Features

Winona ideal base for close-knit companies calling it home

Businesses cite work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, and culture of building as reasons for liking the area

By Hannah Jones
Friday, November 21, 2014

Pamela Eyden has lived in Winona, Minnesota, for more than 25 years. The area is a big part of her life, and as a current member of Winona’s City Council, she’s heavily involved in its life, too.
 
“It’s a town that’s accustomed to and promotes entrepreneurial and startup businesses,” she says.
 
Eyden’s ward covers the area between Lake Winona and the Mississippi River, encompassing the city’s small-business-rich downtown and one of its largest employers, Winona State University. She’s both a teacher there and an editor at a regional publication, Big River Magazine
 
As such, she’s watched and benefited from the cooperation across Winona’s businesses and organizations.
 
Winona sits in an enviable pocket of bluffs in the fertile Mississippi River Valley. Nestled between hillsides and the river, the city has struck a balance between deep, traditional roots and modern education and technology to create idyllic conditions for small and midsize businesses.
 
Eyden’s favorite part of living there, however, is the river. She’s a kayaker.
 
The city, too, has enjoyed a long love affair with the river. Winona was founded by a steamboat captain in 1851 and soon became a transportation hub. From there, it flourished with the help of an able workforce, educated by both Winona State University and St. Mary’s University, and proximity to the Twin Cities, giving it reach into the rest of the country.
 
Winona playfully calls itself the “Island City” because most of it rests on a flat sandbar out in the river. Like an island, it’s making the best of its resources — the new and the old — becoming a city of small enterprises, innovators, and manufacturers.
 
Pat Mullen, CFO of Behrens Manufacturing, has watched industry progress in one of Minnesota’s oldest cities. He’s currently a board member of the Winona Chamber of Commerce, and starting Jan. 1 he’ll be the chair. “Maybe one of the more impressive things about Winona,” he says, “is the concentration of high-quality products.”
 
And the stuff behind many of the products Winonoans make? Composite materials. The city and its neighbors make up a notable industry cluster in composites. The Winona Area Composites Consortium provides a forum, fosters education and training, and even facilitates cooperation on large-scale orders. The 7 Rivers Alliance, meanwhile, connects this and other industry in the area.
 
With a population of about 28,000, Winona’s small size is in many ways an advantage: Industry leaders can collaborate and communicate with one another in their own tight networks. 
 
Today, one of Winona’s biggest challenges seems to be growing up without growing out. “Every city has to go through it at some point in time,” says Mullen. “The challenge will be figuring out how to grow without losing the essence of what Winona’s all about.”
 
Eyden intends to work with the city to repurpose vacant buildings downtown, making room for something new within the cherished infrastructure of Winona’s history. Another of her projects: expanding and redesigning the riverfront’s Levy Park. The river may once again emerge as one of the city’s biggest economic resources. “Recreation and tourism are going to be a big part of the future,” Eyden says. “It’s so beautiful here.” 
 
Following, a sampling of companies that call Winona home.

Wenonah Canoe

Ready for floatation: Made-to-order kayaks and canoes waiting to be shipped at Wenonah Canoe

Wenonah Canoe, a maker of lightweight, durable watercraft, began in Winona simply because its founder, Winona native Mike Cichanowski, began there, too. 

Cichanowski sums up his own existence in three words: “born to paddle.”
 
“Basically, I fell in love with canoeing,” he says.
 
You couldn’t invent a better place to paddle a canoe than Winona, he says. He built his first boats in high school and attended Winona State University, going on to found his company nearly 50 years ago.
 
Since then, Wenonah Canoe has enjoyed some success, making a name for itself not just in canoes, but in all things paddle-related. It produces about 10,000 units a year, works with 300 to 400 dealers in the United States, and ships 40 containers a year around the world.
 
In 2013, Cichanowski received the LaBrant Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Sport of Canoeing from the United States Canoe Association, recognizing Wenonah Canoe as the world’s largest manufacturer of kevlar canoes.
 
Though he could base the company nearly anywhere, he chooses to stay in Winona. When he acquired Current Designs, a sea kayak company in Vancouver, in 1991, he moved its operations to Winona. He did the same when he acquired C4 Waterman, a stand-up paddleboard company based in Honolulu.
 
One reason for staying put: The city’s central location makes shipping anywhere in the country relatively easy. Another is the neighbors. Local companies such as RTP and Fastenal provide some of Wenonah Canoe’s plastics and metal tooling. It also helps that due to Winona’s relatively small size, Cichanowski knows basically everyone doing business in town.
 
But the biggest reason? “I’m a manufacturer,” he says. 
 
Winona has been a place full of “people who build things,” he notes, since its founding in the 1800s. “My employees’ parents and grandparents all worked in manufacturing. We like building things. It’s just what we do.”
 
Cichanowski taps into that tradition — and into the future. He’s actively involved in the highly regarded composites engineering program at Winona State University. Just as his company is a valuable resource to the program, he knows many of the program’s students will one day be key assets for local companies, including his own. “They’re going to be engineers, and it’s good [for them] to see how things are built. Once they graduate, they remember that,” he says.
 
