Features

Winners of the 2016 Manufacturing Awards by Minnesota Business Magazine

A nod to Minnesota's top manufacturers — and how they're making a difference


09-28-2016

Manufacturing is the backbone of Minnesota’s economy. When we add it up, manufacturing provides more than 292,000 jobs and contributes $37 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Simply put, manufacturing makes a difference. That’s why we’ve scoured the state for the best and the brightest manufacturers as part of our 2016 Manufacturing Awards.

Nominations were collected over a two-month period and reviewed by an external judging panel consisting of industry experts across all professional platforms. Though this list includes just some of Minnesota’s finest manufacturers, we tip our hats to all of the companies — big and small — for creating great products that all Minnesotans can be proud of. From hand-pressed cider and playground equipment to apparel and elevator parts, here we honor all forms of manufacturering in our great state. We thank them for providing company descriptions.

Judges
Best in Class: Small Company
Best in Class: Midsize Company
Best in Class: Large Company
Sustainability
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New Product: Food & Beverage
New Product: General
New Product: Textiles
Employee Training
Emerging Leader
Executive of the Year
Lifetime Achievement Award:

Judges

Apoorva Shah
COO, SAM HPRP Chemicals

Apoorva has been in the industry for 14 years and serves over 120 global manufacturers. Brought up in his family’s paint and coatings manufacturing firm, Apoorva understands the complexities and processes of the manufacturing sector. He uses these skills along with his entrepreneurship background to work with multi-billion dollar manufacturing firms to early-stage startups.

Don Craighead
CEO, DHC Enterprises, Inc.

Don Craighead has had a lifetime of experience within the manufacturing industry. Since 1990, Don has been the CEO of DHC Enterprises, Inc. where he is a consultant to industry and education with special emphasis on automation hardware sales. Don is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering serving as Industry Liaison, and sits on the board for the Positive Coaching Alliance and AirSpace MN.

Eric Hawkinson
Director of Business Development for CBIZ MHM Inc.

Eric has more than 15 years of experience in risk management, internal audit and compliance within the insurance, securities, healthcare and banking industries. This year, Eric is President of the MPMA Foundation, and he also has experience in building sales and marketing campaigns to support product development and the growth of specialty business offerings.

Kathy Burnham
Senior Vice President, PadillaCRT

As the leader of the PadillaCRT’s manufacturing practice, Kathy directs strategic planning, conducts research and manages integrated marketing communications programs that help companies build their brands and reputations.She is a founding member of the Minnesota Manufacturers’ Coalition. She also serves on the boards for the Performance Excellence Network (formerly the Minnesota Council for Quality), the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation (based in Detroit), and Top Tool Company.

Kirby Sneen
Vice President, Manufacturers Alliance

Sneen helps the Alliance provide peer-to-peer training, education and resources to inspire manufacturing companies to continuously grow, improve and stay competitive. Under his leadership the Alliance has grown to more than 400 Minnesota manufacturing member companies. He holds degrees in Audio Engineering, Marketing and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of St. Thomas.

Marni Hockenberg
President, Hockenberg Search

At Hockenberg Search, Marni and her team partner with Midwest manufacturing companies for growth through strategic recruitment services as well as offer outplacement and job-search coaching services for job-seekers. She has served on the board of the Human Resource Professionals of MN and Minnesota Recruiting & Staffing Association and was named one of the 2016 (Real) Power 50.

Best in Class: Small Company

Winner: Hydra-Flex Inc.

Hydra-Flex was founded in 2002 with a principle focus on “finding a better way” to manufacture innovative and reliable products for the vehicle wash industry, including chemical injectors, chemical dispensing systems, and high-pressure nozzles. An expert company in fluid dynamics with accomplished engineering, manufacturing, sales and support staff, Hydra-Flex is now taking its core technologies to new markets, including hydro excavation, industrial cleaning, food processing and sanitation. Averaging a 45% annual growth rate over the last seven years, Hydra-Flex was listed on the 2014 and 2015 Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies and the 2015 Fast 50. It was that growth that drove the recent expansion of its manufacturing facility to Eagan (a facility 2.5 times larger than its last, allowing for future growth and expansion). Hydra-Flex’s founders, Jaime Harris and Gary Brown, instilled a “work hard, play hard” culture that continuously energizes passion and innovation among employees.

