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Sen. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, (left) tours Stern Companies in Brainerd last year with Marco Marquetti, rotomolding supervisor, and Shawn Hunstad, Stern Companies president and CEO, during an Enterprise Minnesota visit to highlight how the Growth Acceleration Program assists manufacturers. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch.

Stern Companies looks to innovation, planning and problem-solving

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Brainerd Dispatch
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Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

What if a host of employees could be engaged in a problem-solving culture?

Benefits could come by increasing profits, reducing waste, finding ways to be more productive and engaging employees in finding solutions from the bottom up instead of a top-down approach.

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Stern Companies in Brainerd found success with the a state-funding matching investment program aimed at small and mid-sized manufacturing companies. The Growth Acceleration Program (GAP) makes business improvement services affordable for those manufacturers. In Stern's case the GAP funding was integral in getting Enterprise Minnesota training in problem-solving, which utilized Toyota's A3 process for a standard method to innovate, plan and problem-solve. Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization that helps manufacturing companies increase efficiency and promote growth.

Last year, Enterprise Minnesota went through a practical problem-solving program with employees at Stern Companies in Brainerd.

At Stern, a problem-solving report stretched across a white board in Stern Companies manufacturing plant in south Brainerd.

The report - a typed template - was covered with a clear plastic sheet allowing employees to write in and erase answers as they moved through the problem-solving effort.

The report listed the problem, in this case extra time and effort and an added step related a molded box and a tailgate.

Target goals included reducing time in assembly and eliminating wasted dollars and accountability in setting up a timeline for results.

Beneath the target goals was a case analysis of the problem with blank lines next to Why? Once contributing factors were identified, countermeasures both short and long term were proposed. An implementation plan was developed with a step for verification - it was working complete with who would be checking and how often. Last on the report, an open box to write in future steps and recommendations.

Stern Companies received a 25 percent grant from the GAP. Shawn Hunstad, president and CEO of Stern Companies, told Enterprise Minnesota the problem-solving needed to be a team effort with employees who are close to the work and the challenges empowered with tools for problem-solving.

"It was very beneficial," Hunstad said of the training. "It's really part of an approach to break things down and get to the root cause and put some effective tools together to curb that activity."

Enterprise Minnesota reports it assisted more than 1,100 Minnesota companies in the last two years. The organization states its clients have realized "a total positive economic impact of over $269 million in sales, reduced costs by $53 million, invested over $127 million in modernization and added or retained over 1,400 jobs."

Stern Companies is a sourcing and manufacturing specialist in the plastic and rubber industries. Products have included rotomolding a plastic tool case, custom rotomolding of water tank bases used in humidifiers for the agricultural industry, custom thermoforming of snowmobile fuel tanks and parts for the snowmobile industry and rotational molding of a plastic shield tank used to hold and disburse ice and snow prevention materials on paved surfaces. Stern has worked to attract new customers and diversify its base to complement one of its largest customers, Polaris. The company employs 57 and has six temporary workers.

Stern Companies moved its rotational molding and assembly operation from Riverton into the former Image Rotomolding buildings near the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds owned by Lexington Manufacturing. After leasing space from Lexington, Stern Companies purchased the buildings this spring. The company also has a facility on College Road in Baxter with assembly, sales, accounting and project coordinators.

Last year, Stern Companies added equipment new to them - a 2008 Ferry 370 rotomolder - purchased from a company in Australia. The equipment arrived in three shipping containers - hoisted with the help of Acorn Crane Service - and took weeks to assemble.

Last spring, Enterprise Minnesota toured Stern Companies in Brainerd to learn how the company was growing using the state investment grant and Enterprise Minnesota services. Bob Kill, Enterprise Minnesota president and CEO attended along with Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber and Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp.

"Business has been good at Stern Companies, but recent developments are making it even better," Business World Magazine, reported about the company last summer. "The company has created a new division specializing in rotational molded components as well as another which focuses on assembly services.

"Since launching those services, the company has secured a contract to produce components and fulfill assembly work critical to manufacturing of agricultural equipment of Geringhoff, a more than century-old manufacturing firm headquartered in Germany.

"Geringhoff recently announced plans to establish a new $20 million manufacturing plant in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Hunstad's company will be providing components and assembly services involving Geringhoff's line of corn-harvesting equipment."

Stern Companies is in the process of securing financing for two more rotational molding machines. The new, slightly larger machines will replace three older ones and will increase capacity because of improved efficiency.

"We look forward to the next few years," Hunstad said. "We have some pretty aggressive goals."

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Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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