Winners of the 2015 Manufacturing Awards by Minnesota Business Magazine

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

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 2015 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 manufacturers, we tip our hats to all of the companies — big and small — creating great products that they, and all Minnesotans, can be proud of. From hand-pressed cider and apparel to playground equipment and elevator parts, here we honor all types of manufacturers in our great state.

Meet the Judges
Best in Class: Small
Best in Class: Midsize
Best in Class: Large
Most Sustainable Product
New Product: Food & Beverage
Best New Product: Textiles
Best New Product: General
Employee Training and Engagement
Emerging Leader
Executive of the Year
Lifetime Achievement


Katie Clark Sieben is Minnesota’s Commissioner for the Department of Employment and Economic Development. As such, she spends a good portion of her time promoting the state’s manufacturers, whether it be encouraging young people to enter the industry, or to facilitate the export of Minnesota-made products.

Hosting the Minnesota Manufacturing Awards fits right into that trend.

“I’m honored to be part of a ceremony that recognizes these innovative businesses,” Sieben says. “It’s important to shed light on these manufacturers that create high-quality products, many of which are sold around the globe.”

Sieben has had the opportunity to visit a number of manufacturing plants across the state, and those experiences enable her to dispel some of the myths about the industry that may be deterring young people from considering manufacturing as a career.

“Sometimes people hear ‘manufacturing,’ and they think of grease and dirty, noisy environments,” she says. “I try to tell people just how clean these facilities are, that they are pristine, hi-tech and desirable places to work.”

Meet the Judges

John Bruellman is the President/CEO of Sign-Zone Inc., a privately-held entity, which owns several brands including Showdown Displays, Creative Banner Displays and Victory Corps. Prior to Sign-Zone, Bruellman worked at large, diverse businesses such as Nordic Track, Honeywell and Ceridian in operations management, sales/marketing, business strategy and general management. He also volunteers with Common Hope and Junior Achievement, and is active in various veterans organizations.

As senior vice president of public relations firm PadillaCRT, Kathy Burnham has spent more than 30 years creating strategies and communications programs for the company’s business-to-business and manufacturing clients. Burnham also serves as a board member for a number of organizations, as well as vice president of the SME Education Foundation’s STEM board, which supports programs for youth interested in science, math, engineering and manufacturing. Burnham is also a founding member of the Minnesota Manufacturers’ Coalition.

A veteran CEO of several companies, Larry Haberman currently serves as the president of V-Tek Inc., which provides packaging of electrical components for the circuit board industry. Prior to joining V-Tek, he was CEO of a privately held holding company consisting of four business firms in building products, ranging from $10 million to $100 million in sales. Throughout his 40-plus year career, Haberman has worked in sales and marketing, operations and has held executive-level roles in a variety of companies. He holds an MBA degree from the U of M.

As founder and CEO of association management company IntrinXec Management Inc., Jaime Nolan manages the daily operations of the growing business including management of the company’s vision and strategic plan. Additionally, Nolan works with dozens of associations on strategic planning, board governance, leadership training and organizational culture. She also serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association where she manages the business of the association.

Kirby Sneen is vice president of the Manufacturers Alliance, where he helps 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 previously held roles in sales, marketing and communications management. He has degrees in audio engineering, marketing and an MBA (Dec. 2015).


Brad Thorson is a partner and patent attorney with legal firm Patterson Thuente. He has experience in intellectual property portfolio management, including U.S. and international patent preparation and prosecutions, patent options and litigation and litigation alternatives. Previously, he worked as an engineer and construction industry regulator, developing technical codes and standards for the design of buildings and building systems at the state and national levels. He also worked as a mechanical systems designer and energy conservation researcher.

Best in Class: Small

Recognizes a small company (1–50 employees) for overall excellence in the manufacturing industry in Minnesota.

WINNER: Safe Reflections Inc.