Finalist: aspectLED

aspectLED is an Arden Hills-based manufacturer of residential and commercial LED lighting products for customers such as Victoria’s Secret, Marriott, McDonalds, Intercontinental Hotels, Starbucks and many other prominent brands. The company produces highly efficient light fixtures, such as recessed in-ceiling lights, linear under-cabinet lighting, commercial fixtures (high bays and wall packs) and many specialty/custom fixtures.

aspectLED has quickly emerged as an industry leader by investing heavily in software and automation technologies to increase efficiency, decrease production costs and speed up lead times. In addition, the company has developed a proprietary, rapid, product-development process, which focuses on listening to customers to identify new product opportunities, then quickly developing products and bringing them to market. The company has been featured in leading business media.

Finalist: Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company

Midwest Fire is a woman-owned small business that designs & manufactures fire apparatus. Midwest Fire operates from a 33,000-square-foot facility in Luverne, Minn. It includes sales, engineering, fabrication, assembly, paint and repair. Midwest Fire is unique in the fire industry because it sells direct to the customer, enabling it to provide best-in-class customer service to the departments it serves. With sales, engineering and production under one roof, the company is able to actively and quickly engage with the customer to satisfy all of their needs. Under new ownership since 2013, Midwest Fire has realized substantial growth in sales and has begun developing a culture of lean enterprise and continuous improvement in order to meet the demands of continued growth. Midwest Fire credits its recent success to a team of employees that is dedicated to designing and building high-quality, cost-effective fire apparatus for the customers it serves.

Best in Class: Midsize Company

Winner: MGS Machine

MGS Machine is not only a global leader in the design and manufacture of state-of-the-art packaging equipment, but also a leader in the manufacturing and business community within Minnesota. MGS is committed to enriching the Minnesota business landscape through collaboration with other companies, industries, community, educational institutions and charities.

Couple a customer-first mentality with workplace values that nurture employees and it’s no surprise that MGS is able to hire, retain and enrich the industry’s best packaging and manufacturing experts. With strategic planning and a dynamic leadership team, MGS has recently experienced rapid overall revenue growth of 56% since 2011. However, at MGS, success is not just on the bottom line. Being a leader in the manufacturing industry both technologically and culturally, a dependable vendor and a reliable employer define success.

MGS serves the pharmaceutical, medical device, cosmetics, food and ammunition industries and has fielded over 15,000 machines in 27 countries.

Finalist: Electromed, Inc.

Electromed is committed to “making life’s important moments possible — one breath at a time,” helping people around the world breathe better, stay healthier, and lead active and fulfilling lives. Launching our first FDA-cleared, high-frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) system in 2000, Electromed has devoted itself to a patient-first approach, providing unrivaled support to patients with chronic impaired airway clearance, who use the SmartVest® Airway Clearance System. The results: a culture committed to operational excellence and world-class customer care, and providing a consistent, long-term return for shareholders.

Electromed continues a proud history of innovation, launching our fourth-generation device in 2014. We listen intently to our customers — patients, caregivers, health care professionals, payers — to gain insights and inspiration for future product and service innovations. We attribute our success to dedicating our focus on our customers, re-engineering our key processes, and the company-wide belief in the therapeutic benefits of the SmartVest system.

Finalist: Minimizer

Minimizer is not just the leader in poly semi-truck fenders: We invented the category. Minimizer poly fenders and integrated bracket kits are nearly indestructible and are guaranteed for life. No other heavy-duty after-market company backs up its products like Minimizer.

Minimizer is best known for its unique product testing. Our research and development team constantly “tests and tortures” each of our products to make sure what goes in, on or is used to fix the truck meets the rigors of our tough industry.

Under the leadership of CEO and Chief Visionary Officer Craig Kruckeberg, we went beyond the best fenders and bracket kits in the industry. We extended our brand to light kits, mud flaps, tool boxes, tire masks, workbenches and other accessories. Our most recent innovations include the only custom-molded floor mats in the world for semi-trucks. And we recently launched the revolutionary “whole body” Minimizer Truck Seat System.
We’re no longer “the fender guys.” The Minimizer brand is hell-bent on dominating the world of heavy-duty aftermarket truck parts.
We are a born and bred Minnesota manufacturing company. When the rest were running offshore, we stayed true to our roots. And we are proud to have always been “Made in the USA”.

