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May | June 2020






Doug Fahrforth

Blue Star Power Systems DEPARTMENTS

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CORRESPONDENCE Mailing Address: Connect Business Magazine P.O. Box 176 Nicollet, MN 56074 Send editorial correspondence to: editor@connectbiz.com

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Consistency Amid the Chaos

Lisa Cownie EDITOR

When we first started putting this May issue together, Coronavirus and COVID-19 were not a part of our everyday vocabulary. Well, they are now. As we all adjust to what mainstream media refers to as our “new normal,” we at Connect had to pause to consider just what they would mean for us. With business owners understandably wary, we thought, “do we put the May issue out as planned?” To find the answer, we only had to look at our mission and why we are here. The answer was clear: in a world where the news is changing by the hour it seems, Connect Business Magazine could be the constant. By sticking to our schedule, we offer consistency and a break from the chaotic news by continuing to be what we’ve always been, a storyteller. Stories of hope, stories of strength: the stories that make our region so special. In a world of chaos, Connect can be the constant. Even though we didn’t know the state of the world would be as it is today when we planned this issue, I can’t think of better people to highlight than those in these pages. These characters show what perseverance, adaptability and hard work can get you. All those highlighted in this issue got to where they are by leaning on others, helping others, and taking care of the “others” that are now their employees. See where I’m going with this? So, while you are likely reading this in your home office...please enjoy the stories, learn from them and support your fellow business folks (including locally owned Connect). As we’ve heard a lot over the past few months, we are all in this together! Stay healthy,

Lisa Cownie Consistency

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May | June 2020

By Lisa Cownie Photo by Jonathan Smith

Floor to ceiling windows let in ample natural light. Gleaming floors run throughout. A ping pong table and fitness equipment are easily accessible. An outdoor patio space invites all to come sit for a while. You may think I am describing a resort-like area instead of one of the region’s fastest growing – and hardest working – manufacturers: Blue Star Power Systems. This attention to detail runs through and through the company, from taking care of the 100-plus employees to taking care of their distributors and ultimately the end user, it’s clear this company is built on exceeding expectations at every level. The company was founded by Doug Fahrforth and a partner in 2004 in his garage. Today, the company has a new 85,000sf building, new growth potential, and North Mankato has a new resident in the North Point Industrial Park. “We are on 13 acres and I love the midwestern feel,” Fahrforth says. He always thought he would be working in a field, but in a different way. “I grew up on a farm near Vernon Center,” he continues. “We ended up moving to Mankato in 1991 when I was 11. That was a huge cultural change for me. Until then I was sure I was going to be a farmer.” That move to Mankato though, generated a mind shift in Fahrforth. Continues


May | June 2020

Opposite: Doug Fahrforth in the foyer of Blue Star’s new building. Above: Exterior view of the new building (photo courtesy of Blue Star). Right: A Blue Star generator (photo courtesy of Blue Star).

CONNECT Business Magazine


Doug Fahrforth

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Est. 1975

“The move was hard on me at the time but in the end was probably the best thing that ever happened as it opened my eyes up to other opportunities,” reflects Fahrforth. To his credit, Fahrforth could see those opportunities clearly when they came his way, vision that has helped him grow that start-up in the garage to a multi-million dollar company housed in a 13-million dollar manufacturing facility. Blue Star Power Systems, Inc., a power generation systems integration specialist, manufactures complete diesel and gaseous driven generator sets ranging from 20 to 2000 kWe. Blue Star Power Systems has grown to offer its own full and complete product line. This allows Blue Star to serve all major agriculture and industrial markets within the decentralized power generation industry. Not one to toot his own horn, or want media attention, I only convinced him to be interviewed for this article because I told him it would help others. He can offer insights through his experiences that our readers can glean and learn from. He did not disappoint. Sitting in a conference room in his new building...which is divided into 67,000sf for manufacturing and 18,000sf for office space...Fahrforth was candid about how he got here, challenges he has had on the way, and the people that helped him get here. Doug, here you are at age 39...what you have accomplished at such a young age is extraordinary! How did it all begin? I graduated from Mankato West in 1999 and was set to attend the University of Wisconsin La Crosse to run track. But I ended up hurting my back during my senior season. My plan was to stay in Mankato and attend MSU for one year as I rehabbed and got better. Fate stepped in I guess, and I met Adrienne who would become my wife. Needless to say, I spent the next four years at MSU. While in my first few years of school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I settled on finance with the idea that I would maybe work in the finance field somewhere. As I learned more in business school, I began to think about wanting to start my own company, so during my last year at MSU, I got into refurbishing used generators out of my garage with a partner who had experience with generators. It seemed like an interesting

Building Relationships business and I kind of took the approach that if it didn’t work I could always go get a job with my degree. Once I graduated, we decided to make our business official and we started Blue Star Power Systems, Inc. My original partner only stayed with me for the first few years of the company, but without his contributions Blue Star would not be in existence today. What made you interested in generators? I wasn’t interested in generators at all. I didn’t know anything about generators. But I kind of always knew I wanted to start a business, I guess, and this opportunity came along. So you worked out of your garage for a few years. It didn’t take long to outgrow that space. At a point, we knew that to keep it going, we needed a physical space that was not my garage. This was in 2004. We chose Lake Crystal because it was very difficult to find affordable buildings to lease or buy in Mankato. I had actually met the Lake Crystal city administrator at the time, Bob Haag, who indicated there was a building for sale that was pretty small that was a good fit for us. We kept refurbishing used generator sets for the first couple of years, and then in 2006, we started selling and marketing product to the agricultural community, like smaller gen sets. Kind of a lower barrier of entry, they didn’t really require a lot engineering, specification documents, things of that nature. So we did that for a couple of years, and then right around that time I brought my second partner on board and he is with me still today. His name is Bruce Prange. Bruce was a veteran in the power generation industry, and had already been in the industry for 25 years working at Katolight. He joined us in 2008, and prior to the addition of Bruce, I could say we didn’t have a lot of engineering resources, documentations, things of that nature, and Bruce brought that all on board with him. He had a pretty loyal following in the industry, so he brought us a lot of credibility. He’s a big reason for the success of the company. With Bruce on board, we started getting a little bit into the industrial markets, like

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Doug Fahrforth bid spec and looking to bring distributors on board to sell our product. That’s how we go to market as we sell our product through distribution. That distribution is located throughout the United States and Canada. Canada’s the only country we sell to outside of the United States. As we started going in this direction, we found it was time to move again. And again we found the right spot in Lake Crystal. At this point we were in a pretty significant growth mode, adding people and growing our revenue. It seems like your growth was slow and steady, up until hitting the growth spurt, what sparked it? It’s a good question. For us, it was a number of things. Bruce was a big part of it. We were in a bigger facility in 2010 than the original one we started out in, which was like a 5,000 square foot building. The new one in Lake Crystal was about a 25,000 square foot building, so we had more capacity. When we were able to bring distributors in, they looked at us more credibly like we were

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Why is the name Blue Star? “That’s a good story. One of my favorite movies of all time is the movie The Original Wall Street, and when I met Adrienne, she had never seen that movie. Of course, I made her watch it. In the movie, there’s an airline called Blue Star Airlines. This was right around the time I was talking about starting this company, and she said, ‘Oh, Blue Star, I really like that name. You should name your company Blue Star.’ When your girlfriend suggests that, you usually take her up on it, so that’s how that came about.” Now, Fahrforth has not only grown his business, but his family too. He and his wife of 11 years, Adrienne, have a son and a daughter, ages ten and seven. Family time is important to Fahrforth, who tries to limit business travel so he doesn’t have to be away from them for long. In his free time he likes to play golf, and he still likes to run. The family likes to spend time in Okoboji, Iowa during the summer. “You kind of forget you are in the Midwest when you are there,” he says. “It’s funny to see the reaction of people who we take there for the first time. You’re driving through cornfields up until like a minute before you reach it, so they always question just where we are taking them. I just say, ‘Don’t worry about it, it will be worth it when we get there.’ And it always is.”