To help prevent the growing number of pedestrian crashes in recent years, Minnesota manufacturer Safe Reflections Inc. has expanded its workforce and manufacturing presence to create reflective apparel for the global market. Founded in 1993, the St. Paul-based company converts 3M Scotchlite reflective material to major manufacturers of uniforms, safety clothing and athletic apparel. Safe Reflections also released its own line of unique colored, reflective trims, transfers and fabrics called Brilliant Color Reflective in 2013. Most recently, under the helm of president and CEO Chuck Gruber, the company opened a new 39,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oakdale, Minn., added 50 new jobs in the past two years, and increased its manufacturing capacity to meet double-digit growth in demand for its products.

Finalist: Chukar Waterjet

A leading manufacturer of deep-water subsea ultra-high pressure waterjet technology, Chukar Waterjet pioneered the development of deep-water subsea waterjet technology in response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. The company’s waterjet equipment can be used for things like deep-water emergency response operation, salvage operations, and rapid demobilization operations. It can also be used to blast away coatings and marine growth or as a cutting tool. In July 2015, Chukar Waterjet introduced its new SUB-JET 3000 subsea waterjet system for work class ROVs. The SUB-JET 3000 is operable at depths up to 10,000 feet and cuts steel up to 250 millimeters thick (nearly 10 inches). “It’s a great solution for operators who are looking to improve safety and efficiency of their operations with ultra-high pressure waterjet technology,” general manager Bruce Kivisto says.

Finalist: Top Tool

Since its inception in 1966, manufacturing company Top Tool has been dedicated to helping keep the Minnesota manufacturing industry strong. Specializing in creating tooling and complex precision components for companies in high-tech industries, Top Tool has worked with local and state public officials and collaborated with local colleges and tech schools to create relevant curriculum. Additionally, in the past four years, the company’s sales have increased by nearly 29%, with approximately 15% of its sales derived from exporting in 2015 — compared to nearly zero percent three years ago. But Top Tool attributes much of its recent success to its top-notch employees, saying they are the reason the company has a “reputation for innovation and invention.”

Best in Class: Midsize

Recognizes a midsize company (51–250 employees) for overall excellence in the manufacturing industry in Minnesota

WINNER: Ultra Machining Company

Monticello-based Ultra Machining Company creates precision machined parts and assembly for the medical aerospace, commercial, industrial and energy markets, among others. This year, it received the 2015 National Tooling and Machining Technology Award for the development and implementation of computerized dimensional assist (CDA) in its operations. Ultra Machining was one of the first manufacturers to integrate CDA technology, which allowed it to increase its speed to market for complex products, while maintaining quality standards. Ultra Machining also received the 2014 Frost and Sullivan Manufacturing Workplace Leadership Award and maintains a commitment to youth interested in manufacturing, contributing 3%-4% of its annual profits to local schools and organizations, and facilitating a growing apprenticeship program.

Finalist: Talon Innovations

Talon Innovations prides itself in taking on challenging projects that other companies may not. This mantra has enabled the company to evolve from a machine shop into a turn-key solution provider. Located in Sauk Rapids, Minn., Talon Innovations specializes in ultra-high purity components for a variety of industries, including medical devices, aerospace technology and semiconductors. Since 2011, the company has experienced consistent growth, tripling its sales and its workforce. Talon Innovations has also worked hard to grow its exporting business. In fact, nearly all of Talon Innovations’ revenue comes from outside Minnesota, with a large percentage from other countries like China and Korea.

Finalist: LINDAR

A leader in plastic thermoforming of paint products, food packaging and OEM components, LINDAR has been a thriving part of the state’s manufacturing industry for more than 20 years. LINDAR released its Simply Secure food packaging in 2014, which received the Gold Award at the 2015 SPE Thermoforming Division Annual Conference. With consistent sales growth over the past four years, LINDAR has become one of the top thermoforming companies in the U.S.  To accommodate such growth, in 2014 LINDAR completed a 33,000-square-foot building expansion to its facility in Baxter, Minn., providing additional production and warehousing space, which included a new thermoforming production line to help advance the company’s production efficiency.

Best in Class: Large

Recognizes a large company (250+) for overall excellence in the manufacturing industry in Minnesota.