Best in Class: Large Company

Winner: Proto Labs Inc.

Proto Labs is the world’s fastest digital manufacturing source for custom prototypes and low-volume production parts. The technology-enabled company uses advanced 3D printing, CNC machining and injection molding technologies to produce parts within days. The result is an unprecedented speed-to-market value for designers and engineers and an on-demand resource throughout a product’s life cycle.

The company’s proprietary software and automated manufacturing processes allow for rapid prototyping and low-volume production of plastic, metal and liquid silicone rubber parts. The catalyst is an automated quoting system that provides design analysis and pricing information within hours of uploading a 3D CAD model. The interactive quote includes free design analysis and real-time pricing information. The manufacturability analysis helps customers eliminate problems during prototyping so modifications can be made early and often. The iterative process lets designers and engineers avoid development speed bumps, so they can get their products to market as fast as possible.

Finalist: Lakeshirts Inc.

Lakeshirts is a custom apparel decorating company that started in 1984 and has since grown to a $60 million company. In a 275,000 square foot facility with 36 automatic screenprint presses, 26 multi-head embroidery machines, six 60-foot laser appliqué bridges, and three sublimation presses, Lakeshirts continues to grow. Lakeshirts provides decorated apparel to thousands of customers in the resort and college markets, being a preferred choice to customers based on its breadth of great designs, great garments in stock and quick turn-times. This is all done in a culture that reflects respect, community and fun. With more than 400 employees, Lakeshirts maintains an environment that allows people to thrive, from the production floor to the art department to management. Through all the growth at Lakeshirts, the goal of operating an exceptional company has remained constant. The company credits its stakeholders — customers, employees, vendors, owners and the community — for its success.

Finalist: Uponor

Uponor’s core purpose is to partner with professionals to create better human environments through innovative PEX plumbing, radiant heating/cooling, hydronic piping, pre-insulated piping and fire sprinkler systems that offer reliable, high-performing solutions to residential and commercial structures around the globe. The company recently added an $18M, 90,000-square-foot Lean manufacturing space to its corporate headquarters, bringing its total Twin Cities footprint to more than 650,000 square feet on more than 50 acres. Uponor also recently partnered with Belkin Intl. to create Phyn, a new intelligent water company representing the next wave of smart homes. And over the last 16 months, Uponor has launched more than 100 new products, including the PEX industry’s first 2½” and 3” pipe and ProPEX® expansion fittings. In addition, the company was selected to join the Environmental Initiative’s Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition alongside Twin Cities’ leading brands to help re-imagine business as usual through sustainable actions.

Sustainability

Winner: Loll Designs

Based in Duluth Loll Designs manufactures original products primarily from 100% recycled plastic and locally sourced components. With sustainable business practices at the core, Loll aspires to enhance people, planet, company and our community in everything we do. With a focus on clean modern design, Loll creates an array of premium outdoor products used both residentially and in commercial settings. Loll incorporates state of the art manufacturing including 3D CAD design and computerized CNC routers. An inventive fastening system permits flat pack shipping to lower shipping costs. A continuous focus on reducing the company’s environmental footprint includes a zero-waste initiative. Loll’s community involvement includes an annual tree-planting and creek clean-up and financial donations to heritage trail projects connecting green spaces throughout the city of Duluth. Loll’s innovative products are proudly crafted in the USA and distributed worldwide. “Loll inspires people to appreciate the outdoors.”

Finalist: Louis Industries

Louis Industries is a small, family-owned metal fabricator in Paynesville that employs fifty people. It specializes in sheet metal fabrication, serving mainly small to medium sized OEM’s in the agriculture, outdoor recreation equipment, heating, industrial equipment, material handling, packaging, construction and transportation businesses. Louis Industries’ mission includes providing customers with fast turnaround times, inventory programs, engineering and design assistance, and overflow capacity. Louis Industries is an ISO-certified company that is dedicated to serving its employees, customers and suppliers.