May | June 2020

Building Relationships, Exceeding Expectations

a real company. Then just spending time finding new distributors, new customers, working out your brand recognition, we did some trade shows and things of that nature. No magic formula, just a lot of hard work. Who are your customers? Sometimes we don’t even know who our customers are because the distributors are selling to them, but we’ve sold into a lot of interesting projects. The main markets include industrial, commercial, municipalities, telecomunications, and construction. We do a lot of work for the city of New York. We sell a lot of generators to NASA. Boeing would be another company. Probably the most

Fahrforth Gives Back: Helping Others Through SBDC “After working with the SBDC in 2010 to secure funding for our business, I was asked to be a founding member of the SBDC State Advisory board in 2011. I am still a member today serving as the chair because I feel passionately about the work they do in not only helping new entrepreneurs start businesses, but the help they give established businesses. A big topic recently during our board discussion was succession planning for business owners. It’s important those established businesses don’t go away when the owners retire, but find new owners. Small business plays such an important role in the vitality and employment in communities all over our country. Often that transition from existing owner to new owner can save more jobs than any new entrepreneur start-up. Providing help to buy an established business is becoming a big focus of the SBDC state offices. Bruce Strong, the SBDC State director is very passionate about this issue and has done a wonderful job growing the SBDC’s presence in the Minnesota business community. Mankato is unique in the SBDC world, because while the SBDC office is hosted by the university. It operates in the downtown business district. I feel that helps build its credibility with the business community. It is something I would like to see implemented in more university hosts across the state.”

CONNECT Business Magazine


Doug Fahrforth unique project though, was through John Hopkins University who placed a telescope on a mountain top in Chile. It is there to take photos of space and the milky way, and we are powering it! The way our industry generally works is there is a company out there that wants to build a facility, like the one we are in now, for example. They’ll start at an engineering firm, like ISG, to build the project on paper, and as part of that project they want a generator. Then, if we are an approved manufacturer with that engineering firm, they’ll put us in the specification. What we work with our distributors on, is getting to become an approved manufacturer with an engineering firm. Then we become part of the spec and it gets bid out. If our distributor wins it, then we get the order. So your growth mode continues. How did you know it was time to build this facility? By 2017, we were running out of space.

We were starting to lose out on business because we didn’t have the capacity to build enough generators to keep up. We had employees working out of closets and things of that nature, and so we decided we needed to make the jump and build a little bit more of an official facility. We bought the property from the city of North Mankato in 2017. The reason we chose North Mankato is that I’ve been a lifelong resident, so I’m pretty passionate about North Mankato. Nothing against Lake Crystal, it is a great place to operate and do business in, but the reality was they didn’t have an industrial park like this for us to build a facility of this magnitude. Obviously, it was important for us that once we built the facility, it was going to maintain its value. Additionally, I live two and a half miles from here, so the idea of walking or riding my bike to work was obviously important to me. Employee retention and attraction is generally going to be easier in a more highly-populated area. We did have quite a few employees that were driving from all

over, and they still do, but they’re a little more centrally located around greater Mankato. This building is incredible. Wasn’t it hard to run your business, and then also plan this? It was very challenging. It’s challenging for both myself and Bruce. This might be a good time to clarify our roles, I oversee sales and all the financial aspects of Blue Star, and Bruce oversees the engineering and production management of our products. Bruce was very heavily involved in the design of the building and specifically how to best set up the manufacturing part of the building. For both of us, it took away a lot of our time from running the company, which was challenging, but it was exciting knowing that we were going to be able to build something that was going to last us for as long as we wanted to be involved with Blue Star. Quite frankly, we both knew the shortcomings of our old facility, and so we knew what the wish list was up here.

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Building Relationships, Exceeding Expectations

“This facility is a game-changer for our business, and something that the growth and momentum of our company required. Sure, having enough manufacturing space was important for us to continue growing, but more importantly to our company was the emphasis in providing a great place for our employees to work.” I love how you paid such close attention to making sure your employees would be happy. Can we talk about that? Just why you feel like that was so important? This facility is a game-changer for our business, and something that the growth and momentum of our company required. Sure, having enough manufacturing space was important for us to continue growing, but more importantly to our company was the emphasis in providing a great place for our employees to work. That was at the forefront of every decision we made, absolutely. Some of the amenities we incorporated in the new facility include an exercise room, a walking trail around the property, and an outdoor patio located off the building’s

cafeteria. It was super important for every employee to have visibility to natural light throughout the day. You spend so many of your hours at work, and we wanted it to be as enjoyable as possible. Actually, I’d like to credit my wife Adrienne for a lot of this, because she played a huge role in designing the office and implementing those pieces.

that we put into our products. We wanted a facility that mirrored that. That’s why we put so much attention to detail into a lot of the things around this building. When our distributors come in here, we want them to be impressed, we want them to know that we’re here for the long term, and they can be proud of selling our product.

How many employees do you have? We have a little over 100 employees right now. All of our employees work out of this facility, and this will remain our only location for the foreseeable future. I think another reason, too, that the building was important to us, was we take a lot of pride in the quality and the craftsmanship of our products, and the attention to detail

How is the city of North Mankato to work with? They are great to work with. I have a lot of great things to say about both John Harrenstein and Mike Fisher. Mike was the starting point. I can still remember meeting with him out here on this road when this was all nothing but farm fields. He was passionate about getting us out here, and the city did a

CONNECT Business Magazine


Doug Fahrforth

lot of great things for us. Yes, it was a good experience, which I’m happy about because I live here. I think we’re a nice addition to their industrial park. There are a lot of truck businesses out here, but we’re a true manufacturer, and I think that they looked at us as an opportunity to bring true manufacturing jobs to the park and because they knew we were going to build a great facility. We are an anchor out of here in the corner of the park, and hopefully it will attract more manufacturing jobs up to this area. We’ve talked about all the good, now let’s talk about what some of the challenges you have encountered and then what you’ve learned through those challenges. A couple of different things come to mind. I think locally for all employers, finding employees can be a challenge. The region is doing very well, there are a lot of successful businesses and we’re all fighting for the same people. That was one of the

reasons why we put so much emphasis on the in-house amenities for our employees. We want to differentiate ourselves, but finding good people has been a challenge. Obviously our move to North Mankato, at times, has been challenging. From the business perspective, I think our biggest challenge, and it has been this way from day one and it probably will continue to be this way for the foreseeable future, is brand recognition. We compete in an industry that we’re going head-to-head with Fortune 500 companies, and they have a known entity in their brand. It was more of a challenge for us early on, but as we’ve grown and gotten more distributors to buy into our brand and what we stand for as a company, it’s gotten a lot better. But that will continue to be a challenge for us. Now might be a good time to address what I see as a major hurdle for anyone wanting to start or grow their business. In 2010, as we were growing, we faced what I view as a pretty common obstacle for young growing

businesses: access to capital and resources, or financing. We struggled with this in 2010. We had outgrown our existing bank, and we were looking to find a bigger bank, but we really struggled to get anyone to lend us money. We eventually did after, I think it was 12 banks, turned us down. Yes, that was a challenge. What came from it, though, was we actually got involved a little bit with the Small Business Administration (SBA), and they helped us through some of that stuff. Mike Nolan was there at the time and he asked me to be a founding member of the Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) advisory board for the state of Minnesota, and I’m still a member today. I actually serve as the chair. I still do that because I feel very passionate about what they do, the help they give new entrepreneurs, and quite honestly established businesses. One of the things we talk about is banks’ reliance on guarantees the SBA provides. Obviously, in my opinion, banks are inherently in the risk business, but most banks


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Building Relationships, Exceeding Expectations

“I think one thing I would say that’s maybe important is, once I make a decision, or Blue Star makes a decision on a path we’re going to take, we go all-in on the path. We are not wishy-washy about it. When we decided we were going to build this building, we had challenges.” today don’t have much tolerance for risk, they really don’t. What makes it challenging for the business owner then, is they need to have more equity than they probably have access to, or they have to come up with some other guarantee, which is where the SBA a lot of times steps in, thankfully. But I just feel like banks today rely too much on that. That’s another thing we talk about at the meetings. The relationship between a business owner or an entrepreneur and the bank, can be challenging, and it has been for me, obviously going through that process in 2010. I think the big issue is, as the business owner you look at your business through

So after the 11th ‘no’, why did you just keep going? Don’t you think some people would be like after five or six, maybe this isn’t going to work? I think most business owners or entrepreneurs, we have that inherent gene where we just don’t give up. You get knocked down a lot, but you have to keep going, and that’s just always the way it’s been here. I think one thing I would say that’s maybe important is, once I make a decision, or Blue Star makes a decision on a path we’re going to take, we go all-in on the path. We are not wishy-washy about it. When we decided we were going to build this building, we had challenges. Early on, we had issues with the site, as far as dirt and

rose-colored glasses. You think, ‘well, I know where I’m going’, so that’s how you view your business. But the bank looks at where you are today, or what you’ve done in the past. There’s that conflict, a little bit, of who you really are. Yes, it can be challenging. On the other end of it, I think a lot of times you hear, or I talk to small business owners, and they don’t know their finances as well as they should. Maybe they trust somebody else to do it, or they don’t think they have time, and I think that’s such an important thing for a small business owner to know, is their financial position. It helps you make educated decisions, it helps you with your relationship with your bank. All those things.