Cichanowski continues to paddle and to travel, trying new experiences and producing five to six new craft every year in the place where he was born and raised. “It’s my life’s business,” he says. 
 
BIZ BRIEFING:
Wenonah Canoe Inc.
Inception: 1968
Headquarters: Winona
Leadership: Mike Cichanowski, founder; Jim Brown, president
Employees: 80-90
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Manufactures high-performance canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and more

PlastiComp

Serial entrepreneur: Stephen T. Bowen, president and CEO

PlastiComp, headed by president and CEO Stephen T. Bowen, makes long-fiber reinforced composite thermoplastics (LFT) in a lovely lakeside site near the Winona Municipal Airport. 

 
The location is a point of pride for Bowen. “We have a beautiful facility,” he says.
 
The company continues a long tradition of composites work in the area. Bowen himself, along with Wenonah Canoe founder Cichanowski, was involved in the effort to create a specialized engineering curriculum at Winona State University for composites.
 
“By the ’90s, there was enough plastic-related industrial activity in the area to warrant putting the program forward,” he says. 
 
He attributes his company’s success to what he calls “momentum between educational excellence and the composites industry.” In the past year alone, PlastiComp hired on three of its interns from Winona State. 
 
But Bowen also has his own partners in the area to work with. “We’re all tied together,” he says.
 
PlastiComp was able to build on the shoulders of Bowen’s previous company, a startup called Polymer Composites, which he ran since 1984. The company grew to be a globally recognized name in LFT materials in the ’90s. 
 
“We were in a dominant industry position,” he says. “Then, in the 2000s, we saw an opportunity to take it to a higher level.”
 
Bowen looked into producing higher-performance products with emerging carbon fiber materials. He founded PlastiComp in 2003, and eventually the company found its first market niche: sports equipment. 
 
“Performance is key to the buyer, and people would pay a premium for a higher-performance product,” Bowen says.
 
That was PlastiComp’s beginning. Today, its products end up in everything from cellphone covers to airplane hatches to nuts and bolts. It’s partnered with, among others, Oak Ridge National Research Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on their research and development projects. 
 
Recently it’s been involved in the future application of these products to create parts for safer, more fuel-efficient cars. 
 
PlastiComp’s success earned it the Minnesota Governor’s Commendation Award in 2011 for its impact on the regional economy, and today Bowen is once again running a globally recognized company. 
 
Even with the company growth, however, he’s made no plans to relocate. The biggest reason? It comes back to that lovely lakeside facility.
 
“It’s because Winona’s a beautiful place to live and work,” he says. “That’s led to people leaving companies and starting related companies so they can stay in the area.” 
 
BIZ BRIEFING:
PlastiComp Inc.
Headquarters: Winona
Inception: 2003
Leadership: Stephen T. Bowen, president and CEO
Employees: 60
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Researches, develops, tests, and manufactures long fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites and technologies

Knitcraft Corp.

Quality check: Bernhard Brenner, founder and president

Knitcraft Corp. makes one thing: high-end knit products for men. 
 
It does it well. The prices on its  St. Croix Collections sweaters can easily exceed $400. Its customer base is small but wealthy, and the products are sold to men’s retail stores across the United States. 
 
Bernhard Brenner, the president and founder of Knitcraft, pegs the company’s success on making the very finest knitwear out there. “We wanted to make a sweater better than anybody in the world,” he says. “Better than Germany, better than France.”
 
In 1959, Brenner came to the United States from Stuttgart, Germany, where he worked for a knitting machine company. He still uses three companies from Germany for his own knitting machines.
 
There are three things, he says, that go into making a quality sweater: design, raw material, and workmanship. 
 
The designs are influenced by what he sees in Europe: Twice a year, he travels to cities such as Paris, Munich, and Milan to check out the products worn on runways and sold in high-end stores.
 
The raw material he gets from everywhere in the world: merino wool from Australia and New Zealand, cashmere from Mongolia, and rare vicuna wool from the Peruvian mountains. 
 
The workmanship, however, he gets from Winona — simply because, he says, it’s the best. 
 
When Brenner came to the United States, he could have set up Knitcraft’s factory anywhere. He looked at Colorado and North Carolina, but it was the small river town of Winona that impressed him.
 
“I chose Winona for the Midwest work ethic Winona people so exemplify,” he says. “These people want to work, they show up to work every day. That’s why I made the decision, and I’m glad I did.”
 
Brenner trained his own employees from scratch, choosing not to hire from any other textile mills. Then and now, he encourages employees at all levels to innovate. Ideas that make better sweaters more efficiently are rewarded with cash prizes. 
 
Vicuna wool makes for a soft sweater worth $3,500. According to Brenner, however, it’s the workers who make the city effective as a base. “That’s why Winona has a lot of startup companies,” he says. “You hire people who are dedicated and honest and conscientious.”
 