WINNER: Marvin Windows and Doors

When the housing industry suffered during the economic downturn, Marvin Windows and Doors chose to focus on long-term profit instead of short-term gains. Instead of laying off employees, the family-owned and operated company kept its labor force intact, preventing employees with valuable industry knowledge from leaving, and also helping to sustain the local economy in Warroad. Focusing on innovation over the last several years, Marvin has introduced numerous new products and options for customers, including the Next Generation Ultimate Double Hung window, the Ultimate Multi-Slide Door, and fully-integrated interior shades. As a result, Marvin has been recognized for its products with numerous awards over the past two years, as well as its efforts as a good corporate citizen, winning the 2014 Minnesota Business Ethics Award, the 2014 American Business Ethics Award and the 2013 Minnesota Business Community Impact Award.

Finalist: Landscape Structures

Landscape Structures has been designing innovative, eco-friendly playground equipment since 1971. In addition to traditional playground equipment, Landscape Structures designs and manufactures unique play environments, like the auto tourist camp theme at Wabun Picnic Area in Minnehaha Park. In 2015, the employee-owned company launched its Canyon Collection — realistic rock formations that integrate into PlayBooster play structures. This is the first concrete panel system in the market that uses light concrete technology and a new mold process. Such products have led to Landscape Structures’ recent success: a 20% growth in revenue over the past two years, and adding 30 new employees.

Finalist: Vision-Ease

Founded in 1930, Vision-Ease continues to manufacture high-quality eyeglass lenses in a variety of materials. Over the years, Vision-Ease has garnered a major presence in optical shops around the country, from national chains to independent shops that serve local communities. In addition to creating new products and building sustainable manufacturing practices, the St. Cloud-based company has recently spent its energy increasing customer awareness of its premium polarized sun lenses through the help of a celebrity endorsement from professional soccer star Mia Hamm. Vision-Ease has also shown its customer focus through its Venue Lab, a web portal that allows eye care professionals access to specialty lens processing. Launched in 2012, Vision-Ease continues to improve the lab’s capabilities and offerings in response to customer demand.


Recognizes manufacturers for successfully developing, adapting or modifying production processes to be more harmonious with the environment.

WINNER: Nordic Ware

For kitchen and bakeware company Nordic Ware, sustainability is something its owners and employees have practiced from the beginning. Most notably, Nordic Ware prides itself in making products that last for generations, providing lifetime warranties for each product. This means fewer products need to be disposed of and recycled. As a U.S.-based company that manufactures its products in St. Louis Park, Minn., Nordic Ware has also been able to make a significant impact on the environment by reducing its carbon footprint. And when it comes to its products, from cookie sheets to Bundt pans, Nordic Ware uses BP-free and melamine-free materials and water-based coatings instead of solvent-based ones when possible. The company has also taken the idea of sustainability a step further by offering eco-friendly programs to its employees, which include a community garden initiative and an overall wellness program to prevent injuries on the job. 

Finalist: Maud Borup/eco eggs

Food manufacturer Maud Borup’s eco eggs division has shown its commitment to the environment through producing its plant-based plastic Easter eggs and eco grass — or recycled paper Easter grass. Maud Borup not only produces eco-friendly products, but it also uses eco-friendly practices like geothermal heat, recycled desktops, counters and lighting, reclaimed wooden tables, as well as recycling or upcycling everything possible. But more than that, all products in the eco eggs division are produced entirely in the state of Minnesota. The company is also erecting a 92-foot wind turbine, which will provide 100% of the electricity for its manufacturing facility, and will continue to reuse supplier boxes and packing materials to pack customer orders.

Finalist: Command Tooling Systems

In order to help improve the indoor air quality of its Ramsey-based facility and use clean technology, manufacturer Command Tooling Systems had its coolant system tested. As a result, the company — which manufactures tooling systems for high-precision machining operations — changed over its entire softcell area to a coolant that doesn’t contain boron or chlorine. The new coolant has also reduced the bacterial growth, thus dramatically improving the manufacturer’s work environment. And the company has been able to reduce its consumption of coolant, which has helped it gain cutting tool life. Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) awarded Command Tooling Systems a health and safety grant to help finance the new coolant system.