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Doug Fahrforth

soil quality. We had issues getting the building appraised at the value it needed to be to build the building, and there was just all these things, but at the end of the day, we knew this is what we decided we were going to do, so we just kept fighting until we accomplished the goal. What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs? I guess what I would say is you need to be able to handle stress. I think a lot of times, people underestimate the stress factor in starting or running a business. People on the outside think being a business owner is glamorous, and sometimes it can be. But a lot of times you see that person out in a public setting, or maybe at a meeting, and you’re usually seeing them during the day, so it looks like it’s fun and they’re having a great time. Maybe they are, but what a lot of people don’t think about or they don’t see is you walking around your house at 2:00 AM because you’re worried about a decision you have to make, or a decision that you’ve already made and you’re hoping it’s going to work out. I guess I would say that you have to be prepared to have a different level of stress in your life, and some people have a hard time with that. When did you officially move into and start operating out of this facility? November of 2019.

I know it’s only been a few months, but what’s next, or are you already thinking about the next growth move? Next for us is we’re going to continue to introduce new product offerings. We’ve been a company that has relied pretty heavily on customizing product for customers, and in the last few years, we’ve really also started to work on more of a standard product offering. We’re not going to go away from our ability to customize, but there’s a pretty big market out there that wants and will accept a standard product offering. We’re going to work on improving that a little bit while we maintain our ability to customize, because that’s really what does set us apart from a lot of other manufacturers, is we will customize the product how you want it. We are always working on our customer service. That is very important to us. Everybody always claims to have great customer service, but most don’t. We do. We really emphasize taking care of our distributors and calling them back and getting the information in a timely manner. I suppose another thing to work on is to continually make this a better place to work. Again, our employees are always at the forefront of everything we do. That’s looking to the future, but you’ve mentioned to me that people in the past really influence you still today? There were some people I should mention who were very instrumental in my life. As a young man I’d have to say two people come


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May | June 2020

Building Relationships, Exceeding Expectations

to mind. The first is John Barnett who was the principal of Mankato West High school from 1980 to 2004. I was always amazed at the respect and care he showed for his students. John served on the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors and was heavily involved in the track and field aspect, so I had the pleasure of getting to know John more than most students through discussion of track and life in general. People always hear me use the expression ‘life isn’t fair, but you can be’. I learned that from John, and no one epitomized that as much as John. John was an incredible person and no doubt had the same impact on countless students as he had on me. During college for two years I worked for Steve Eckers at Play It Again Sports. From my first day on the job Steve treated me like he had known me my whole life. Steve trusted you as an employee and trusted you do to what was right. I’ll never forget playing catch with Steve in the store when we would be slow. I remember thinking how great it was to be that close to the owner of the company and work for someone who genuinely cared for you and trusted you. I remember thinking at the time, if I ever owned a company, I wanted my employees to feel the respect I felt from Steve. He’s a big reason why I, and Blue Star, have such an emphasis on treating our employees like they are family. I have an open-door policy at Blue Star. I want any employee to feel they can talk to me about anything and not just work-related issues. I care deeply about all my employees and their families and want them to have the best

experience they can while at work. A more recent influence, I would say, is Joe Paulsen who runs his own company, Pinnacle Business Solutions. I met Joe about eight years ago when he was general manager at TBEI, our business neighbor in Lake Crystal. We met at a peer leadership group and immediately hit it off. For the past eight years we have tried to meet once a month. Joe is an incredibly dynamic, but also a very levelheaded individual. He has probably helped me make more decisions than he realized through sharing his insight and experience with me. I would absolutely consider Joe a mentor and someone I feel very fortunate to have a friendship with. I really respect his opinions. Yes, those are three people that are important, I think, to me becoming who I am today. Just to reiterate there are a lot of people responsible for us getting to where we are, and a lot of those people are in our building today. This isn’t a one-dog show, there are a ton of people here who are very important to what we do. THE ESSENTIALS

Blue Star Power Systems 2250 Carlson Drive Mankato, MN 56003 Web: bluestarps.com






Coming Soon to Mankato!

CONNECT Business Magazine



Kat’s Hog Heaven

Donnie Schoenrock In the 1700s the word entrepreneur entered our vocabulary, meaning adventurer. The meaning has been honed over the centuries and is now widely regarded as one who launches and runs a new business. However, entrepreneurs remain adventurers at heart, taking on great risks based on an idea or expertise one has developed in hopes of making a profit. In some cases, it’s a business they make from scratch. In other cases, the entrepreneur takes over a business and makes it their own. That’s the case here, with Donnie Schoenrock, an adventurer from Jackson. In 2016, Donnie Schoenrock turned in his badge for an apron. Relinquishing the title of Law Enforcement Officer and diving into his new role as owner of Kat’s Hog Heaven in Jackson. “I moved to Jackson in 2006 to work for the Jackson Police Department,” explains Schoenrock. “I was involved in law enforcement for almost a decade. While I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom. I was always cooking or baking. In my teenage years, my mom fulfilled her dream of starting a traveling concession stand called ‘Fry Babies.’ It featured Navajo tacos, which is a staple menu 20

May | June 2020

item we have at Kat’s Hog Heaven today. My mom’s dream was to have several food trucks and ultimately a restaurant, but unfortunately, she eventually sold the business. I would have loved for my mom to see my restaurant today. We lost her to cancer in 2010, but I know she would have been so proud to have a restaurant in the family.” It was his mother’s memory perhaps that nudged him when he was approached to buy Kat’s Hog Heaven. “Kat’s Hog Heaven was originally opened by Bill and Kat Stephen of Jackson. They started in a concession stand and eventually moved into the current building. After operating it for a few years, they decided it was time to retire and sell. One day, Bill asked me if I was interested in buying it. Of course I thought he was kidding, however, after meeting with him on Sunday afternoons for several months, we shook hands and a deal was made. I took ownership of Kat’s Hog Heaven in December of 2016,” says Schoenrock. After purchasing Kat’s Hog Heaven, Schoenrock knew he didn’t want to totally rebrand. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. So he kept the name, but added his own recipes – and his mom’s – into the mix. The formula has been successful. “I may be biased, but I believe we have some of the best food and service in the area. We have a unique menu of mainly pork, however, we do serve a great steak or chicken upon request. All of our meat is hand-selected, hand-cut, and freshly

ground. We use the low-and-slow method of roasting with our homemade BBQ rub. Additionally, Jackson is located within a large pork producing county. All of the growers and employees of the industry are great customers, and always happy to support their finished product,” says Schoenrock. Location has also been critical to his success. “We are located on the beautiful main street of downtown Jackson, with the Des Moines River running outside our back door. We are on the same block as the incredible Historic State Theatre, which is deserving of a visit just in itself. Jackson is a quaint, seemingly unremarkable smalltown off of I-90, but can surprise with its variety of establishments and events throughout the year. We are also home to one of the top sprint car tracks in the country, the Jackson Motorplex. Kat’s also features Ellefson Coffee, which is owned by the legend David Ellefson of the band Megadeth. David is a native of Jackson and will be making another stop to see us this summer. It’s an honor to have people choose to detour to our restaurant and, subsequently, be delighted by our small town,” he says. While busy is good, Schoenrock has had to learn time management. In fact, he says it’s been one of his biggest challenges. “The biggest hurdle I face as an entrepreneur is that of time management,” he explains. “Making sure you balance the time needed for the business to be successful


while also balancing time for your family and other activities in your life. A restaurant is like a child that needs all of your attention all of the time. If left unattended, even for a short time, terrible things can happen. Being present is key. “The hours are long, and usually spent on your feet. Every day is stressful with wondering how many customers will walk through the door, did all of the necessary tasks get completed on time, will anything break down today, etc. Another big challenge is staying relevant and consistent to ensure each customer will be a return customer.” The rewards, he admits, far outweigh the challenges. “I could have never imagined I would have built the relationships and friendships I have through this business. I have people who I consider nothing short of family. They call me, pray for me, and just stop in to say ‘hi’. I wouldn’t have Kat’s without them, and throughout this process I have built friendships that will last a lifetime.” And that is Schoenrock’s message to other entrepreneurs: embrace the relationships that come along with the business. “To others thinking of entering this industry, I would say, it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a community. It’s important to be involved and give back. Volunteer, serve on a community committee, and support other local businesses. If you take care of your community, they will take care of you. Lastly, listen. Everyone has an opinion and all of them are valuable. Listen to their successes and their failures. Learn from them and use them to your advantage. While there will certainly be bad days, they will never outshine the pride and self-worth you acquire by owning and operating your own business.”

