BEMIDJI – If the McKnight Foundation didn’t before know the name Jason LaValley, it does now.
LaValley, president and CEO of LaValley Industries, gave a tour of the company Wednesday to visiting members of the McKnight Foundation’s board and staff.
After the tour, McKnight representatives, amid a two-day visit with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, were buzzing about the startup company; one board member repeatedly questioned how LaValley was able to do what he did without an engineering background.
“I love how he just had this idea and worked with his family to make it happen,” another McKnight board member whispered. “It’s just amazing.”
LaValley, working in December 2005 as a superintendent at a job site, watched as a crewman’s ankle was crushed while loading and unloading drill pipes. That night, in his Texas hotel room, LaValley wondered again why technology hadn’t yet offered a solution to make such work safer and more efficient.
“We’ve got to do something different,” he thought.
That same night, he sketched a design on a napkin, outlining schematics for a claw-like gripper that would attach to an excavator to safely maneuver pipes. By 2007, he had funneled his life savings into the creation of a prototype and enlisted the help of family members to build it.
Now, LaValley Industries has become a multi-million manufacturer of specialty pipe-handling attachments. Its flagship product is the Deckhand, which uses an excavator’s hydraulics to safely and efficiently load and unload pipe.
“We’re doing things no one else is doing in the industry,” LaValley said.
The Northwest Minnesota Foundation spent two days with the McKnight contingency, which every five years does a site visit with the NMF to review its comprehensive plans. The NMF, which makes available grants and loans to meet the social and economic needs in the region, originally was the Northwest Minnesota Initiative Fund, one of six started in 1986 by McKnight Foundation.
The two foundations spent Tuesday visiting the Mississippi River Headwaters in Itasca State Park and also went to Fertile, which has an active community fund that has helped sponsor downtown revitalization efforts, a Veterans Memorial and an assisted-living project.
On Wednesday, NMF hosted a tour of its future home at the former Wells Fargo complex in downtown Bemidji and took McKnight to tour LaValley Industries.
NMF President Nancy Vyskocil said the foundation wanted to highlight its success stories to McKnight representatives, but choosing which accomplishments to highlight was “absolutely excruciating.”
“We have so many wonderful stories to tell,” she said.
LaValley Industries has several connections with the NMF. It is a two-time winner of the IDEA Competition, which is partially sponsored by the NMF, and also benefitted from NMF funds to help the business get started.
LaValley Industries has come a long ways from its early beginnings, when Jason LaValley was working in his garage with his father and grandfather. The company now employs 18 people and partners with other local companies, such as Bemidji Metal Works, for contracting work.
“LaValley Industries is definitely a homerun,” Vyskocil said.
The company’s success demonstrates the importance of the IDEA Competition, which aims to cultivate products and companies from local residents, she said, noting that some of the region’s largest employers – Arctic Cat, Digi-Key Electronics and Polaris – all started with passionate, local entrepreneurs.
“They are homegrown,” she said.
Prior to the Deckhand’s invention, pipeline workers either used a crane with chains or a vacuum lift to maneuver large pipes at a job site.
Both methods can be hazardous, LaValley said, noting that the vacuum also requires pipes to be clean and dry, which is burdensome in the wintertime.
“Our tool works in all weathers and applications,” said Jorge Prince, the chief financial officer for LaValley Industries. “Specifically, in the winter, our product really shines versus the competition.”
The vacuum was “a step in the right direction” at improving work conditions, LaValley said, but any loss in suction results in a freefalling pipe.
“With our product, the pip never drops,” he said.
At first glance, it might seem odd that a company servicing the pipeline industry is located here in Bemidji, but while the area doesn’t provide oil for drilling, it does have a lot of pipelines running through it.
The company now is looking to the future and has new products in development. Prince said Jason LaValley will work with numerous companies to identify partnerships that could create or improve a product.
“It’s not just about leveraging dollars, it’s also about leveraging minds and people,” Prince said. “He just doesn’t take ‘no’ very well.”