,'' he added, laughing.