Mankato | Amboy | Vernon Center


(507) 385-4485



Kat’s Hog Heaven 608 2nd Street Jackson, MN 56143 Phone: (507) 847-2572 Facebook: katshogheaven CONNECT Business Magazine



Filzen Custom Hardwoods One of Nicollet’s newest businesses is an old hand in its industry. Filzen Custom Hardwoods opened in June of 2019. The 13,000sf building already feels like home to its owner Brandon Filzen, who has previously operated out of his garage and then a small space in New Ulm. The move east to Nicollet has proved to be a good one. “The Nicollet location is more centrally located, close to Mankato where most of our work is sold. We also do a small amount of work in New Ulm and Lake Crystal and try to stay within a 60 mile radius of the shop,” explains Filzen. The “work” is more of a passion for Filzen. Filzen Custom Hardwoods specializes in handmade custom cabinetry such as kitchen and bathroom cabinets, game room bars, made-to-order furniture and specialized wood finishes as well as custom wood ceilings and wall fixtures. “After high school I attended the carpentry and cabinetmaking program at South Central College,” he explains. “I graduated from that in 2006. I took a job working road construction for about eight years. In the winter I would get laid off and worked at a small cabinet shop in Mankato. This is where I really learned the trade of building cabinets and high-end products for the residential market.” When his second child was born, Brandon and his wife decided it was time to take a leap of faith, and he went to work full time in Krohn’s Wood Shop. A decision that would allow him to be home every night and help with the daily duties of raising children. It also gave him more time with his mentor, Curt Krohn. “One of the most valuable things I learned while working for him was the details of designing a functional, proportional, and beautiful space.” The rest as they say is history. Filzen has now worked in the building trades for about 17 years and specifically in the cabinet

building sector for about 13. “As challenging as it is, I decided to start the business because I gained great gratification for the finished product and the wow factor it brought to the homeowner when they walked into their new kitchen for the first time. As the business grows, I find myself in the office doing more of the design work and less on the shop floor, which is okay. “The phone rings everyday for people inquiring about new projects, we never have a slow day. I have great guys on the shop floor that seem to be able to find a way to fabricate anything I put before them. We do very little advertising and most of our work comes in by word of mouth recommendations. My guys are always thinking about the processes and how to use lean principles to improve the work flow.” Filzen Custom Hardwoods 830 6th Street Phone: (507) 217-9631

Radio ads influence search and retail traffic. When radio spots come on, they have been proven to drive:


29% lift in search in activity. (Source: RAB: Radio Drives Search, Sequent Partners, Media Monitors & In4mation Insights, 2017)


22% in store traffic.


(Source: RAB: Radio Drives Store Traffic, TagStation, 2018)

Visit RadioMankato.com and learn how to start.


May | June 2020

To be considered for Hot Startz, tell us about a new business or new professional in the area by emailing editor@connectbiz.com.


Marine & Auto Custom Interiors “Family first and business always” is the mantra of Marine & Auto Custom Interiors, who recently opened a location in Mankato. “We are originally from the area and we know it well,” says owner Angel Gutha. “It’s a doable commute for us from St. Croix to Mankato so this was the next logical area. We did some research as well and having a business like ours that has a strong online presence will help the people of Mankato find the services they are looking for without going all the way to the cities.” The Mankato offices offer full car interiors from floor to ceiling– headliners, convertible tops, upholstery, custom panels and carpeting. Out of respect for existing businesses, Rockin Ronny’s and Sweet Sounds, Gutha says they stay away from certain automotive offerings so as not to compete with them. “For marine offerings we do push the audio and lighting because marine applications are different from automotive ones. On boats we do custom upholstery and flooring, bimini tops, boat covers and lift covers. We have a mobile unit that allows us to offer services right at the customers lake home or cabin. This mobile unit has been very popular up in our area and books out a month in advance. We are able to take care of larger boats this way that wouldn’t be able to come out on the road without pulling permits,” she says. Marine & Auto Custom Interiors has an office space located at the Mogwai Collaborative area in the Hubbard building. “So far it is going very well!” says Gutha. “People are so relieved to not only be able to find us through our online presence but also to be able to verify the level of work we do

through pictures and customer reviews. I really believe our professionalism not only puts them more at ease in bringing their business to us, but our turn around times are amazing and so is our communication.” Their target market includes classic, vintage, collector and every day car owners and anyone with a boat. They do motorcycle seats, restaurant seating, medical beds, massage beds, ATV seats, and awnings. Marine & Auto Custom Interiors 424 North Riverfront Drive Phone: (507) 262-1895 Website: marineandautointeriors.com


so you don’t fall behind. We develop comprehensive pavement management systems customized for each community’s needs.

Bolton-Menk.com CONNECT Business Magazine



Salvage Sisters While the mercantile known as Salvage Sisters is not new to Old Town Mankato, its ownership certainly is. Sara Stilson and Mary Hirn took over the store in May of 2019. “Mary and I were both going through life changes,” explains Stilson. “ I had recently moved back to Mankato after living in Colorado for 17 years and Mary was about to retire from nursing after 39 years. We had met for coffee to catch up as we were neighbors years ago and realized we shared a love of this community and a need to be creative. A week later, I saw that a local business was for sale and, when I realized it was Salvage Sisters, I immediately called Mary and threw out the crazy idea that we go into business together. Within less then a month, we were the proud new owners of Salvage Sisters.” What appeals most to the ladies, and they believe to their customers, is the variety they offer while staying true to their Minnesota roots. “We are kind of a jack of all trades. We pride ourselves on featuring local artists who bring a variety of products making the store a perfect place to grab a gift or pick up something unique. Products ranging from handmade candles, to beautiful paintings, homemade soaps, handstitched dishtowels and more. You will also find a strong sense of Minnesota pride here with hats, towels, blankets and more featuring our amazing state. And all of this in beautiful Old Town Mankato,” says Stilson. The two women weren’t sure what to expect as new business owners, but they say there were some pleasant surprises. “The sense of community, whether we are talking about the community as a whole or the other small business owners here in Old Town, we are truly blessed. Salvage Sisters will continue to thrive because of the support from all of them.”

Salvage Sisters 615 N Riverfront Drive Phone: (507) 345-8575 Web: salvagesistersmercantile.com Facebook: Salvage Sisters

BANKING THE WAY IT SHOULD BE At your service. On your side.

Mankato | Amboy | Eagle Lake | Vernon Center | cbfg.net 24

May | June 2020

Business Snapshot

Sponsored Content

while still being able to conduct all their meetings in the collaborative space or our corporate boardroom.” Braun says the next step is to develop even more corporate and business partnerships. “We want companies to have their employees work from Mogwai either full time, part time or one day a week. We want to collaborate, we want to drive innovation not only in our space but in your business too. We want to be known as a tool for business innovation, growth, fresh ideas and a way to attract top talent. We want to partner with both Universities and local businesses so that emerging talent is employed here in our community. “

“The Mogwai environment includes common spaces, as well as private phone booths and private offices with glass,” says Stephanie Braun, Director of Mogwai.

Mogwai Collaborative Mankato’s Innovative and Dynamic Coworking Space According to a Harvard Business School survey, a whopping 94% of working professionals reported working more than 50 hours per week and nearly half said they worked more than 65 hours per week. It is vital to have an environment that prevents burnout. Over three-quarters of millennials are strongly influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding if they want to work there. Co-working spaces are considered a much more innovative type of workplace than a traditional, one-company office. They offer better networking and collaboration opportunities, as well as much more flexibility. These are major priorities for millennial workers. Furthermore, people who use coworking spaces see their work as meaningful. According to Harvard Business Review, the combination of a well-designed work environment and a well-curated work experience are part of the reason why people who co-work demonstrate higher levels of thriving than their office-based counterparts. Did you know Uber and Instagram were created in a coworking space? Mankato is ahead of this co-working trend, with an innovative, dynamic space of its own: Mogwai Collaborative.