BIZ BRIEFING:
Knitcraft Corp.
Headquarters: Winona
Inception: 1960
Leadership: Bernhard Brenner, president
Employees: 150-160
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Makes fine knitwear for men

Riverstar

Handling the logistics: President Stephen Craney with some of the products RiverStar helps bring to market

Companies large enough to make the Fortune 500 often have to slog through large-scale logistics: from assembly to testing to shipping. And if there’s a change of the status quo — recalls, repairs — that’s a whole other headache on top of conducting business as usual. 
 
Stephen Craney, founder and president of Winona-based RiverStar, has made those responsibilities the sole preoccupation of his company.
RiverStar is a supply chain management company with two facilities in Winona — one 110,000 and the other 20,000 square feet — and a third facility in nearby Rushford. 
 
RiverStar specializes in the necessary duties that most large companies, Craney says, see as costly or annoying. It handles kitting, repair, logistics, shipping, inventory, testing, and quality control, among other activities.
 
Those services also make RiverStar a useful resource to startups that may not have given much thought to things like forklifts, warehousing, and logistics before their products started to take off. 
 
Craney calls RiverStar a “logistics company on steroids” because of the variety and scope of the services it offers, from manufacturing to rebuilding and recalling products. And since a number of its clients are Fortune 500 companies, he says, “They would like to look like they are doing this themselves.” 
 
RiverStar began as an offshoot of its now-sister-company RiverSide, an electronics manufacturer Craney owned at the time. In that role, he observed the need for the services that he created RiverStar to provide. “I saw the need and the niche to fill,” he says. 
 
The size and scope of that niche is highly variable. Over the years, RiverStar has expanded into a wide variety of products and industries. Because it deals with a menagerie of products, how business goes depends on how business is going for its large clients. 
 
If there’s an incident like a recall in a given year, revenue for RiverStar will sometimes double or triple. If not — that’s another story.
 
Two constancies that Craney and RiverStar depend on are the company’s reach and its local workforce. Because the company is just a day’s drive from the Twin Cities, shipping is simplified. And because of the nearby four-year universities and technical college, there’s no shortage of able employees.
But more important than the simple availability of competent workers in Winona, he says, is the quality of their character and service. “So much of our business is relationship-based,” he says. “You try to create a culture within the business — that it is a service business.” 
 
It’s such a priority for Craney that there’s often a contrast and a bit of a shock when he works with his large-scale clients, where turnover is fast and service is seen more of a pain than a priority. “So often we find ourselves retraining people in Fortune 500 companies,” he says. “It seems unlikely, but it’s true.” 
 
BIZ BRIEFING:
Riverstar Inc.
Inception: 1995
Headquarters: Winona
Leadership: Stephen Craney, president
Employees: 41
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: A supply chain management company that provides kitting, assembly, logistics, and other services for large and small companies

Hiawatha Broadband Communications

Photo: Dan Pecarina in the high tech server room at HBC

With its tight, self-sufficient network, it’s almost doubly appropriate that Winona calls itself the “Island City.” But Dan Pecarina, president and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), also hears it called “recession-proof.”

Pecarina has witnessed a different kind of network in Winona — the communications one — completely transformed, thanks largely to HBC, which was born in the city and has since grown up in the area.
 
Before HBC, Winona was among the many rural communities in Minnesota without major competition in phone, video, and Internet services. “We had very little attention paid to those networks,” he says. 
 
Pecarina was in charge of campus technology services at Winona State University when a nonprofit education initiative called Luminet asked him to lead a data/Internet planning group. Luminet’s goal was to connect Winona’s education, government, and health care institutions with fiber optic cable to develop ways to enhance teaching and learning.
 
Pecarina accepted. Soon afterward, his planning group helped establish the first local dial-up Internet service provider in Minnesota. 
 
In 1997, Luminet’s assets were acquired by a new local broadband company, HBC. Pecarina was hired on as vice president of technical operations the following year.
 
U.S. West and Sprint, which had partnered with Luminet and helped lay the groundwork for its fiber optics, became HBC’s competitors. Whereas once there had simply been the status quo in the Island City, suddenly there was competition. 
 
And that, Pecarina believes, is a good thing. “All services in the community become better because we push the envelope,” he says.
 
To help smooth its transition from a not-for-profit service to a business, HBC gave gifts of stock to nonprofits in the community, local foundations, and private and public schools, including Winona State University. 
 
Today, HBC has an annual income of $23 million. It stretches across 17 communities in the area, covering Winona, Wabasha, and Goodhue counties. It recently added six more cities, and it’s doubled in size since 2010. “It’s fun to grow,” Pecarina says.
 
One thing that hasn’t changed with the growth is HBC’s strong community roots. Twenty percent of the company is still owned by nonprofit organizations. In 2012, it was also selected as one of 12 service providers in the nation to participate in the US Ignite project, designed to enhance health care, education, public safety, and more with the development of new applications and services.
 
As HBC grows, it continues to partner with the city that gave it birth. “It’s a vibrant town,” Pecarina says. “The culture here is incredible.”  
 
BIZ BRIEFING:
Inception: 1997
Headquarters: Winona
Employees: 85
Revenue: $23 million
Leadership: Dan Pecarina, president and CEO
Description: Provides residential and businesses Internet, television, and video service
Website: hbci.com

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