Finalist: Uponor

Uponor’s triple-bottom-line approach to sustainability balances people, planet and profits and is evident in both its practices and products. For example, by switching from oil to electricity as its primary energy source, Uponor cut manufacturing energy expenditure by 40% per machine. Since 2012, Uponor has earned the Xcel Energy® Efficiency Partner Award for outstanding efforts in curbing manufacturing electric consumption as well as the Manufacturers Alliance Manufacturer of the Year Award and the Minnesota Business magazine Community Impact Award for Sustainability. This year, Uponor was selected to join the Environmental Initiative’s Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition to help re-imagine business as usual through sustainable actions. Uponor has further demonstrated its environmental consciousness through PEX scrap recycling, high-efficiency lighting, commingled office-waste recycling and employees’ household battery, chemical and electronic waste disposal. Best of all, its sustainable products, such as Uponor AquaPEX® Reclaimed Water tubing, promote water conservation through graywater reclamation systems.

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Winner: Du Fresne Manufacturing Co.

Established in 1991, Du Fresne Manufacturing Company, a precision, sheet metal design, production and assembly company in Vadnais Heights, has continually worked to improve the livelihoods and financial security for its employees and stakeholders by implementing state-of-the-industry methods and technology to become not only the supplier of choice, but also the employer of choice in its local market. While on its organizational journey to achieve the prestigious 2015 Performance Excellence Network (PEN) Award for Operational Excellence (based on the Baldrige criteria), Du Fresne successfully transformed itself into a Human Development Company. It extended its high performance to local schools by changing the way schools develop programs. Du Fresne was instrumental in helping schools get a $250,000 grant by taking programs out of educational-based equipment that doesn’t allow for direct transfer of the skills, and into the world of actual machining equipment that students will likely see when the apply for their first jobs. Du Fresne’s journey found a “sweet spot” someplace between Obligation and Opportunity and called it “Oblitunity” defined as, “A commitment that is morally or legally bound to the advancement and progress in fulfilling a goal in human development.” Meaningful work does lead to a meaningful life.

Finalist: Jet Edge Inc.

St. Michael-based Jet Edge is a leading manufacturer of waterjet systems for precision cutting, mobile cutting and surface preparation. Jet Edge’s precision waterjet cutting systems are used worldwide to cut parts from virtually any material, from rubber gaskets to 15-inch titanium. The company’s mobile waterjets provide a safer alternative for cutting in hazardous environments as well as an eco-friendly alternative to sandblasting. An industry pioneer, Jet Edge entered the waterjet industry in 1984. The company has been hard at work increasing awareness of waterjet technology and enhancing the image of manufacturing through robust marketing and community involvement. Jet Edge participates in Rotary and Chamber of Commerce and supports youth involvement in manufacturing through its local high school and technical college as well as through the University of Minnesota Gopher Motorsports team and Solar Vehicle Project.

Finalist: Midwest Pantry

Midwest Pantry seeds were planted over two cold beers after a long hot day at Mill City Farmers Market. Chad Gillard and Zoie Glass had neighboring stalls where they experienced the benefits of cross-promoting their products. Connected by their passion to expand their own businesses and their love of creative business concepts, they established Midwest Pantry in 2010 as a member-driven organization dedicated to making Minnesota the number one place to start and run a food business.

Working with Midwest-based food and gift producers — from start-up to scale-up — the organization provides educational opportunities, marketing experiences and mentorship through public retail and private wholesale events. The annual Local Food & Gift Trade Show attracts hundreds of wholesale buyers from across the region. Midwest Pantry also hosts the Local Food Poster Show, the Shop Small Holiday Market, monthly member meet-ups and an online member forum that fosters daily communication.

New Product: Food & Beverage

Winner: Fresh Bar

Fresh Bar believes that all people deserve fresher food. To that end, Fresh Bar makes, markets and distributes the first fresh, refrigerated granola bar, featuring a naturally soft texture, a fresh flavor unlike any other, and only the simplest ingredients.