Showcase of Collaboration “Mogwai Collaborative is a shared office space, better known as a coworking space, located inside the Hubbard Building. Mogwai Executive offers private office space for rent. Tenants of Mogwai Executive also get full use of the coworking space, along with a large corporate conference room,” explains Stephanie Braun. “Both spaces are fully furnished with sit/stand desks, state-of-the-art media room, meeting rooms, floor to ceiling murals and lockers. Free parking, 24/7 secured access, free coffee and espresso, live plant walls, voice activated lights, phone booths and fiber internet are also included. We offer flexible leasing for a flat rate with no hidden fees.” Braun says Mogwai is utilized by current members in many different ways. “Some are startups like Cubic 3D printing, Sustainably Local, Restorative Vacations - that need affordable, flexible and a professional work environment. Some are remote workers that work for companies in the Twin Cities, Rochester or even Indiana- where their memberships are reimbursed by their employer, like 42Lines. Some use this as their second office location to be able to service a whole other region/customer base like Social Butterfly, Foxio and Marine & Auto Custom Interiors. Some are large/ corporate companies like Ardent Mills or Pinnacle Business Solutions that use the space for meetings and as an option for their employees work from. Some do a day pass to host meetings, retreats or to just get out of the house,” continues Braun. “Our Mogwai Executive members like Twin Rivers Council for the Arts enjoy the perks of their own private office,

One of my favorite facts about Mogwai is that we collaborated with over 17 local businesses to create the space. Everything from the floor up to the ceiling comes from or has been created by a local business in the region,” says Braun. “Our mission statement is to provide a thriving, innovative and collaborative office space environment to meet the needs of the modern entrepreneur in the region. I like that we stand behind our mission statement from the floor up in our space. Even our coffee is locally roasted. To say we are passionate about supporting our local entrepreneurs would be an understatement.” MOGWAI COLLABORATIVE 424 North Riverfront Drive Mankato, MN 56001 Phone: (310) 922-1031 Web: mogwaicollaborative.com

In light of Covid-19, Mogwai is becoming a partner in Spaces for Recovery. The global program has been designed to help local communities of workers to access workspaces that are taking the necessary steps for health, safety, agree to comply with strict guidelines related to health, sanitation and appropriate social distancing. Once Governor Walz lifts the Stay at Home Order, Mogwai will be a Recovery Program Partner to help local communities of workers find an alternative place to work with reliable fiber internet in a safe environment.

CONNECT Business Magazine


FEATURE Collaboration Connection

Organizations in the greater Mankato area collaborate to offer opportunities for all.


The Hidden Workforce With a regional unemployment rate hovering around 2%, one of the greatest struggles faced by area businesses has been the attraction and retention of the talent they need to get their products out the door. While efforts by both our public partners and Greater Mankato Growth to improve the livability of the region have helped create a 4.96% population growth rate between 2010 and 2018, the even higher job growth rate in the community has employers struggling to fill their open positions. This explains why in 2017, over 45% more people commuted into the Mankato-North Mankato Metropolitan Statistical Area 26

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(MSA) for work than who commuted away.[1] To help address this, more focus has been paid to employing what has been called the “Hidden Workforce”. In this first of a two part series, the importance of tapping into this resource will be discussed. In part two, we will discuss practical and legal implications on how to incorporate this workforce. While there is no singular definition of the “hidden workforce”, the groups most often included are the formerly incarcerated, the disabled and refugees, asylees and immigrants. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes that 75% of former inmates are still seeking a job one year after their release.[2] The Wall Street Journal reported in early 2019 that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, though declining rapidly, is about double that of those without disabilities.[3] With more than 53 different languages spoken by residents of 26 different racial and ethnic backgrounds in Greater Mankato, it is becoming more important for employers to tap into the

growing pool of refugees, asylees and immigrants. It is for this reason that Greater Mankato Growth has worked with our business community to offer tools and training on how to successfully employ this pool. Greater Mankato Growth remains committed to encouraging equal employment and to helping our member businesses combat the current talent shortage. Many of our member businesses have found success tapping into this hidden talent pool. Kelly Duncan, Human Resources Manager with Jack Link’s, had the following to say about the benefits of hiring refugees and immigrants: “Jack Link’s has partnered with the Council of Churches for the past four years, as they were a strategic source of talent for our business as well as a great community partner for our current team members. Tapping into the population of Refugees/ Immigrants has allowed us to continue to staff our business and grow our partnership with the Greater Mankato community.

“Tapping into the population of Refugees/ Immigrants has allowed us to continue to staff our business and grow our partnership with the Greater Mankato community!” —Kelly Duncan, Jack Link’s “One of our Jack Link’s values is relationship driven (I foster collaboration with internal and external partners and respect diversity, because people matter). Mankato Jack Link’s location is proud to support the growing population of Refugees/Immigrants in the Greater Mankato region to allow them to enhance their knowledge and skills while also providing for their families and often times still going to school (sometimes even learning ESL and getting their GED). At Jack Link’s we also enjoy the education they have brought to our facility teaching us their culture, language, and enjoying some Sambusa!”

Finding Work in Mankato One area resident—Habiba Ahmed, owner of African Fashion—described her experience as a refugee looking for work in Mankato. After arriving in Mankato in 2005, Habiba described how she found it difficult to find work due to three key barriers shared by most Somali immigrants and refugees: her language skills, her clothing and her need for prayer time. She sought assistance from Blue Earth County and described how Jessica O’Brien, now with ISD 77, helped her find work at a company that had found ways to address all those barriers. Jessica personally drove Habiba to AmeriPride where she worked for four years. At AmeriPride, the company had found ways to work within the restrictions created by clothing and had provided a space for Muslim employees to pray. Habiba noted that many employers fail to realize that prayer typically takes less than five minutes and that employees could typically be allowed to leave the line one at a time, creating little to no disruption to production. Regarding language, Habiba’s speaking skills were limited when she arrived at AmeriPride. When filling out the application, Habiba was only able to fill out her name, address and phone number. Plant Manager, Tom

Blaido, stepped in to help her fill out the remainder of her application. Despite this, Habiba did not require a translator in order to work at AmeriPride. Habiba noted that her role, sorting uniforms by numbers, required little English ability. Habiba also described how Tom Blaido would head out to the plant floor in order to practice conversational English with her. After four years at AmeriPride and improved English skills from her practice with Tom and her attendance of ESL classes, Habiba partnered with one of her ESL teachers to approach Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP with the goal of becoming their first Somali employee. The initial barriers of prayer time and clothing still existed. Habiba described how former VP of Human Resources, Colette Drager, saw her desire to work and helped seek ways to remove those obstacles. Habiba was given the opportunity to meet with

co-owner Dan Bastian and Angie’s found a resolution to the clothing concerns and provided Habiba with a place to pray. When it was time for her to pray, Habiba’s spot on the line would be filled by another employee. Habiba flourished at Angie’s. After five months at Angie’s, Habiba was named Employee of the Month; she was given the responsibility to train new employees after seven. Habiba stayed with Angie’s for seven years until she opened her own business – African Fashion. Habiba also works part time with Oak Terrace.

A Great Place to Live, but Difficult to Find Work

While AmeriPride, Angie’s, Jack Links and other businesses serve as great models in how to access all available talent in our community, there is ample opportunity for all businesses to be an even greater employer of choice. Habiba reacted with surprise when she was included in a meeting with area business leaders and HR professionals discussing the talent shortage. Within her community, the perception is that there is an overabundance of talent and a lack of available jobs because there are few companies willing to remove the employment

International Festival at Mankato East High School.

CONNECT Business Magazine


FEATURE Collaboration “Unfortunately, these residents are still leaving because these community benefits are outweighed by the basic need to be independent and employed.” —Habiba Ahmed




of Mankato Southern Minnesota’s Custom Signs & Graphics Company

507-345-3388 www.SignProMankato.com

301 Webster Avenue, North Mankato Serving South Central and Southwest Minnesota 28

May | June 2020

barriers her community faces. Many of the Somali refugees in Mankato commute as far away as Le Center, Owatonna, or Gaylord for work. There remain opportunities to reduce employment barriers further in Greater Mankato. Habiba noted that in 2019, she has seen many patrons of her store leaving Mankato for areas such as the Twin Cities, Ohio and to the South for jobs. Habiba stays in touch with these former patrons and has asked many of them to describe their decision to move. They had overwhelmingly positive things to say about the Mankato community. They note that they enjoy the small-town atmosphere and describe our excellent healthcare and school system. Those who leave here note that both our youth and adult education programs are superior to those that they find in their new communities. Many are surprised to find that they received better ESL education in Mankato than what they can receive in the Twin Cities Metro. One former resident who moved to Ohio with her fourth-grade son mentioned that her son was performing at a higher level than the students at his new district. They astonishingly asked where he had been educated. Unfortunately, these residents are still leaving because these community benefits are outweighed by the basic need to be independent and employed.

Incorporating Refugees into Your Workplace In part 2 of this series, Greater Mankato Growth and our partners will discuss practical and legal advice for incorporating refugees into the workforce. For companies not knowing where to start with employing refugees, resources like the Minnesota Council of Churches can help you navigate the barriers and find employees. The Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) Refugee Services provides resettlement support to refugees coming to the area. Mankato’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) services are also available to employers looking to hire refugees. Greater Mankato Growth looks forward to connecting anyone looking to tap into this pool with expert or business resources. If you would like Greater Mankato Growth to facilitate a connection with the Minnesota Council of Churches, Adult Basic Education, or business resources in the community, please reach out to Ryan Vesey, Economic Development Specialist at Greater Mankato Growth, at (507) 385-6644. NOTES: 1. U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Economic Studies (OnTheMap) https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/ 2. https://www.uschamber.com/series/above-the-fold/america-s-hidden-workforce 3. https://www.wsj.com/articles/americas-hidden-workforce-returns-11548478801

CONNECTING BACK 2015 Reflecting back on the issue from five years ago paints a picture of how things can change in such a short time. Burt Lyman, executive director of what was then the Verizon Wireless Civic Center, graced our cover as he led the center in a $30 million expansion. Also featured were the Mark Thomas Co. in Sleepy Eye, and Ankeny Furniture in Blue Earth.