Recognizes an organization for enhancing the industry’s image and showing the appeal of careers in manufacturing via public relations, media relations, B2B or community relations.

WINNER: Midwest Industrial Tool Grinding Inc. (MITGI)

Micro-cutting tool manufacturer Midwest Industrial Tool Grinding Inc. has made its commitment to both the community and education a priority. With the goal of encouraging youth to enter the manufacturing industry, MITGI facilitates on-site tours, classroom visits, and presentations at manufacturing expos. “By networking with students and parents, we can show what modern manufacturing looks like, describe the kinds of careers that exist and help students to formulate plans for a productive future that benefits the whole community,” MITGI Vice President Eric Lipke says. MITGI also cultivates relationships with local community and technical colleges, supports students by donating tools and equipment and provides scholarships and paid internships. Through these partnerships, MITGI hopes to help keep schools informed about the current employment needs in manufacturing so their students can get the skills desired by local manufacturers.

Finalist: Uponor

A manufacturer of PEX piping for more than 40 years, Uponor is making great strides in bringing up the next generation of manufacturers. In fact, Uponor sponsors the Youth CareerConnect federal grant program to promote and expand STEM in schools. The Apple Valley-based company  also provides mentorship and internship programs, and gives training and tours to local students with the hopes of creating awareness about career opportunities in manufacturing. Uponor also works with Opportunity Partners to provide work opportunities in manufacturing, and is currently pursuing an apprenticeship program to help provide a clear career path to highly skilled positions in manufacturing.

Finalist: Productivity Inc.

Since 1968, metalworking company Productivity Inc. has been building relationships with local community and technical colleges and professional machine tool associations to raise awareness about the value of manufacturing careers. As one of the Midwest’s leading distributors of metalworking equipment, the Plymouth-based company wants to do its part to spread the word to the millennial generation about the advantages of working in the manufacturing industry. Through training support, machine demonstrations, tooling applications, school discounts on CNC machines, and hosting a student day and job fair on the first day of the Oktoberfest Tool Show, Productivity Inc. is helping raise interest and inspire future manufacturers.

Most Sustainable Product

Awarded to a Minnesota manufacturer that developed a new product (about two years) that demonstrates best practices and ingenuity in sustainability and ecological friendliness.

WINNER: Maud Borup & eco eggs

Do you ever wonder where all that plastic Easter basket grass goes after the egg hunt? Well, Maud Borup has the answer. The manufacturer’s plant-based plastic Easter eggs and eco grass — or recycled paper Easter grass — are made entirely of eco-friendly materials, reducing toxins and harmful emissions. Specifically, eco eggs are made of a bioplastic material that’s BPA- and PVC-free. In fact, the company’s eco eggs were recognized globally as the first renewable plastic Easter eggs. The eggs decompose in industrial compost in just six months to a year, or can be stored and reused each year. The company’s Easter grass product is just as environmentally friendly, made from 100% recycled paper and packaged in a resealable bag for clean storage so it can be used year after year.

Finalist: YOXO

Jeff Freeland came up with the idea for toy company YOXO in 2011 when he was playing with his kids and realized that he was unhappy with their existing toy options. So, he set out to create a company that promoted open-ended play, sparked imagination, was eco-friendly and made in the U.S. YOXO construction kits inspire kids to design and build their own toys using Y-, O-, and X-shaped links that connect in numerous ways with everyday household materials. YOXO toys are manufactured from recycled wood pulp in the company’s wind-powered Minnesota workshop. Additionally, all the raw materials for the toys are sourced from Minnesota and its neighboring states. Even YOXO packaging is eco-friendly, using 100% recycled paper instead of packing peanuts, allowing its St. Paul manufacturing facility to produce close to zero waste.