Fresh Bar’s innovative push for a fresher option in a stale snack bar category sets it apart. From its creation, the company and the team of five childhood friends behind it has had to forge new paths in the areas of manufacturing, distribution and retailing, encouraging multiple partners to adopt new ways to make, move and merchandise a new and disruptive idea in an old and established category.

So far, Fresh Bar’s hard work and pluck has paid off, but the task of bringing freshness to everyone still continues. The Five Friends are determined to show why snack bars should be made to eat, not to last!

Finalist: BET Vodka

The revelation of sugar beets as a viable agricultural commodity is highly attributed to the French — with roots dating back to the Napoleonic period. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a New Yorker named Henry Oxnard invented a “modern” way to process sugar beets in America’s Midwest.

Inspired by Henry’s pioneering spirit, two 21st-century pioneers — Ben Brueshoff and Jerad Poling — conceived a brilliant way to repurpose the hearts of sugar beets and create a premium vodka.

From generations of Midwest family farmers to the cooperative where the harvest is gathered, we proudly distill this sugar beet bounty down to its purest essence and reveal it in a beautiful sipping experience made for sharing.

Finalist: JonnyPops

2016 was a milestone year for JonnyPops, with growth in production, employment, distribution, sales and revenue. The company has built itself from a dorm room startup into a budding national brand, covering nearly half the country with delicious, all-natural, fruit and cream pops.

JonnyPops expanded its offerings to include two new flavors, Banana Cinnamon & Cream and Strawberry Banana & Cream, while adding a school-focused “Smart Snack,” putting our better-for-you pops into the hands of 500,000 Minnesota students last year, and millions more this fall by expanding into 10 additional states.

JonnyPops is thankful for its local support and remains tightly linked to the community through the support of farmers markets and community festivals, substance abuse and recovery awareness efforts in honor of our namesake Jonathan, and continued participation at the Minnesota State Fair. Thank you for helping further our mission of making a “Better Pop for a Better World.”

New Product: General

Winner: Dalsin Industries

Dalsin Industries is a market leader in high-value contract manufacturing of precision metal weldments, assemblies and products. Dalsin employs people, processes and production technology with a commitment to operational excellence, designing and building unique manufacturing applications. Dalsin’s market position, in the top 5% of U.S. metal contract manufacturers, testifies to the value of its OpEx commitment.

Memphis Wood Fired Grills are unique — both in their heritage of design, development and production within Dalsin, but also unique in the market. While Dalsin manufactures products for OEMs, Dalsin has designed a consumer product which is getting industry raves because of its ability to grill, smoke, roast and bake. Memphis Grills deliver great wood-fired flavor just as the wood-fired cooking market is exploding. Even better is the new integrated Wi-Fi controller and mobile app to give you the freedom to monitor and adjust your grill and food temps from anywhere you desire. A grill with Wi-Fi? How cool is that?

Finalist: Crenlo

Crenlo is a high-caliber metal fabricator. We build our enclosures from scratch, starting with raw steel. Our highly skilled workforce leverages our technology-rich equipment to mold, weld, paint and assemble our products. Our capabilities to produce world-class enclosures, and we have a top-notch quality organization to consistently meet or exceed our customers’ requirements. This combination of capabilities and quality systems was key in our selection by Lockheed Martin for the Space Fence program. Working together, we were able to design and manufacture custom enclosures for Space Fence — a sophisticated system that will dramatically improve the way the U.S. Air Force identifies and tracks objects in space. The enclosures offer superior protection against noise disturbances from external sources, physical protection from seismic events, weight load capacity and serviceability.

Finalist: Landscape Structures Inc.

Since 1971, Landscape Structures Inc. (LSI) has been the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial playground equipment. The employee-owned company is committed to creating a better world by encouraging outdoor activities that develop healthy kids and communities while honoring the environment.

This year, LSI released Rhapsody™ Outdoor Musical Instruments, a collection of chimes, metallophones and drums that invite kids and adults to feel the power of rhythm, tone and harmony.

A highly skilled music advisor ensured that each Rhapsody instrument delivers crisp, consistent tones. Rhapsody instruments are composed of high-quality materials that sound great, look beautiful and last for years to come.

