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Manufacturing is big economic player in region due to the entrepreneurial spirit

Jeff Muhl operates one of the water jets that cleanly cuts metals, plastics, rubber and rock to produce component parts for several different industries. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 1 / 4
Being a rural entrepreneur requires a very diverse skill set. Jeff Muhl thrives on the challenges, enjoying the opportunity to work both in the office and on the shop floor. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 2 / 4
Jeff Muhl grew up in Minneota and appreciates the rural lifestyle, but made the decision to move the company he acquired to a rural location only after analyzing the economics of it. Lower overhead costs and the partnership of the local economic development agency made the difference in his decision. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 3 / 4
A high-pressure stream of water slices through metal at Cutting Edge Industrial Technology in Granite Falls. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny4 / 4

Manufacturing is one of the biggest players in our region’s economy, and yet often the most overlooked.                                                 

It is built largely on the skills of small entrepreneurs who operate small to medium-sized shops that rarely come to our attention.

Jeff Muhl is starting his fourth year as one of those entrepreneurs.

There’s plenty that has his attention.

“This economy has so much turmoil involved in it,’’ said Muhl, owner of Cutting Edge Industrial Technology in Granite Falls.

Muhl purchased the company from its founder in Long Lake, Minn., and moved the operation to Granite Falls. It uses high-pressure streams of water — some so thin as to be nearly invisible — to slice and cut metals, plastics and stone.

Muhl and his workers might cut the components needed by a high-tech electronics manufacturer in California one day; the metal parts of agricultural equipment to be built in South Dakota the next.

They will slice granite for award plaques or counter tops, turn around and transform plastics and rubber silicon into specialty seals and other products for use in goods shipped all over the world.

Quality, customer service and timeliness of delivery are the company’s strengths in the market. If it comes down to a limbo dance on price, the floor belongs to foreign competitors.

Muhl grew up in the small town of Minneota and served on active duty in the military until 1986 and in the reserves until 1994. All this time and more, he groomed himself for this opportunity, one step at a time. He acquired degrees in engineering, computer science and business management, as well as certificates in mechanical and electrical design.

And, he worked in manufacturing industries since leaving the active duty military.

He and his wife, BethAnn, now married 29 years, have raised three sons. They lived in the Twin Cities until 2004.

That’s when the opportunity to return to his rural roots arrived. He joined Specialty Systems in Granite Falls, a fast-growing manufacturer also started by an entrepreneur, Kevin Wald.

Muhl said he and his wife had talked about “migrating to a rural environment and simplifying life a little bit.’’

That made the decision to become a project manager at SpecSys and move to a rural area an easy one, he said.

The tough one came later, when he purchased the business he now owns.

Should he keep it in Long Lake and the metropolitan business environment it grew in for more than two decades, or move it to its rural location?

The rural area offers advantages, he said. His building rental rates and property taxes are lower than they would be in the metropolitan area, said Muhl.

The biggest factor that swayed his decision was the relationship developed with the Granite Falls Economic Development Agency. He said it gave him a partner to work with as he started out. It’s an advantage he would not have received in a metropolitan area “where it was pretty much a hands-off scenario,’’ he said.

There are also disadvantages to operating in a rural environment, said Muhl. The biggest is the constriction of the labor pool.

Finding employees with the right skills for manufacturing is difficult everywhere, but more so in rural areas, he explained.

The labor situation is made worse by today’s volatile economy, he said.

Employees want stability in their lives, he noted.

A rural area can also add to the challenges during difficult times. He pointed out that his competitors in the Twin Cities have an easier time meeting face-to-face with potential customers than he does.

He currently employs two full-time workers, and they keep a busy schedule. Muhl has diversified the company’s customer base as a strategy to ride the ups and downs of the economy. In the process, he’s tripled the number of customers.

He’s optimistic, but also cautious about what lies ahead. He admits that, most of all, he thrives on the challenges that come with being a business owner in a rural setting.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything.’’

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335