Finalist: Bare Honey

Founded in 2010 by former chefs Dustin and Grace Vanasse, Bare Honey produces and sells honey and honey-sweetened spreads. After starting out in local farmers markets, the company quickly grew beyond its Minnesota borders, and today Bare Honey products are available in at least 300 retail locations in more than 10 different states. All Bare Honey products retain the natural taste of honey harvested fresh from the hive and are minimally processed, using simple, whole ingredients. Bare Honey also sources high-quality products from across the globe. But all honey is either made in house or sourced directly from domestic producers.

New Product: Food & Beverage

Awarded to a Minnesota manufacturer that developed a new product (about two years) that demonstrates best practices and ingenuity in the food and beverage industry.


WINNER: Sociable Ciderwerks

Longtime friends Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson founded Sociable Ciderwerks in 2011 in the garage, of all places, and in 2013, the duo debuted their fine craft ciders to the public. The Minneapolis-based brewer produces its ciders using freshly pressed Midwestern apples sourced from Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minn. Sociable Ciderwerks operates a full production brewery, a wholesale distribution business and a retail taproom. The company’s flagship product, Freewheeler Dry Apple, takes on the character of a tart sparkling wine, while the rest of Sociable Ciderwerk’s products bridge the gap to the ever-popular craft beer movement.

Finalist: MN Bratwerks, LLC

When Gerhard Riautschinig came to the U.S. from Austria more than 20 years ago, he brought his family’s traditional bratwurst recipes with him. With what he knew would be a sure-fire success, along with his friend Rob Lee, Riautschinig founded MN Bratwerks in 2012. Today, the mouth-watering brats are known for their “old world authenticity and flavor,” and are available in more than 40 locations across the Twin Cities. The brats are made with locally-raised pork that is antibiotic- and hormone-free. The brat recipe doesn’t use any fillers or allergens, and is gluten free — just how his Grandma Josephine made them.

Finalist: 612Brew

You may find some of the 612Brew employees packaging cans themselves late into the night at their brewery in Northeast Minneapolis in order to keep up with the demand. It’s a labor of love for the small-batch beer producer 612Brew, which has been producing its popular brews since 2013. In its second year, 612Brew increased its production significantly. With higher production and a new six-pack of cans for retail, 612Brew turned to Bernick’s to help distribute its product, which is now available in a number of retail locations and on tap throughout the Twin Cities area, and of course, at the 612Brew brewery.

Best New Product: Textiles

Awarded to a Minnesota manufacturer that developed a new product (about two years) that demonstrates best practices and ingenuity in the textiles industry.


WINNER: Tamarack Habilitation Technologies

Tamarack Habilitation Technologies was founded in 1990 as a custom orthotic seating system manufacturer. Over the years, and fueled by the success of its initial products, Tamarack began to develop products to help provide relief of repetitive friction and forces that cause tissue injuries and pressure ulcers. In 2015, Tamarack is launching three innovative strategic friction management products, including a new custom wheelchair seating system called FlexForm, and a line of low-friction garments for ulcer prevention called GlideWear Shear Protection. Recently, GlideWear has been expanded to include commercialized product applications for wheelchair seat cushion and headrest covers and even prosthetic liner patches for amputees.

Finalist: Safe Reflections Inc.

With the recent growth in fashion-forward active wear and the increasing need for reflective fabric to increase outdoor visibility, manufacturer Safe Reflections Inc. saw room to bring a new product to the market. With traditional silver reflective material not functioning properly on today’s lightweight technical fabrics, the company created its own solution in 2013 — Brilliant Color Reflective. This is the only high-brightness, high-stretch, color reflective on the market. Now designers can incorporate high-visibility color reflective into high-performance active wear. In less than six months, the Brilliant Color Reflective solution has been adopted by five global consumer active wear brands, including Brooks Running and Pearl iZumi.

Finalist: Clothier Design Source

With a full-service apparel development and manufacturing facility, Clothier Design Source cuts and sews thousands of garments each month for different apparel brands. To keep up with product demand and eliminate mistakes that could be costly, Clothier Design Source created “The 4 Steps of Apparel Design and Manufacturing,” which creates a clear path to the correct order of product development manufacturing. As a result, small and midsize brands can now break through into the apparel industry with increased efficiency and the reduction of waste. Through perfecting this “4 Steps” process and educating clients, Clothier Design Source has created a sustainable method for U.S.-manufactured clothing.

