Wells Technology Inc., nestled between fields and trees in Eckles Township, continues to grow manufacturing jobs.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar picked the firm Monday as an example of innovation in rural Minnesota as part of an "Innovation Tour" of northwestern Minnesota.
"In a really difficult economic time, Andy Wells has been employing people and actually adding more employees -- people all around this area -- and it's really impressive," Klobuchar said of Wells Technology owner and president, Andy Wells III.
The Innovation Tour "is to look at a lot of the companies that are building and doing new things and how that's so much a part of our history in Minnesota," the Minnesota Democrat said. "This company is just one great example of it."
Monday night was a warm-up for Wells; today U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., on his own jobs creation tour of northwestern Minnesota, is stopping by Wells Technology this afternoon.
Wells gave Klobuchar a PowerPoint presentation on the family-run company and then a tour of the plant, meeting all the employees working Monday night.
He said the precision metal manufacturing company dipped from 30-some employees to 24 during the recent recession, but new orders have bounded the company up to 49 workers, with expectations of hiring 18 more in the coming year.
He started the company in 1989 with a $1,300 investment, building a 3,800-square-foot facility in 1990. The company grew 12 percent a year from 1990 to 2004, and then 28 percent a year from 2005 to 2010. Adding a new building last year, it now features 50,000 square feet.
Wells, a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, was able to tap a number of federal programs to move the company along. Key was Historical Underutilized Business Zone designation, where large government contractors are required to provide 2 to 5 percent of their contracts to small businesses in impoverished HUB zones.
Wells Technology manufacturing customers range from Fastenal to General Dynamics to General Mills to 3-M to Kraft Foods. While Wells Technology manufacturers a number of precision parts, perhaps in the Bemidji area it is most known for its pneumatic chicken snips.
"There's been innovation in the Twin Cities, and that's been important," Klobuchar said, "but a lot of these things started in our small towns and medium-sized towns all over the state. 3-M actually started as a sandpaper company in Two Harbors."
Wells Technology is unique in blending its employees from the Bemidji area and from the Red Lake Reservation, Klobuchar said.
"He's able to integrate them and work together and you can tell there's a very positive work environment in there," she said after the tour.
"It's something I'm quite proud of and I want to make an impact on the reservation," says Wells, who started Wells Academy to provide on-the-job learning to employees in job and life skills training.
Employees undergo one hour a day in individual, competency-based study. And then they receive seven hours a day of apprentice education with a mentor.
Wells Academy also works with Red Lake High School students who get six hours of high school and two hours of on-the-job training.
"It costs about $38,500 in apprentice pay for the program, but there is a greater financial reward in knowing they aren't out of school and not working," Wells said., adding they could become a burden to the system otherwise.
Last year, 24 school tours visited Wells Technology to learn about engineering, science, management, sales and purchasing, he said.
The company has earned numerous corporate awards and Wells has been named American Indian Business of the Year and Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year, the latter noted by President Barack Obama at the White House.
"The value of our life and each day we live is not in what we have, but found in what we give," Wells said.
"He's been able to get all kinds of jobs, from Kraft Foods and on, it's really amazing," Klobuchar, who chairs a small business subcommittee on the Senate Commerce Committee, said.
"A lot of what we're working on now is private sector jobs," she said. "We need a trained workforce, and here you have an example where he's been working with some high school programs in the area, been working with community colleges, How do we make sure that kids are getting the skills that they need, and sometimes it may not mean an advanced engineering degree but maybe a community junior college degree."
Skills must match the job needs, she said.
Second is the potential for exporting Minnesota products, Klobuchar said. Wells "does some of that here, and there is a growing list of customers all over the world and we want to make things in this country, and think and invent and export to the world."
Making sure tax incentives are in place is the third thing Congress needs to ensure, she said. A report shows that corporate and individual income taxes could be lowered and not lose revenue by closing tax loopholes.
"Removing red tape to make sure it's easier to get things done is another thing," she said. "These are things that in a difficult economic time can unite people across geographic and party lines and bring us together."
After visiting more than a dozen towns this week, Klobuchar will hold an Innovation Summit next Tuesday at the University of Minnesota, featuring Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., another member of the Commerce Committee.
"Innovation has always been key to Minnesota's economic success," said Klobuchar. "More than ever before, our state and our nation will need to innovate to compete in the global economy. This tour of Minnesota communities is an additional opportunity for me to visit the businesses that create our jobs; to visit the schools that educate our next generation of entrepreneurs and workers; and to hear from our local officials who want to do everything they can to promote economic development in their communities."
She opens today with an 8 a.m. meeting with local officials at Bella Café in Park Rapids, followed by a 10 a.m. meeting and tour of Sawyer Timber Co. in Backus.