New Product: Textiles

Winner: Clothier Design Source

Clothier Design Source is an apparel development and manufacturing company that develops over 1,000 products a year for several different brands. Clothier focuses on engineered apparel that is functional and sustainable, working in areas such as elite cycling, post-surgical, wearable medical devices and gaming technology. The product in the spotlight for 2016 is an elite cycling suit developed with local MN brand Donkey Label. These suits are engineered for an ergonomic fit when the rider is in position. The light-weight and durable fabric was developed with a mill in France that uses only the most microscopic fibers, allowing it to be extremely aerodynamic. The pattern was developed with seamlines that become channels for wind to travel over the body. The suit was tested in a wind tunnel and has since been worn by Elite national champions such as Ian Stanford and Jon Toftoy.

Finalist: Canvasback

Canvasback Custom Cargo Liners manufactures interior car protection for most SUVs, trucks and crossovers. The liners are hand-designed, hand- or machine-cut and sewn right here by our quality team of seamstresses. What sets Canvasback apart is its ability to cover all the carpeted areas of the cargo portion of customers’ vehicles including the sides and the back of their seats.

Canvasback continues to build upon its strengths of quality workmanship and customer service. Since its customer base is 90% dog-owners, their feedback has brought on new products recently such as Bumper Flaps, Travel Water/Food Bowls and more.

Canvasback’s growth continues. With a sales increase of 58% over the past two years, the company has added three new staff members.

Finalist: Lakeshirts Inc.

Lakeshirts is a custom apparel decorating company founded in 1984 and has grown to be a $60 million company. Lakeshirts provides decorated apparel to thousands of customers in the resort and college markets, being a preferred choice to customers for its breadth of great designs, great garments in stock and responsive delivery. Lakeshirts’ own dye plant allows us to adjust mid-season with new color requests and increase inventory on trending hues. The over-dyed long-sleeve shirt has been the perfect example of how these two divisions pair so well. This trendy yet comfortable garment comes in over 30 colors. Our 50 artists create thousands of designs, giving customers a variety of options. This is all done in a culture that reflects respect, community and fun.

Employee Training

Winner: Graco Inc.

Graco Inc. supplies technology and expertise for the management of fluids and coatings in both industrial and commercial applications. Graco’s products pump the oil into your car, the toothpaste in your tube and the filling into your cookie. They also glue the soles of your shoes, spray the varnish on your furniture, seal the screen on your cell phone, paint the stripes on your roads and more. Founded 90 years ago in Minneapolis, Graco now employs 1,500 people across the state and was named a Best Workplace in Manufacturing and Production by Fortune Magazine in 2016. To support training in the community, employees provide local colleges with industry perspectives on curriculum and leadership development, input regarding internships and assistance with acquisitions of machining equipment. The Graco Foundation also offers generous grants for scholarships and equipment purchases. Finally, Graco provides high-quality internships in the manufacturing field, which often lead to employment.

Finalist: MME group

MME group is a leading vertically integrated contract manufacturer dedicated to continuous process improvement. Services include full product development, tooling, molding and assembly. We provide program, quality, supply chain and inventory management. With some of the fastest turnaround times for contract manufacturing companies in the United States, MME group’s speed-to-market is unmatched, providing you with a competitive advantage on low-cost manufacturing. MME group provides the best solutions to fit your needs with unmatched care, quality systems and technical expertise.

Finalist: ProMed

ProMed has been on its Lean journey for over eight years, centering on the simple concept that every employee is empowered to make a difference. Our manufacturing group is made up of several small teams which operate as self-managed business units. Each team member has the authority to make decisions, even to the extent that he/she can stop a production line if needed. We established a training program that drives the Lean Six Sigma methodology throughout the organization. Our recently expanded training program now includes suppliers and customers and is based on the company philosophy that knowing something is only useful if you can teach others. Even with a top-down commitment, and both the education and statistical tools in place, the entire workforce must be engaged in order to maximize success. At ProMed, we are drawing people in through a Lean game. The entire organization participates, from manufacturing to the President.

