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Making It

Heavy manufacturing makes a comeback on the Iron Range.

Are you looking for evidence of a post-recession heavy-manufacturing revival? Duluth-based GPM offers a strong case study.

“Business right now for us, knock on wood, is very, very good,” says Rob West, GPM’s chief executive officer. “Our revenue stream this year will come in north of 30 percent year over year.”

Located in the Airpark Industrial Park up on the hill near the Duluth International Airport, GPM manufactures slurry and water pumps for numerous industries, notably minerals and metal mining and processing. Its geographic base is broad. “We’re seeing an optimistic market,” West notes. “The first quarter was slower than we had anticipated. I think there was still a lot of uncertainty, but our customers today are pretty bullish on where we’re headed.”

He’s not the only one who’s bullish. To be sure, the glory days of the big Northland factories, except for the taconite processing plants, are over. In Duluth alone, U.S. Steel, Clyde Iron, Coolerator, Diamond Tool and others are long gone.

The Port of Duluth-Superior remains vigorous and maintains the visibility of the city’s industrial heritage. But to people outside the region, and perhaps a great many in it, the Northland has become primarily a playground of woods, lakes and craft beer.

Still, manufacturing, even though it has gotten smaller and lower profile, has by no means disappeared—either from Duluth or elsewhere in the Northland.

A cluster of aviation-related manufacturers—most notably Cirrus Aircraft—has taken flight in the area. Altec HiLine (bucket-lift devices mounted on trucks) and ME Elecmetal (a foundry whose products are used in mining and other heavy industries) are two examples of manufacturing concerns that have recently expanded. On the lighter side, Aerostich and Duluth Pack are just two of the best-known sewn-products companies in the area. You can even call craft beer an industrial product, using mechanical processes and, in some cases, brewing software to create those cool coldies.

Farther north on the Iron Range, Tony Sertich, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), says he’s seeing a more upbeat manufacturing climate. One metric he uses is the number of businesses interested in partnering with the IRRRB. “That interest has picked up over the past year or so,” Sertich says. “A lot of our manufacturing is not connected to the iron-mining industry,” he notes. There are two such companies in Hibbing: Detroit Reman, which “remanufactures” or rebuilds used parts for cars and other vehicles; and Iracore, which makes lining pipe for transporting petroleum and other abrasive liquids.

There are some new-school factories sprouting up on the Range, too. Sertich has high hopes for the “green” chemicals plant proposed for Hoyt Lakes by Twin Cities-based start-up Segetis. Another intriguing new manufacturer is the Silicon Energy solar-panel plant in Mountain Iron.

One reason many local manufacturers are building business is digital technology, and not simply to make their operations more efficient. Chris Swanson, CEO and co-founder of PureDriven, a Two Harbors-based e-commerce agency that works primarily with regional manufacturers, notes that more business-to-business customers are searching for suppliers online.

So manufacturers that want to be found are putting more money into their websites. Swanson points to Northshore Manufacturing in Two Harbors as an example of a small company that has done that successfully. Northshore makes material handling equipment used in scrap and waste handling, and the company’s site has helped it diversify into a wider range of markets as more customers discover what it can do.

Northwestern Minnesota shouldn’t be left out of this brief survey. That regional manufacturing center is home to Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls. Polaris has its main plant in Roseau, and Marvin Windows and Doors is headquartered in Warroad. There also are numerous smaller manufacturers that have experienced good years, including Mattracks (rubber tracks for vehicles) and Central Boiler (wood-based heating units).

To be sure, not all northern manufacturing firms are booming. Many timber-related businesses remain becalmed.

Still, there’s a lot of good news. With business booming at GPM, it has been hiring in sales, engineering and production; employment is up 18 percent over last year. CEO West expects to hire four or five more people by year’s end, which would bring GPM’s headcount to 65 or 66. “Like all businesses that are growing, the challenge is finding the right people with the right experience,” he says, though he credits his company’s referral network for luring talent.

By year’s end, West expects GPM’s Duluth facility to employ 40, with the rest working at the company’s new Twin Cities and Bismarck, N.D., sales and service offices. “We’re going to be very aggressive in the Bakken oil fields,” says West, adding that there’s strong interest in the company’s products in South America and in Australia. “Occasionally we sell products in those markets, but we’re looking at 2015 for more international opportunities,” he says.

Iron, steel and the heavier forms of manufacturing are not the employment powerhouses they once were in Minnesota. But this sector is vigorous, and it’s building up to something worth our attention.

Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.

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