Best New Product: General

Awarded to a Minnesota manufacturer that developed a new product (about two years) that demonstrates uncanny creativity and ingenuity.


WINNER: Veritron Midwest Inc.

Vertitron Midwest Inc., or VMI, specializes in the manufacturing of microprocessor-based elevator control systems. In June 2013, VMI released its Reflex 3.14 — a new hydraulic leveling product that reduces a hydraulic elevator average floor-to-floor run time by four to six seconds. The reduction in the motor run time also reduces the oil temperature, which improves the overall performance of the elevator and extends the life of the components, plus it provides energy and time savings. For example, a hospital in Omaha reduced the average floor-to-floor time by four seconds, which translated to a savings of more than $8,500. Additionally, the overall installation and setup of the product requires less time than conventional systems.

Finalist: Chief

AV technology manufacturer Chief creates mounts, racks, power and storage accessories for TVs, displays, projectors and other AV components for both the commercial and residential markets. Chief’s ConnexSys Video Wall Mounting System helps solve common problems faced by installers when mounting video walls — speed of installation, ease of alignment and access for future servicing. With Chief’s PowerZone adjustment zone, it keeps all the adjustment points at one location on the mount for easier access. The RapidDraw Display Release cord system allows for remote release of the screens from any side of the mount as well. One of the fastest growing new products at Chief, the ConnexSys Video Wall Mounting System is now being used across the globe.

Finalist: Crenlo

The enclosure business of Rochester-based manufacturer Crenlo — Emcor — designs, manufactures and sells enclosures, consoles and custom solutions to protect and store electronic equipment. The new Guardian product line includes Datacom server cabinets, open frame racks, switch cabinets and wall-mount boxes. Emcor worked with industry leaders like IBM, Dell and HP to develop top-notch products for the datacom industry. The Guardian line features two-post and four-post open frame distribution racks that are constructed of high-strength aluminum and can support up to 1,000 pounds of equipment. Emcor has also created a new patent-pending wall mount server cabinet that can be installed by a single person, even in tight spaces.

Employee Training and Engagement

Recognizes a company for excellence in providing training to Minnesota-based employees to improve technical and leadership skills.



Started in 1945 by Erick Ajax, metal forming company E.J. AJAX is owned today by his grandsons, Tom and Erick Ajax. Seeing the value of employee training, the company has invested more than 5.5% of its payroll in education, professional development and training focused on developing skilled workers in the metal stamping industry. The Minneapolis-based manufacturer has worked with many of its direct competitors, local nonprofits, foundations, government agencies and community colleges to invest in workforce development. In fact, since 1993, more than half of E.J. Ajax’s frontline workforce either entered into or graduated from apprenticeship programs, and most Class-A journey workers have nearly doubled their entry-level wages. The company also participates in the “M-Powered” and “Precision Sheet Metal” fast-track training programs at Hennepin and Anoka technical colleges, which put 10 to 15 of its entry-level employees on a career ladder that would otherwise not be available.

Finalist: MEI Total Elevator Solutions

Mankato-based elevator manufacturing company MEI-Total Elevator Solutions has developed a number of training programs for employees. The independent education reimbursement program pays for education that improves job skills. MEI also funds targeted programs for employees to stay up-to-date in the industry and in their particular field. New employees take an online training program called MEI University, which teaches about the history of the company, different elevators, and the equipment sold by the company. People in new leadership roles must attend supervisor training conducted by an outside vendor. Recently, employees completed a Lean Workshop to learn about improving efficiency and leadership.