Emerging Leader

Winner: Michelle Squire, Vice President of HR, Talon Innovations Corporation

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
In the past four years, I have helped drive the growth at Talon by leading the recruiting and development of over 150 new hires. Our company has quadrupled in size during this time, and I am proud of the opportunities that have been provided to employees to expand their skills and grow in their careers.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
A:
Speak up. If you have an idea, or you disagree with something that is happening, be sure to say something about it, preferably with an idea or solution to make it better. Early in my career, I would worry about sounding uninformed if I spoke up with questions during a meeting. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that improvements don’t happen unless you say what is on your mind, and are willing to ask questions.

Q: Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
A:
Being genuine. I am honest and up-front in my interactions with employees, service providers and community contacts. I want Talon employees to succeed and I do my best to understand challenges they are facing, and help find solutions to move them and the company forward.

Q: What is your favorite wise saying or proverb?
A:
My favorite saying is: It’s never too late to become what you might have been. No matter your age, if you have a dream it’s never too late to chase it, and make it come true.

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
Providing robust training and development opportunities for employees will be a dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017. With the skills gap that we have witnessed over the past few years, we have had to be more creative in finding talent, keeping talent and developing our employees to have the necessary skills to grow.

Finalist: Beth Nielsen, Chief Executive Officer, aspectLED

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
Having built the amazing team of people who are the aspectLED business. Any entrepreneur will tell you that building a team of top performers and a corporate culture that supports them is one of the most difficult tasks in starting or growing a business.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
A:
Treat every person that the company interacts with exactly how you’d want to be treated. You never know who will become your next big customers, which employees will emerge to become a key leaders, or which suppliers you’ll need a favor from someday.

Q: Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
A:
Being open-minded and comfortable with change. Benjamin Franklin once said “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished!” and I think this couldn’t be more true in today’s business world. The pace of technology development and the opportunities that many of these new technologies are bringing to the marketplace is incredible. It is more important now than ever to be comfortable with the fact that the way we do things today isn’t necessarily going to work tomorrow. Those companies that aren’t constantly adapting will quickly find themselves irrelevant.

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
Increasing efficiency using automation and software. One of the key reasons that our company is able to compete with low-cost countries is our ability to innovate and drive efficiency using automation and software. I think you’ll see more and more companies investing heavily in using software, robotics and automated production equipment.

Finalist: Tom Whisenand, Co-Owner & Director of Operations, Indeed Brewing Company

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
I’m most proud of our charitable giving program, Indeed We Can. Each year employees are asked to choose a nonprofit to support. Then each nonprofit is assigned a Wednesday night in our taproom from which they receive the profit. The program has raised more than $200,000 in about two years.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
A:
That manufacturing is always going to involve at least a small amount of chaos so expecting the unexpected is essential. Embracing that fact helps establish a culture in our brewery where we can handle extremely stressful situations without our hair falling out.

Q: Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
A:
I think I am a very trusting person and that helps enable our employees to take ownership and do great things. As Indeed has grown since starting in 2012 I’ve had to delegate so many things that I once did, and without trusting my employees, I don’t think we would be as successful as we are.

Q: What is your favorite wise saying or proverb?
A:
“You can do anything, but not everything.” —David Allen

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
Telling the story of where products come from and how they are made. Consumers are becoming more and more interested in where the products they purchase come from and how they are made. This is an opportunity for manufacturers to better connect with their customers.

Executive of the Year

Winner: Eric Gibson, President, Ultra Machining Company

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
Raising three healthy, engaged and independent children who are contributing back to society. With all the challenges the next generation faces, I am proud that my children are equipped with the education and skills to be part of solving those challenges.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
A:
When it comes to working with people, you have to individualize your approach. Early on in my career, I thought everyone liked to be managed the way I do, and that turned out to not be true. Some people like to have general guidelines and formulate their own path while others like each detail and objective to be spelled out.

Q: What is the characteristic that helps you be a good leader?
A:
Without a doubt, it is my ability and focus on being an active listener. Too many leaders think they have to have all the answers when in actuality, if they would only listen, their employees on the front line are the best resource for most issues. I use listening to better understand not only what the issues are, but also what we might do as a team to solve them.

Q: What is your favorite wise saying or proverb?
A:
No one ever discovered something new without first letting go of the old.