2010 Ten years ago, Brad Buscher of Bankers American Capital Corp. and Mercury Waste Solutions was a cover character. Also profiled were Waseca’s Minnesota Control Company and Karan Farms & Harvesting, out of St. James.

2005 Our May 2005 issue had a healthcare focus. Dr. R. Wynn Kearney, an orthopaedic surgeon, was on the cover. The inside pages featured Madelia Community Hospital and the importance of small town healthcare. Also profiled was Sealed Bid Marketing, Fairmont business facilitators.

2000 Twenty years ago, Mark Furth, CEO of Associated Milk Producers Incorporated (AMPI) was on the cover. Also featured were Angling & Hunting Adventures of Fairmont, Marian Anderson Gallery of Mankato, and a special column by Dennis Dotson.

CONNECT Business Magazine


By Lisa Cownie Photos by Jonathan Smith

If Steve Wegman were to write about his life, he knows exactly the kind of book it would be. “I remember reading those books in elementary school where the ending is different depending on what page you turn to,” he explains. “Like when you get to page 56 and it says, if you wanted to go in the hot air balloon go to page 86, if you want to go to on the boat turn to page 100? Remember those? My life honestly could have gone a bunch of different directions.” As luck would have it, Wegman feels like he landed right where he was supposed to: Mankato, Minnesota. Still... “It'd be cool to go back and see if out of college if I would've gone on a different path then where would I have ended up. It would be interesting if when we all get to Heaven someday if they can show us how our different choices would have panned out...show us our best and worst lives. Because really, if one little thing had gone differently in my life, it would look drastically different today.” Today, Wegman is a father of two and owner of five thriving enterprises: Weggy’s On Campus, the 507 Food Truck, The 507 (downtown), Krusty’s Donut Shop and most recently, The Wagon Wheel. All, he says, seem like destiny. “Mostly, I got to where I am today by just being at the right place at the right time. If we hadn't got that phone call to do the catering at the AmericInn, which we only got because the couple getting married lived in Lake Crystal, so if we hadn’t done that then Weggy’s, which was in Lake Crystal at the time, probably would have gone bankrupt ...and I’d be sweeping streets for the city...who’s to say? See, that's what I mean, turn to page 88 for the ending,” he smiles. Continues

CONNECT Business Magazine


Choose Your Own Adventure

In hindsight though, he couldn’t have written it any better. It is a plot with so many twists and turns. Let’s start from the beginning of the story. “My dad worked for Hubbard Milling in Mankato. Instead of being a Navy brat, I was like a feed salesman brat. We just moved around. We were in Sioux Falls. We lived in Mitchell. I went to Owatonna, then we ended up in Alexandria. I graduated in Alexandria then I went to Concordia College in Moorhead. My dad got transferred back to the home office in Mankato so after college I came back here. Surprisingly my first job out of college was working at MSU under Paul Allen in the Sports Information Office. “I got the job and they called me and they said, ‘We got good news and bad news. You got the job, but we want to give it to another girl as well, so we want you to split it and split the money.’ I think my first job I made $3,200. The worse news is I had to take three credits with MSU to get the job. It was cool- I learned a lot from Paul- although I would move on into a whole new line of work.” And by that, Wegman means he was hired to be a camp counselor in Wisconsin. “I drive out there, and at the time I didn’t know it, but it turned out to be a Jewish summer camp which I didn’t have any inkling what that even meant. I became the head counselor and I stayed there for the summer, then after that, they offered me a full-time

Family Man While juggling five businesses is a lot, it’s nothing compared to his true passion in life: his children, six-year-old Blakely and twoyear-old Sawyer. “To be honest, my hobby actually is probably my kids. At 52, I’m a way better dad than I would’ve been at 32. My hobbies are going to be whatever I can do with my kids for the foreseeable future! Blakely and Sawyer, together they are BS!” he smiles.

Catch the Hometown Business Connection on KEYC News 12! KEYC News 12 and Connect Business Magazine bring you the stories of area local businesses and how they impact Southern Minnesota. • First Wednesday of the month on KEYC News 12 at 6 • Repeats Thursday on KEYC News 12 Midday • See all previous episodes on keyc.com


May | June 2020

Giving Back While he is a big supporter of Minnesota State University Maverick Athletics, he also gives of his time, talent and treasure in other ways. For example, this year he participated in the American Red Cross fundraiser, “Dancing with the Mankato Stars.” “I had a great time. I actually miss having that in my life right now! I wish it would’ve been two days because I had never seen it before. I had no idea what I was getting into until the day of,” Wegman says. “But it was a great experience.”

Weggy’s on Campus | Mankato

“One day we got a phone call to do a catering job at the AmericInn and the next week they called and said, ‘We were so impressed with what you did, would you do more?’ We ended up doing I think 76 weddings for the AmericInn that year.” job. One morning I woke up and I lied and told them I got offered a job back in Mankato and I jumped in my car and I drove straight back. Got past the Wisconsin border, pulled over, kissed the ground and I haven’t left Minnesota since.” His path led him back to his familiar home but into a whole new line of work. “Long story short, we started a Weggy’s in Lake Crystal about 16 years ago. It was a great learning tool, great experience. It was never going to be anything crazy at that location though. You knew every day who was going to be there. You knew every week how much you were going to sell. It was just constant.” Wegman doesn’t do well with constant, humdrum, simple. “One day we got a phone call to do a catering job at the AmericInn and the next week they called and said, ‘We were so impressed with what you did, would you do more?’ We ended up doing I think 76 weddings for the AmericInn that year.” That was also the year space opened up near the AmericInn, in U Square. So Wegman moved from Lake Crystal to Mankato. “We’ve been here about seven years and every year we grow a

Eggman Weggy’s is perhaps best known for its breakfasts, which Wegman always marvels at because it was not a goal when he started out. “I don’t know how it happened, one of the kids that worked for me said, ‘hey, we should start serving breakfast’,” says Wegman. “I told him I didn’t know how to make breakfast, so he brought in a dozen eggs, hash browns, and we sat in the kitchen at Weggy’s on a Saturday morning just playing around with it. My friends call me the “egg cracker”, or since my last name is Wegman they call me “Eggman”. We were just sitting there and decided to do it, I don’t know why, but it worked out. Sometimes I wonder, would I have rather got another job maybe where you could get up at eight in the morning and be home at five. No way! This is a hoot. The people we work with are great. But how did we get here, I don’t know.”

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“The biggest challenge I suppose is just juggling it all, making the ends meet. I can remember times where you’re taking the money at the end of the day and running it right to the bank so you could deposit it and have enough to cover expenses. It was that way a lot when we first started up.” little bit. One year we took over the hallway to get more seating. U Square sold us the hallway, we moved the doors, moved the windows to get more space. The next year we bought Berry Blendz next door because we needed more kitchen space. Two years ago, we started The 507 Food Truck. Then last year we did The 507, which is located downtown. This year we expanded Weggy’s again by buying the space on the other side of us. It was more than we needed for Weggy’s, so I started Krusty’s Donut Shop. “It just intertwined. As I sit here and tell the story, in some ways I started at MSU and now I’m right back across the street from MSU.”

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His personal life has gone full circle too. “I married Dani about three years ago. We have two kids, six-year-old Blakely and a two-year-old Sawyer, and we have four dogs. We just moved to Mankato about two years ago, which made it a lot easier than driving from Lake Crystal to Mankato. We’re actually 30 seconds away now. It’s just easy. It’s easy to manage everything.” Fortunately for Wegman, his workforce also lives nearby, making it easier to find employees. “99.6% of our employees are college students. I think altogether we probably have between 250 and 300 employees between

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all businesses. It seems like a lot, but there’s a lot of part-time. Our pool of employees is right across the street. They live upstairs, a lot of people walk to work. You have to spend money, you have to pay to get what you need. They get paid well, they get treated well. We try to hire friends of people that work here. That person is somewhat responsible for the person they bring in. Usually, they bring in people, good people hang out with good people.” For Wegman, though, it’s more than a full-time job. “I probably work 80 hours a week, but I’d rather work 80 hours for me than 10 hours for somebody else.” It’s clear, Wegman enjoys life. Although he will be the first to admit, being your own boss, being the one responsible, has its challenges. “The biggest challenge I suppose is just juggling it all, making the ends meet. I can remember times where you’re taking the money at the end of the day and running it right to the bank so you could deposit it and have enough to cover expenses. It was that way a lot when we first started up.” Wegman also learns from employees and customers every chance he gets. “To be honest, I’d rather hear the bad stuff. I’ll go on Google, and I’ll type in Weggy’s reviews and I’ll see like the one star, the two-star and I’ll read why and I’m like, ‘Oh.’,” he explains. “I would say it’s a challenge but I look at the bad rather than the good because you can learn from the bad. I’d rather know the bad because you can try to fix it. I mean, we don’t really have a lot, but there is some so that’s a struggle.” Five businesses, four dogs, three minutes to get to work, two kids and one wife, Wegman knows he couldn’t have written it any better.

