When it came time for Stern Companies, Inc. to expand its manufacturing capabilities, the choice for a new site became unmistakable – Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.
A Brainerd and Baxter, Minnesota-based producer of molded components for the recreation and agriculture industries, Stern Companies found the perfect mix in Hoyt Lakes.
Highly skilled employees, a made-to-fit building, and assistance from the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRRB) and city of Hoyt Lakes.
“It’s people, No. 1,” said Shawn Hunstad, Stern Companies, Inc., chief executive officer. “The big appeal is there are people who know rotational molding up there, and that’s what we do. No. 2 and 3 are the building that was available and the help we got from the IRRRB and city.”
Founded in 2008, Stern performs rotational, injection, rubber and blow molding, thermoforming, extrusions, die cutting and assembly services.
At its existing facilities, Stern manufactures rubber and plastic components for companies such as Arctic Cat, ASV, Brunswick, Geringhoff, Nilfisk, Polaris, Terex, Textron, Toro and others. It also produces components for the agriculture and commercial cleaning industries.
In early November, the company begins production in Hoyt Lakes within a 30,000 square-foot building built in 2002 by the Hoyt Lakes Economic Development Authority. The building is in Laskin Energy Park, a 200-acre industrial park on the western edge of the city.
The building was formerly occupied by Premier Plastics, a locally owned business, later acquired by DOWCO Powersports of Manitowoc, Wis.
Premier Plastics operated from 2004 to 2016, when the company was sold to DOWCO. DOWCO occupied the building until 2017, when it moved the Hoyt Lakes operation and its equipment to Wisconsin.
Premier Plastics and DOWCO both produced the same type of products as Stern.
When DOWCO closed the facility, it offered jobs in Wisconsin to the Hoyt Lakes employees, said Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton. However, most chose to remain on the Iron Range.
Stern’s expansion will result in many of the facility’s former workers going back to work, said Skelton.
“There were a number of people that worked for Premier and for DOWCO that were offered the chance to move with DOWCO, but couldn’t afford to do it,” he said. “I’m really happy for those folks to have jobs there now. This, to me, to be honest, is more about job retention than job creation.”
Hunstad said the skilled workforce, along with the availability of a high-ceiling, open-space building suited to Stern’s needs, make Hoyt Lakes a prime location.
“Like many people across the country, finding enough people to go to work every day has been a challenge,” said Hunstad. “We have struggled to get beyond a certain point down here to fill all our machines with people to get the product out. Rarely, do you find people trained in rotational molding. To have a workforce with the basic knowledge is huge.”
An $850,000 loan from the IRRRB to the Hoyt Lakes Economic Development Authority allowed the authority to buy the building. A $1 million IRRRB loan to Stern for equipment purchases is helping Stern gear up the building for production. Stern is leasing the building from the economic development authority.
“I think what they looked at is that down in the Brainerd area they were having trouble finding people, and many of the old Premier Plastics and DOWCO workers were still here,” said Mark Phillips, Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner. “It was still at a point where they could kind of re-capture that workforce.”
Seeking to create new jobs on the eastern Iron Range has been a focus of the IRRRB since 2001, when LTV Steel Mining Co. shut down and about 1,400 workers lost their jobs.
Since then, the East Range has continued to seek new economic development.
Attracting Stern is the beginning of what could be more development in the area, said Phillips.
The IRRRB, along with Minnesota Power and the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion (APEX) continue to work together to attract new investment to the industrial park, said Phillips.
With potential for PolyMet Mining Corp. to advance its copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes soon, a number of spin-off businesses could begin to take shape.
“That area is still a focus of the agency,” said Phillips. “We’re still very interested in that area, and we are fully anticipating that PolyMet is going to get its permits in the next 30 days or so, so that could lead to some activity in that area.”
Skelton is looking forward to having Stern in the city. “We’re very happy to have them there and hope they’re successful,” he said.
Stern employs about 85 at its Brainerd and Baxter facilities. Initially, Stern will employ about 10 to 12 in Hoyt Lakes with plans to add 15 to 20 employees within the next three years.
Production of products for BOSS Snowplow, based in Iron Mountain, Mich., and for ASV, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based manufacturer of compact construction equipment, will be moved to Hoyt Lakes from existing Stern facilities, said Hunstad. “We do some work for them (ASV) now, but we anticipate this move will allow us to do more business with them.”
Consoles for Lund, Crestliner, and other boats manufactured by Brunswick, also will be produced in Hoyt Lakes, he added.
With its expanded capabilities and skilled workforce, Hunstad is optimistic about expanding Stern’s presence in the boating industry and in Hoyt Lakes.
“We like to consider that industry under served in boat consoles (production),” he said. “Once word gets out about the type of products we are producing, we think we will get a lot of knocks on the door. That of course brings with it the potential for a lot of jobs up there.”
Hunstad is excited for production to begin in Hoyt Lakes.
New thermo/vacuum forming, rotomolding machines and a five-axis router are rolling in the doors and being installed, along with other equipment.
Two additional rotational molding machines and two or three more thermoforming machines could be added in the future, said Hunstad.
By late November, about a dozen employees should be working at the facility with production fully ramped up, he said.
“We just really like the area, the workforce, the IRRRB, and the gap package,” said Hunstad. “The full package is really ideal for us up there. We’re really excited about what the future holds there.”
Lee Bloomquist is a freelance writer based on the Iron Range.