Stone’s career curiosity led to manufacturing co-ownership
News | Published on May 16, 2023 at 5:23pm EDT | Author: frazeevergas0
By Lori Fischer Thorp
Travis Stone has been one to say “Yes” to opportunities.
Action Fabricating (AF) and Minnesota Metalworks (MM), the companies he now co-owns, have a similar attitude.
“We don’t say, ‘No’” said Stone.
“We want to service our customers the best we can,” he said. “Everything we do is service-based. If we can’t do something, we feel like we’re letting our customers down.”
It could be tough to be a “one stop shop,” but having the courage to take steps toward that goal has been key for Stone, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and his partners Jordan Priem, (CEO), and Jed Sazama (COO.)
In 2018, the trio purchased the Detroit Lakes operations from founder Joe Grotnes, who launched AF in 1997. Due to demand, Grotnes opened a Phoenix, AZ branch, partnered with MM in Perham and then bought it out in 2008, and opened another branch in Richmond, VA in 2015, so the companies have been no strangers to growth.
“The reason our locations are the way they are is because of a customer with locations in Chaska, Phoenix and Richmond,” Stone said. “It made good business sense to serve them.”
Stone is all about good business sense, with a healthy mixture of curiosity. A 2008 Frazee grad, he earned his Accounting degree at M-State in Detroit Lakes and interned at Friesen’s, where his mother was office manager. Even though his background is in finance, his openness to learning has supported his growth in Information Technology (IT). “I like to push the buttons,” he said.
“I loved exploring systems and figuring them out,” Stone said, so doors kept opening, and his career path led to Thumper Pond, Caterpillar in Fargo, and back to Thumper Pond.
His brother had been one of the first few original employees at AF and was making a transition out, so Stone applied for his position. He was hired for a different spot and when that didn’t feel like a good fit after a number of months, he was hired by Arvig until one more opportunity opened at AF.
Since then, the pathway has been clear. “We had an opportunity to purchase,” he said, and in the last five years, “we have over-doubled in sales.”
Stone said the winning formula for that success is a focus on the people, and their work. “We love what we do,” he said. “I’ve worked in a few different industries . . . I love the environment, I love the people and the opportunities.”
“My skills and knowledge are quadruple,” he said of the person he has become. Now, he might find himself doing finance or welding, “whatever a day requires, but I can’t say I’ve had a bad experience doing any of the jobs,” he said.
“We do anything from small parts to large assemblies,” Stone said. Customers run a full spectrum from local to international, ranging from SJE, Inc., which is national, to ASSA ABLOY Entrance Systems (in North Carolina but based in Switzerland), Delta, UPS and Federal Express.
Not all products are destined to go far. “We have gentlemen in town who will come in and get something powder-coated,” Stone said.
The umbrella for all these projects includes a large team, with other key people also from Frazee. AF employs 41 people plus 13 in Arizona and 4 in Virginia. Alex Adams, Frazee, is the company’s production manager, Todd Larson is purchasing and quality manager, sales manager is Josh Krieg, and Dustin Gigstead is on the Estimating/Quoting team.
The MM includes 20 team members.
“We push ‘team’ because teams are a pretty big part of how we want to see ourselves,” Stone said. That image is illustrated by the metal-worked words of the company’s ethics – including Attitude, Communication, Efficiencies, Quality and Safety — on steps to the plant’s second floor.
“We have a quality standard called ISO,” he said. “It’s managed by an outside company, reviewed every year, and you have to have a quality policy.”
“Our policy is to WIN,” he said. “Our mentality is if we want to build a winning team, what are we going to do to encourage that?”
“Anything we can do to say ‘thank you,’” helps that process, Stone said. They host a yearly back-yard bash appreciation party as one of the ways for coworkers to stay connected to others they might not work with every day.
“I care about all of the people here,” Stone said. At events like the annual Christmas party, and on a day-to-day basis, he tries to connect with everyone. “I want people to be here. I don’t ever want an employee to feel like it’s only a work relationship. They’re here because they feel a part of the team or crew.”
With a lot of high schools including Frazee launching Robotics programs in the last number of years, companies like AF and MM can be an attractive work environment. “I definitely think that people who are interested in robotics, manufacturing, or welding fit in well. It’s an evolving industry.”
Manufacturing “gets the stamp of being a dirty job,” he said, “but it’s becoming a skilled trade. It’s safe, and cleaner.” A lot of the machinery now requires software use, he said, and there are opportunities for internal position changes.
Stone said it’s important for employees to ask questions, to grow their knowledge. “Ask, ‘Why do we do it this way?’” he said. He noted that one entry-level employee started asking questions seven years ago, and has grown to be a leader in his work.
With company growth comes the need for equipment, and equipment including lasers requires substantial investments. “We were one of the first 10K fiber lasers in the state of Minnesota,” Stone said. “That system along with one other machine was a $2,000,000 investment.”
“Even in the 5 years that I’ve been an owner I’ve watched it evolve in a lot of ways,” he said. For example, “a robotic press brake arm with laser welding which will fuse two pieces of metal together…wasn’t around 2 years ago.”
“We think, ‘where can we apply that to improve our capabilities?’ I’ll be very interested to see where that is in the next five years, as technology continues to evolve,” he said.
Stone is also focused outward. “A big thing of what I’ve tried to do over the last five years is grow us as a community,” he said. He’s a past chair of the Detroit Lakes Chamber, past chair of DL Noon Rotary as well as having District Rotary involvement, and current president of the Boys & Girls Club board of directors.
Involvement, he said, is “huge. If my kids are growing up in this and surrounding communities, I want to be able to influence those communities.”
One such influence has been M-State’s “focus on curriculum to help keep manufacturing here in town.”
Stone’s many interests are illustrated in his office, where multiple fish tanks line the walls. It’s a compromise with his wife, Ashley, that he just has one tank at home. Stone – who admits, “I’m a workaholic,” is a business partner with Frazee grad Derek Schumann at Deez Fish in Detroit Lakes.
Stone is completely committed to “give-back to communities,” but “there have been many times I’ve had to say ‘No,’” Stone said, to maintain balance with his family life. He and Ashley, a Staples native he met while working at Thumper Pond, live in rural Frazee and are parents to Miles, 6, Nolan, 2, and newly-arrived twins Blair and Blaine.
The new big brothers are adjusting well to their baby sister and brother, Stone said. For now, then, he can keep his “Chaos Coordinator” nameplate at work, though on the floor of the plant, AF seems like anything but chaos.
Large amounts of sheet metal have to be kept on hand, he said, because “we have a very short lead time.” Supplies areas alternate with equipment and production space, and finished and packaged items.
Some of the largest examples of equipment now sit alongside newer, smaller and sleeker generations.
“The joy of robots,” Stone said, “is it’ll just keep running until it runs out of parts, even (while the operator is) on lunch.”
Robotics also provides for the evolution of the job environment, he said, as it “gets safer and safer as technology evolves, there are extra opportunities and less stress.” In turn, “operators can have more foresight, and look ahead.”