Finalist: Du Fresne Manufacturing

Established in 1991, Du Fresne Manufacturing Company provides high-precision sheet metal fabrication, product design and development for customers in the defense, industrial, high-tech, medical and telecom markets. Du Fresne follows the Performance Preview and Development Process, which promotes continuous improvement of knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as leadership training. This includes positions on the Executive Management Team, Leadership Advisory Team, Performance Advisor Group and Employee Communication Exchange. This process goes in hand with the company’s Business Performance Model, in which each position has a matrix of knowledge, skills and abilities, and each employee is evaluated based on certain learning stages. Du Fresne believes these stages of skill performance are important in determining personal goals and what training, experience and coaching will be beneficial for each employee.

Emerging Leader

Awarded to an individual who has entered a leadership role within Minnesota’s manufacturing industry within the past five years, made significant accomplishments, and appears poised for further success.


WINNER: Janet Bearmon, Human Resources Director, Sign-Zone

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Creating the Human Resources Department at Sign-Zone.  When I came on board three years ago, HR had only one employee handling payroll and benefits administration. Now our department provides full-cycle recruiting, compensation strategy, market analysis, benefits benchmarking, talent reviews, succession planning, new hire on-boarding, manager development, and a state-of-the-art payroll and HRIS system. Sign-Zone’s HR Department is now recognized as more than a transactional function but one that supports our business growth objectives, champions Sign-Zone as a “Best Place to Work,” and embodies our Core Values.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
Employee performance issues decline when I provide our managers with the confidence, skills, and communication strategies to effectively coach their employees.  I challenge our managers to establish expectations of their employees regarding attendance, work ethic, quality, productivity, attitude, and the like.

Your top leadership characteristic?
Fairness. I try to impartially consider different points of view and entertain a variety of possible options before arriving at a decision. 

Favorite saying:
“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”

What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2016?
The continued labor shortage the industry faces. To address this trend, companies are encouraged to use creative and innovative strategies to attract candidates and then retain them through strong leadership, realized core values, career paths, competitive total rewards packages, and employee recognition opportunities. 

Finalist: Jashan Eison, President/CEO H&B Elevators

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Acquiring H&B Elevators at the age of 33 and reestablishing the company’s prominence within our industry.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
Make decisions based on FACTS! Which means, do your homework.

Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
Being a good listener.

What is your favorite saying?
“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” — Richard Branson

What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2016?
Ownership of small manufacturers will continue to be passed down to the next generation

Finalist: Jesse Schelitzche, President, Imagineering Machine Inc.

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Having a hand in a successful transition of ownership.   

What is your greatest lesson? 
Your team is your greatest asset. I had a tendency (and still do at times) to want to do everything on my own.  Having faith in your employees is crucial to survival and sanity. 

Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.  
I don’t have a problem admitting I’m wrong.  If I can admit mistakes and take responsibility, it sets a tone through the business to admit fault and find a solution to the problem. 

What is your favorite saying?
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

What will be the dominant trend for manufacturing in 2016?
The ability to think creatively and adopt technology to make higher quality products at a cheaper price. Companies that invest in their employees are going to have a lot of success. Companies that figure out how to offer more than just a product or part to their customer will do well.

Executive of the Year

Awarded to an individual who has made major accomplishments in Minnesota’s manufacturing industry in the past few years. The nominee should have at least 5 years of executive leadership experience in the manufacturing industry.


WINNER: Dave Lagerstrom, President & CEo, Turck

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Successfully steering the company through the 2009 recession.  It was the first time in our history we had to lay off employees and an extremely difficult time for all involved. We came out of the situation a much stronger and a better company, but it hurt.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned?  
Always manage expectations. The expectations of the customer, the employees or the company stakeholders must be managed properly. Setting expectations high and not being able to deliver will cause major issues, while properly managing expectations leads to a strong team in all areas.
Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.  
Trust. Put the right people in place and let them do what they feel is right. Your trust in people as a leader will enable people to exceed even what they thought they could accomplish.
What is your favorite saying?
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” — Abraham Lincoln
Trends for manufacturing in 2016?

Great question with no real answer. The strong dollar will hurt OEM [original equipment manufacturing] business and low oil prices will keep a large market fairly dormant. That being said, American manufacturing is poised to take off and lead the world. It is only a matter of when.