THE ESSENTIALS Weggy’s on Campus 1600 Warren Street, Suite 13 Mankato, MN 56001 Phone: (507) 720-6633 Web: weggys.com

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With the help of Launch Minnesota, the Strategic Partnerships division envisions delivering on the support of tech innovation across the state.

Launching Minnesota’s Startup Ecosystem


onventional thinking holds that technological innovation and startups predominantly emerge and cluster in urban ecosystems. However, significant entrepreneurial talent for technology lies within the college student population. Launch Minnesota and the Strategic Partnerships division at Minnesota State University, Mankato have engaged in a partnership that promises to yield significant investment in Minnesota’s emerging startup ecosystem. Six organizations throughout the state were selected to serve as regional hubs for the Launch Minnesota initiativewith Minnesota State University, Mankato designated as the innovation hub for the Southwest Region of the state. Additional regional organizations include Greater Bemidji Launch Pad (Northwest Minnesota), Red Wing Ignite

(Southeast Minnesota), Forge North and Meda (Twin Cities), St. Cloud Development Corporation (West Central Minnesota), along with the University of Minnesota, which will serve as a statewide partner to the network. Bobby Fleischman, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Minnesota State University, Mankato, commented on what it means for Minnesota State Mankato to be selected as a regional hub for innovation: “The LAUNCH MN grant distinguishes Minnesota State University, Mankato as the regional center of innovation and entrepreneurship and leader in the state system in supporting tech-driven startups that ultimately bring benefit to the local and regional economy.” Much of the work currently spearheaded by Launch MN focuses on collaboration across the region to

LEARN MORE: https://link.mnsu.edu/maverickacademy

provide further access to resources intended to accelerate the growth of startups in Minnesota. Additional partners in Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Launch Minnesota efforts include 1 Million Cups Mankato, B507, the Center for Continuing & Professional Education, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Greater Mankato Growth, GreenSeam, and the South-Central Small Business Development Center. The pilot for the Launch Minnesota initiative at Minnesota State University, Mankato will shine a spotlight on one of the University’s most innovative programs: Bureau 507. B507 is a faculty-mentored, student driven, technology focused, creative media group. With the help of Launch Minnesota, the Strategic Partnerships division envisions delivering on the support of tech innovation through and advisory board of entrepreneurs, building a mentoring network of regional entrepreneurs and developing a regional angel fund. B507 will be utilized as an incubator for new technologies, further connecting student entrepreneurs to education, mentorship, and consulting resources that lead to an adequate return on investment for partners and investors. Together with the Launch Minnesota network, Minnesota State University, Mankato will strive to foster collaboration, advancement of entrepreneurship, innovation and high technology growth in Greater Minnesota. To learn more, or to get involved with the Launch Minnesota initiative at Minnesota State University, Mankato, please contact Mike Hahn, Regional Director of the South-Central Small Business Development Center at the Strategic Partnership Center, 424 N Riverfront Dr, Mankato; mike.hahn@ mnsu.edu; or (507) 389-1008.




Front row-L to R: Bridget Larson, Beth Rohrich, Back row: Karen Fowler, Brian Fowler, Jessie Van Asten

Story and Photos by

AJ Dahm

Mankato’s Family of Photography and Signage Experts It’s almost impossible to describe all the products and services SPX offers. The short answer is they are signage and photography experts. Whether it is making prints from your own photos, getting photos taken in their portrait studio, sports posters, graphic wall murals, basketball wraps, vinyl banners or a framed work of art, the answer is always the same. They are in the business of preserving and displaying memories. Brian Fowler, owner of SPX, became interested in photography in high school at Granada-Huntley. He bought his first camera and a couple lenses for $275. “My Dad thought I was crazy”, says Fowler. He originally went to Rochester Community College to be a conservation officer but quickly learned he wanted to go in a different direction. After school he applied to work at a six-hour photo lab in Fairmont. “I really wanted the job and they were offering to pay $4.50 an hour. With a large group of applicants, I felt I needed to prove my worth. I said I’ll work for $2 an hour for two weeks and at the end of those two weeks, if you’re not happy with how I perform, we can shake hands and part ways. They hired me after the two weeks, and paid me $5 an hour”, says Fowler, whose reputation for hard work precedes him wherever he goes. In 1982 Fowler followed his wife, Karen, to Mankato where he and two others opened Quality 1-Hr Foto. “We had to educate people on the one-hour photo process and let them know we weren’t sacrificing quality. We expanded the businesses to offer pretty much anything photo related,” says Fowler. You probably know SPX by more familiar names. Quality 1-Hour Foto and SPX Sports and Design are owned by Fowler and are all part of SPX. Located in the Midwest Plaza at 1235 Caledonia Street in Mankato, the business has always processed film and printed photos. A full-service frame shop makes the business a one-stop shop for customers looking to display photographs and artwork. There you will also find their portrait studio. Providing traditional family and senior portraits, along with business headshots and on-location photo sessions. The studio also hosts a number of seasonal photo sessions each year, like photos with Santa Claus or live bunnies before Easter. Continues

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As digital photography came in and film processing was on the way out, the business evolved and SPX Sports and Design was formed. “Keeping an eye on consumer needs, we kept redefining our company to change with the times and keep up with current trends,” says Fowler. The addition to the business focuses on sport and event photography. If it can be photographed, there is a good chance that the SPX crew has done just that. Whether it was photographing the President of the United States when he came to Mankato, the Stanley Cup, Vikings training camp or being embedded in the MSU Army ROTC during training at Camp Ripley, they have captured it all. There’s also a fair chance you’ve seen them photographing events ranging from youth to college athletics, to personal and corporate events. The graphic design portion of the business creates custom designs for a variety of clients from personal families, to schools and businesses. The signage and graphics side of the SPX business has taken the family all across the country. Installing their unique graphics in businesses, school and athletic facilities from California and Colorado, to Nebraska and Wisconsin, and all over Minnesota. Their projects range from huge murals like the walls seen in Myers Fieldhouse on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, or graphics for Maverick Hockey. The Hall of Champions at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, or graphics for the Greater Mankato Growth offices. Brian recalls one particular weekend where part of the team covered a college regional basketball tournament in Colorado, while he and a crew of photographers stayed in Mankato to photograph­­­ and provide graphics for the NCAA DII track and field championships as their official photographers, while also covering the WCHA conference tournament versus the University of Minnesota. Remembering lots of adrenaline and little sleep. “We were capturing memories,” says Fowler. “One of the biggest rewards is seeing the smile on a client’s face. In the days of film, people would come in excited to get their photos. They’d open them right there in the store and look through them. There are more photos taken now than ever before but less prints being made. It’s one of the challenges we face today as a business.

SPX | Mankato

We are a society of instant gratification. It goes on social media or on our phone but seldom gets printed”, says Fowler. Now SPX offers a wide range of products to print photos on. They have the capability to print on everything from photo paper, glass, canvas, metal and everything in between. Their projects can be seen all over southern Minnesota and beyond. Family has always played a large role in Fowler’s business, now more so than ever. Every member of his immediate family works with him full-time. Fowler’s wife, Karen (Customer Service), daughters Bridget Larson (Director of Photography), Beth Rohrich (Operations Manager), and Jessie Van Asten (Senior Graphic Designer), have all found their niche at SPX. “They each found their own way in our business and became experts in their own respective areas.” Something that makes Fowler immensely proud. He considers everyone who works for him family. Even those who are not related by blood. These days, Fowler has stepped back and let his daughters take leadership of the company. Although you won’t see him taking many days off. In fact, the only time most of his employees see him take a break is when one of his four grandkids comes to visit him at the office. That is when work, for him, comes to a halt, because family comes first. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an eight-hour day. I’m always going to be involved to whatever extent they want me there. I can’t ever see retiring. As long as my health allows, I’ll do whatever they ask of me. I’m having too much fun,” Fowler says. “I’ve always said I’m doing my job right if I can walk out the door, or get hit by a bus and the business continues to run as if I was still there. It’s a lot harder to operate a business today than it was when I started. The margins are tighter, the labor force isn’t what it once was, and government is more involved, which costs businesses more money. The girls have done a great job embracing new technologies and change,” says Fowler. Jessie echoes that sentiment by saying, “graphic design and the programs we use are changing faster than ever. You have to be constantly learning to keep up and stay ahead of current trends. My next project is always my favorite. Each one creates a unique and challenging opportunity.” That

