A gallon jar full of small metal parts holds a place of honor in the lobby display cabinet at Wells Technology.
The contents of the jar are a collection of fittings that failed in the development of the Airsnip, one of Wells Technology's early signature products. But to Andy Wells, owner and president of the company, even ideas that don't work are valuable. Each failure took him closer to success, he said.
"Even if we don't find the right answer the first time, we learn something from it," he said.
That kind of thinking helped Wells and his wife, Carol, take the infant company from a $1,300 investment in 1989 to an award-winning industry manufacturing more than 12,000 items and employing 32 people, including their sons, Andrew and Tim, and daughters, Wendy and Kristi.
The company's success made possible the use of profits to inaugurate in 2006 Wells Academy, a state-registered, paid apprenticeship program to help economically disadvantaged American Indians gain job skills. In addition to manufacturing training, Wells Academy holds regular seminars on the attributes of a good life as embodied in the Anishinaabe circle of virtues: wisdom, vision, courage, humility respect, honesty, work and generosity.
"Each week, we talk about one of these," Wells said.
Wells Technology also hosts tours for students in grades three-12 to introduce them to industry.
In recognition of the company's success, the U.S. Small Business Administration has named Wells the Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year for 2009. He and Carol will travel to Washington, D.C., for the SBM ceremony and national competition May 17.
According to the SBM press release, the winning criteria are businesses employing fewer than 500 people and showing "growth in sales or unit volume, increase in the number of employees, financial strength, innovativeness of product or service and evidence of contributions to community-oriented projects."
"I think some of the political people understand small businesses and farming are the roots of America," Wells said.
Another item on display in the Wells Technology lobby is a photo of a one-room house on the Red Lake Reservation where Wells and his family lived when he was a boy. He said in the 1950s, he and his father built a bigger house, where his 88-year-old mother, Iva Wells, stills lives on the family farm.
He recalled when he was a youngster traveling around the reservation on Sundays with his father helping neighbors with home repairs. He said he asked his father once why they would do work for people without pay and received the answer, "When you give, it will come back to you."
He also remembered as a boy holding a door for an elder, who called him "Door Opener." Wells said he likes to think of that comment now as he opens doors to improve others' lives.
"My focus is not on money," he said. "Our purpose is to add value to people's lives."
Wells said his father was correct about kindness and service to others bringing rewards. He said people have helped him all his life, and he considers success an opportunity to continue to reach out.
The Wells Academy has a success rate of 93 percent, with many graduates going on to skilled jobs in other industries or to college. Wells established his manufacturing plant near the three reservations of White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake, where Wells is an enrolled member, to create jobs and opportunities.
Wells said First National Bank Bemidji has also helped in the expansion and outreach by providing loans for the business and donations toward Wells Academy. Paul Welle, a First National vice president, is also a member of the Wells Academy board.
When he and Carol started Wells Technology 20 years ago, Wells said they couldn't foresee where they would be in 2009. He used the analogy of driving at night and being able to see only as far as the reach of the headlights. But as the car moves along, the driver knows where he has been and can farther ahead. At this point, Wells Technology supplies parts to 130 clients from aerospace to medical to food and beverage producers such as Kraft and Tropicana.
He said customers at trade shows see that Wells Technology machinists are willing to take on difficult orders, such as items that require hard metals, complex geometry and accuracy to a millionth of an inch.
"The more we learn to do the hard things, the more demand there is for the things we're doing," Wells said.
Wells attributes part of the company's recent success to the adoption in 2004 of the SBA mentor-protégé agreement with BAE Systems and Fastenal Co., which is also one of Wells Technology's clients.
He said the mentors taught him how to bid on national and government contracts. Now, Wells Technology has Contract Operated Civil Engineering Supply Stores (COSESS) on military bases in California, Illinois, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Wells graduated from Goodridge High School and then earned a Master of Science degree in industrial technology and physics from Bemidji State University in 1969. He spent 17 years teaching high school and college and wrote three textbooks on electronics.