Finalist: Bob Archambault, President, MME Group Inc.

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Purchasing and evolving a tool and die company into a successful full-fledged medical contract manufacturing company where the benefits are shared with every employee.

What is your greatest lesson learned?
A leader has to continually push the execution of his vision.

Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
Understanding the big picture and being able to look out into the future through Christian values.

What is your favorite saying?
“Just find out what they want and give it to them … PLUS ONE.” — My Father

What will be the dominant trends for manufacturing in 2016?
It is an election year, so — as always — the government will continue to talk good news to push theirs agendas. Good news = consumer confidence = spending = manufacturing orders.

Finalist: Jeff Wollerman, VP/COO, Cretex Companies

What is your greatest accomplishment?
Being part of the Cretex leadership team that successfully navigated through the Great Recession and transformed our business into a leader of medical device contract manufacturing. 

What is your greatest lesson learned?
You are only as good as the team around you. If you surround yourself with exceptional people and establish a culture and expectation of continuous improvement, you are 90% there.

Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
My ability to learn from, and leverage, the talents of the exceptional people I have had the great fortune to work with (and for).

Your favorite saying?
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” — Charles Swindoll

What will be the top trends for 2016?
1) advancement of disruptive technologies like additive manufacturing, robotics, and sensing; 2) the re-shoring of manufacturing to the U.S.; 3) continued shortage of key technical talent.

Lifetime Achievement

Awarded to an individual who has made major accomplishments in Minnesota’s manufacturing industry and contributed to the advancement of the industry for at least 20 years.


WINNER: Mike Gramse, Owner/President, MRG Tool and Die

How did you get into manufacturing?
I started the company in Faribault with another fellow back in 1979 and we were partners for about 15 months before we separated. Now we’ve got 65-70 employees and most of them came to us right out of tech college and built their careers and raised their families. It’s pretty rewarding to see everybody grow in their careers and to know that we’re a part of that. We all grew together.

What is your greatest accomplishment?
That is probably being able to raise my children to be good people and to be interested in the business. Another thing that is very satisfying is when a customer of ours retires — and usually it’s an engineer we have been working for for a long time — and then tells us we have been their best supplier. Several times over the years we have had the honor of being told we are the best shop they work with and that makes me feel that we have been successful.

What do you find is most rewarding?
The type of work we do is real challenging and it’s interesting. We’re not doing the same thing every day. It’s always a matter of finding a solution for our customers, who are other manufacturers.
They come to us when they have something they want to build, and we figure out a way to do that. That’s the most gratifying thing to me.

What’s more challenging, machines or people?
People. People are by far more challenging. Whether they’re the customers or the employees; that’s where the challenge comes in.

You’ve served on manufacturing boards also?
I’ve been a member of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association for many years, and have served as president.
I’ve also been involved at the tech colleges and MnSCU throughout the years. We work closely with the Faribault campus of South Central College to develop the students and to develop the programs to meet our needs. We hire most of our employees right out of college.

We’ve been involved with the tech college since 1980. I enrolled there when it was first started in 1966 and graduated in 1968. We’ve been involved with it more or less ever since.

It’s almost like a farmer growing talent.
Yeah it’s what we do. We say we grew our workforce. The business grew as we all got older and gained more experience and as we go forward we’re going to continue to have to grow our employees. They’re hard to find.

We have to find people that are local generally, that live within 30 miles of where we are located and when you’re in out-state Minnesota, that’s a little bit more of a challenge. But we’ve always had to grow our people.

What’s the greatest lesson that you’ve learned?
I guess it is to understand that people’s strengths are different and there’s most likely a place where everybody will fit into the organization. It’s a matter of finding the right spot.

Name your strongest characteristic that helps you be a good leader.
I think being honest, being straight forward, not trying to white-wash things.

Any final words?
It’s a humbling experience to be honored in this way. It makes you look back and wonder, “Well is this really deserved or isn’t it?” I don’t really have an answer to that, but it’s nice to know that somebody appreciates it.