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“You have to be constantly learning to keep up and stay ahead of current trends. My next project is always my favorite. Each one creates a unique and challenging opportunity.”

membership is money well spent due to the resources they provide for businesses such as ours”, says Fowler, who is deeply involved in the greater Mankato community. Serving on the Greater Mankato Growth board of directors and GreenSeam board of governors are just a couple of the ways Fowler gives back to the community that has given so much to his family. A giving spirit the Fowler’s instilled in their daughters who are all involved in their community. So much so, that Beth Rohrich was recently awarded volunteer of the year by Visit Mankato for her selfless efforts. You might wonder if it is difficult to work with family every day. Not for the SPX family. “My sisters are my best friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Beth. The Fowler family even takes a vacation together every year. All of them. “From a family standpoint, it’s vital to have that time together, and it’s a testament to the remaining employees, that we can leave for a week and the company still continues to operate on a high level. Those extended family members do a great job of being flexible in an industry whose schedules are volatile to put it mildly. Weather can change my photographers’ schedules at the drop of a hat”, says Bridget. There are some advantages to working with people you’ve known your whole life, Beth recalls. “Sometimes, on installs, I know what tool Brian needs before he does. It’s almost like the relationship between a surgeon and his assistant. There’s something unique about working with family. We don’t need to talk to each other to

is especially true in the photography, graphic design and printing industries. The daughters have taken the reigns from their father and are taking SPX into the future. In the last two years, the family business has reinvested $150,000 back into the company to purchase new state of the art equipment and remodel their office to become more efficient, more eco-friendly and provide more services in house. They also just launched a new website that makes it easy for customers to submit their own photos and order sports photos from the luxury of their homes. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of our community. We do work all over the U.S. but this is home. Through strategic planning to grow the business, we felt it was very important to support the community that supports us. Thus, we are sponsors of nearly every youth athletic organization in our community and we give back to our local high schools. We are also members of Greater Mankato Growth and the money we invest into our GMG

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Bridget Larson photographing niece Bailey Rohrich and daughter Lexi Larson.

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know what the other person needs. We know each other so well that we can step up and help each other out when another’s kid isn’t sleeping or they are on the road. The others pitch in to make things happen for them. The same goes for all of our employees. It’s what family does.” Employees at SPX each have an area of expertise but are expected to pitch in wherever their talents allow. The small business of 14 employees boasts an impressive 161 years of combined experience. The only thing about a typical day at SPX is that it is atypical. One day an employee might be photographing a sporting event,

Beth Rohrich producing a high quality print.

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May | June 2020



or framing photos and the next they might be installing wall graphics or setting scaffolding for a large project. No two days are alike. “I am excited for work every day because of our employees and amazing clients. They are the reason I do what I do every day. Seeing employees have unbelievable opportunities such as installing graphics for the WCHA Final Faceoff, setting up for the Mankato Marathon, photographing the Minnesota Air Spectacular or a business banquet are what make work not feel like work for us. Also, the relationships we have built with our clients are like no other. I remember being on an install in Colorado with my dad and the volleyball coach invited us to her house for a homecooked meal and some time with her family, instead of having to eat take-out in a small hotel room. These are the things that keep us going”, says Beth over the hum of running printers and the aroma of ink in an office she shares with her father and sister, Bridget. SPX doesn’t have the word “can’t” in their vocabulary. The slogan “Imagine the Possibilities” is displayed on the wall in the front lobby of their storefront. When a client asks if they can do or make

SPX | Mankato

“If there’s a need, I’m going to figure out how to fulfill that need,” says Fowler, who uses everything from printers and laminators to welders and saws to complete his dizzying array of daily projects. “It has never seemed like work to me. I’ve always been excited to come in every day. I never know what is going to happen from day to day.” something, the answer is almost always “yes”. A client came to them and asked if they could make a four-foot tall replica hockey puck to help them gain funding support from the state for the civic center in Mankato. SPX said absolutely. They find a way to get things done, even if that means inventing something to make it happen. This was the case for Fowler when he was asked if he could custom wrap a basketball with graphics. He got to work, invented and built a machine to help him complete the job in his Eagle Lake shop where most of the SPX custom projects come to life. Now they wrap over 150 sports balls a year. “If there’s a need, I’m going to figure out how to fulfill that need,” says Fowler, who uses everything from printers and laminators to welders and saws to complete his dizzying array of daily projects. “It has never seemed like work to me. I’ve always been excited to come in every day. I never know what is going to happen from day to day.” SPX has a loyal base of customers both near and far because they also believe in treating their clients like family. Fowler says,

“Customer service is so easy, because I truly believe our clients are family. You’re going to have good customer service if you treat them like family. They become our friends and we are involved in each other’s lives. I believe you can take two things with you. Your integrity and your memories. Those are the things that matter to us.” For the crew at SPX, memories and family are more than slogans. They are a way of life.

THE ESSENTIALS SPX 1235 Caledonia Street Mankato, MN 56001 Phone: (507) 345-7196 Web: spxsports.com Facebook: spxsports


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Spring Cleaning: What To Expect Now That The Snow Has Melted We did it, Southern Minnesota. We endured another winter. Temperatures are getting warmer, birds are starting to sing again, and the sun stays out long enough for us to actually enjoy its company. While I could go on and on singing spring’s praises, my fellow engineers and I are preparing for the trickier parts of warmer weather. Increased runoff and river water levels, potholes, and an increase in construction are a few of spring’s more unwelcome aspects. Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect now that spring has sprung. Many of us in Greater Mankato live in river towns, full of streams and creeks. As the snow melts and rain starts to sneak its way into the forecast, the water levels will subtly (or not so subtly) start to increase. To combat flooding, our cities and communities have installed stormwater detention ponds. These detention ponds are used to store rainwater or runoff for a designated period of time to help control the speed and intensity that it returns into rivers and streams. If a detention pond is full after rain events, that’s good – it means it’s doing its job. Stormwater detention ponds are also designed to help clean up lakes and rivers by reducing sediment and nutrients. Reducing nutrients from runoff helps make our lakes and rivers cleaner so when you take your boat, kayak, or stand-up-paddle board out this summer, the water will be cleaner and at a safe and normal level. 46

May | June 2020

Potholes are everywhere, so that must mean that engineers aren’t doing their job, right? That’s not necessarily the case. While we do everything in our power to consider the freezing and thawing of roads during design and construction, rapid temperature changes even during the course of one day can have a major effect on our streets, creating those unwanted potholes over time. Some roads are just older than others, and the contractors and maintenance crews must prioritize what roads are being worked on at what time. We work with some amazing maintenance workers and contractors who are out fixing and maintaining roads during both extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures. We rely on those crews to keep our roads drivable and fully-functioning through all seasons and they don’t get nearly enough credit for the work they do and the hours they put in. Along those same lines, construction season has started up again. I know, I know, but we have to talk about it - the orange cones are inevitable. While it’s a minor inconvenience for most people when it snows in what are supposed to be spring months, it can cause major delays for contractors and maintenance crews. If the work can’t be done during their allotted hours, they are working overtime – nights and weekends especially


– to make sure the project gets done in an efficient and timely manner. I know it can be frustrating, but please be patient. Construction signs are not there just to inconvenience your life – there’s always a result to make your life better when it’s done. A five-minute delay in your commute during construction can end up saving a lot more time in the long run. When you see the orange construction signs on the road, think about the end result and how much better life is going to be when the orange is gone. With the changing seasons comes, well, changes. Higher water levels, decreasing road qualities, and construction delays all unfortunately come with the territory of living in the Midwest. With these challenges, however, come plenty of opportunities. Engineers are given the task of showing the public what is in the works for their communities, and sometimes our black and white, linear drawings don’t do the trick. Being able to provide colorful maps and 2D and even 3D visualizations to show what will happen after the snow melts, the potholes are filled, and the construction is finished is something we pride ourselves on. Engineering is all about increasing our innovation to make our dry, engineer drawings into something everyone can understand and appreciate and hopefully it will help make these spring challenges more tolerable.


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May-June 2020  

The Magazine for Growing Businesses in Southern Minnesota. Since 1994. Our purpose is to “connect” area businesses with the region’s vendors...

May-June 2020  

The Magazine for Growing Businesses in Southern Minnesota. Since 1994. Our purpose is to “connect” area businesses with the region’s vendors...


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