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
The dominant trend will most definitely be automation. Manufacturing continues to face a skilled labor shortage, and automation is the most viable option to overcome this immediate issue. We have severely defunded high school industrial arts programs and technical schools across the state. By not introducing our youth to these skilled labor opportunities earlier on, we have missed out on creating the trained professionals the manufacturing industry needs to fill the gap created by growth and the exit of the baby boomers from the workforce. Augmenting the skilled labor need with technology will still require individuals with specialty skills, but we cannot meet the increasing demand for manufactured goods without automation.

Finalist: Sarah Atchison, Owner & Chief Executive Officer, Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
The thing that has made the most difference for me and my coworkers is pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones. It’s not easy and it can be very scary at times. We’ve had to endure many, many changes at Midwest Fire over the past three years and we’ve tackled this by stepping outside of our comfort zones and doing things differently.

Q: What is the greatest lesson?
A:
There’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned hard work. We all strive for that work-life balance but as a small business owner you often need to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave.

Q: Your strongest leadership characteristic?
A:
Because I’m so new to the industry, I don’t always have the answer but I think my team can count on me to dig into the difficult issues we encounter and to find the resources we need to steer us in the right direction.

Q: What is your favorite saying or proverb?
A:
“Work hard. Take care of your customers. Give back to your community. And have fun!”

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
I think in our industry in particular, customers are searching for a more personal experience. So many things have become so impersonal and people are searching more and more for an ideal customer experience where things are personalized and customized to meet their needs.

Finalist: Doug Turk, President, Midwest Rubber

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A:
Having Midwest Rubber recognized by our peers in manufacturing as 2014 Small Manufacturer of the Year and being able to celebrate this accomplishments with our employees who helped make it happen.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
A:
As I have journeyed through my career and have made mistakes, have taken those as life’s lessons that you never stop learning and that when passing on “tribal knowledge” it can be passed on both up and down the ladder, and to use outside resources as you cannot know everything to run a successful business.

Q: Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
A:
Treating all as equals no matter what your stature and being willing to listen to new ideas that all can learn from (remembering where I started).

Q: What is your favorite wise saying or proverb?
A:
We all make mistakes in life, the key is to log them, learn by them and not make them again!

Q: What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2017?
A:
Retention of employees (GWC) and sustainability of methodical and profitable growth.

Lifetime Achievement Award:

Art Sneen, Founder & President, Manufacturers Alliance

Q: How did you get into manufacturing?
A:
As a teenager, my brother-in-law owned a tool grinding shop, so I spent summers there grinding and sharpening tools, which I delivered all over town. I got the basics of what manufacturing looked like.

Q: What was manufacturing like then?
A:
Automated CNC equipment was just coming on the scene and computer-controlled machines were run by punch cards. You needed a really highly skilled operator to make those parts.

Q:You studied aeronautical engineering?
A:
Yes. The space program was in full-fledged competition with Russia in the 1960s and you might recall the Sputnik program. Four years after I entered the program, they laid off 200,000 aeronautical engineers.
So then I became an efficiency expert, and that was one of the bases for the Manufacturer’s Alliance.

Q: In the 1970s the car industry fell off, partly due to increased Japanese efficiency. Did that play a role?
A:
Absolutely, the Toyota production system is a basic value of lean manufacturing. Today I would call it continuous improvement, which will stick around as long as we have humans working.

Q: How did the Manufacturers Alliance became popular?
A:
Dean Jablonsky from Boston Scientific was one of our original workshop instructors. He did a workshop we called lean manufacturing. That blew the doors off, people were waiting in line; we couldn’t pack enough people in.

Q:How many instructors do you have now?
A:
Today we have over 50 instructors and we use peer-to-peer education. All of our instructors are working or retired practitioners in manufacturing.

Q: How many companies are members of the Manufacturers Alliance?
A:
We’re approaching 500. Most are in the metro area and many have been with us for a very long time. They’re all types and sizes, from as big as Boston Scientific to more entrepreneurial, family-owned business.

Q:  Your award doesn’t mean you have to stop achieving. What’s on your list?
A:
Mentoring, coaching, advising. I have had such a broad perspective, having critiqued thousands of companies since was 21. That gives me some perspective on their problems and their approaches.