Lake Lillian company celebrates a century of business and looks ahead to the next century
A family-owned business with 100 years under its belt is preparing for the next century.
Hanson Silo Company, a fourth-generation business in rural Lake Lillian, will celebrate its centennial during an open house June 16.
Since 1916 when their silos — with the family’s trademark black-and-white checkered blocks at the top -- began towering over area farms, Hanson Silo Company has changed through the years and generations to remain a viable company long after their competition disappeared.
The evolution was necessary to respond to the changing agricultural practices and needs of customers, said CEO Gregg Hanson, who started working alongside his father and grandfather when he was just 9-years-old. “We’ve had to reinvent ourselves many times.”
Hanson and his sons, Matthew, who is president of the company, and Mike, who is the director of business development, said the company’s long-standing commitment to product innovation and a willingness to seek better ways of doing business will continue to carry the company to the future.
Gregg Hanson, now 68, joked his 10-year-old grandson is already talking about the day when he gets to be the boss.
Preparing for the centennial festivities has given the Hanson family an opportunity to dig into the archives and re-tell the history of the company.
Photo albums with classic black-and-white photos from those early years show the company’s founder, Emil Hanson, who put his heart, hands and hard work into the task of building a better silo. Emil brought his sons into the business — including Willard, who was Gregg’s father.
The business grew so large it became a little village known locally as “Hansonville” that provided housing, a grocery store, fire department, clothing store, drug store and a shoe repair shop for the employees and their families.
Employees were also fed in the company mess hall.
Gregg Hanson said his grandmother, who was a “frail little thing,” cooked three meals a day to feed 60-100 people who were kept busy building silos in the region. The mess hall closed in 1986.
Since it began a century ago, Hanson Silo Company has employed some 6,000 people.
Many worked for decades and some were third-generation employees who followed in the footsteps of their grandparents and parents.
The final houses from Hansonville were removed in 1992 to make way for a broadcast tower for a local Christian radio station.
In the late 1800s, silos were primarily made of wood or stone in Minnesota. In the early 1900s they were built with concrete. Sometimes the quality of that concrete wasn’t good and silos failed.
According to family history, Emil Hanson used washed lakeshore sand near the farm to make his brand of silos that had staying power in an era when the growth of dairy farms in Minnesota resulted in the need for more silos.
In the 1940s the company invented and patented the first self-propelled chopper to unload feed from silos, which pushed it ahead of its competitors, said Gregg Hanson.
In 1962 they made 1,100 upright silos — the most they’d ever made in one year.
They’ve built a total of 40,000 traditional tower silos in the past century.
At one point the company had around 350 employees and plants in four locations. During the farm crisis in the 1980s the company built the Shuttle Craft Golf Carts in Willmar to diversify their products.
Now, all business takes place at the homesite in Lake Lillian, with 60-80 employees and a product line that has expand well beyond silos.
It was a necessity since the market for traditional silos “has been going south” for the last 50 years, said Gregg Hanson.
“We lost 29 competitors that were alive-and-well in 1979 in this region,” he said.
While they understand why people are drawn to talk about the demise of the old-school silos that give farm sites a nostalgic charm, the Hansons like to focus on the new products they’ve added over the decades and the “vision” to get to the next 100 years.
The company still makes about 10 upright tower silos a year, but have expanded the product line to include precast concrete products, like bunkers, that are used for feed storage on dairy and beef farms, fertilizer storage at large crop farms, salt and sand storage at highway departments and dirt containment bunkers at rodeos.
As livestock farms have grown bigger, the type of products the company makes to service those large farms has also grown.
Silos in 1916 held about 25 tons of feed. The concrete grain storage units they make now can hold 3.5 million bushels.
The largest bunker they’ve made to date weighed 50,000 tons and was shipped to Manitoba, Canada. Last year the company shipped products to 34 states and six countries.
They also make insulated concrete wall panels that are used to make commercial and industrial buildings.
“We make them here and truck them out,” said Matthew Hanson. So far they’ve installed the equivalent of six miles of walls and since 2012 manufactured 10 precast buildings.
They’re currently making “blast walls” for an Air Force training facility in Florida.
Retaining walls, landscaping blocks and 1,500-pound cement picnic tables are also produced at Hanson Silo Company.
A year ago they built a new concrete plant that’s heated, which allows them to work well into the winter months.
Two years ago they upgraded their powder coating facility for their metal fabrication shop in order to embrace more automation.
They make equipment, like mechanical rakes, that help dig out silage and other products from those large bunkers and produce custom-made products for other companies. For example, they manufactured and painted the Boston Garden hanging scoreboard, powder coated doors for upscale condos in Manhattan and powder coated Shamu’s stadium jumbotron frame.
Matthew Hanson said even people who’ve driven by the 40-acre manufacturing site for years think there’s “just a silo company behind those trees” and have told him they had “no idea” so many different items are produced there.
By continually expanding their contract metal fabrication work and adding new products — especially exploring more architectural concrete work — Mike Hanson said the company will be ready to “morph” when the agricultural market changes again.
Gregg Hanson said he expects his grandfather, Emil would be as proud as a “staunch old Norwegian” could be of how the company has fared over the years.
Knowing that his own sons are capable of running the business now-- and that his grandchildren could potentially be running it in the future-- makes is easier to make decisions on growing the company, said Gregg Hanson.
“It’s really a big deal and changes how you look at expansion,” he said.
When he looks to the past accomplishments of the family-owned company, and looks ahead to the future, Gregg Hanson has one word to sum up his emotions.
“Blessed,” he said. “I feel blessed.”