Jashan “Jason” Eison always had a hankering to own his own business.

But his route to becoming CEO and an owner of a growing elevator manufacturer in north Minneapolis, wasn’t conventional.

“I was scared,” Eison, 37, recalled when he learned that the former owner of H&B Elevators several years ago wanted to get rid of the then-waning operation. “I thought, ‘What is going to happen to me, my job and my colleagues?’ ”

Eison, a Milwaukee native with a construction management degree, left that trade to sign on at H&B as sales and marketing director in 2007. The firm had been owned since the 1950s by construction giant Kraus-Anderson.

H&B, based at the time on E. Lake Street, was a minor, underperforming business for Kraus-Anderson.

In 2012, Kraus-Anderson brass told Eison and H&B CFO Fred Poferl that they wanted to exit the business.

“They essentially said, ‘Go sell this company for us,’ ” Eison recalled. “I said wait a minute. I’d like to take a crack at this. But I didn’t know exactly what to do. Fred and I started talking.”

Eison turned for advice from the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), which works to build minority-owned businesses. Kraus-Anderson, which also was courting other buyers, decided to try to make something work with Eison and Poferl.

“Jason and Fred were light on capital, but they knew the business and had good plans,” recalled George Jacobson, the longtime leader of MEDA’s Minneapolis business center.

“Kraus kept the company going and people working,” said an appreciative Eison. And the business was growing again as building construction revived by 2011.

Eventually, the parties agreed to a sale for $1 million-plus in 2013 that was financed by MEDA, Marquette Commercial Finance and Venture Bank.

The new owners’ 2013 launch was challenging, partly because Eison had to move the company to make way for Kraus to demolish the old, sprawling 85,000-square-foot plant to sell the land. H&B moved to a vacant North Side factory at 30th and Washington Avenue N. that reminded Eison of his boyhood inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. H&B is buying that building for about $2 million, as the business grows.

Eison, an enthusiastic, insightful entrepreneur who has seen long work weeks pay off, said H&B hit positive cash flow in 2015.

“We worked hard to get the company to a point where it could support itself,” Eison said. “So employees weren’t looking over their shoulders.”

H&B has grown from a money-losing operation of $6.5 million in sales with about 40 employees in 2007 to a profitable enterprise this year of $10 million-plus in sales with 55 employees.

“Jason is open and easy to work with, and he’s smart and a quick learner,” Jacobson said. “That move [to the new plant] in 2013 was disruptive. He actually had to subcontract business to competitors to meet deadlines and that hurt cash flow. They had to install equipment and new paint booths and other things. But Jason and Fred stuck with it and their plan. Their order backlog is twice what it was [in 2015]. And they are in a great location.”

This is a plant where steel is cut and sparks fly to make the cab guts of steel, plastic and particle board.

Elevator cabs are made by workers who earn $15 to $40 an hour plus good benefits. The cost of the cabs range from $15,000 for a basic model, to $100,000 for more ornate interiors. Some may include decorative glass, infused with gold and silver coloring.

H&B supplies elevator giants Otis and ThyssenKrupp, which install the electronics and moving parts. H&B, traditionally known as a “Cadillac” elevator maker, has broadened its products and price range in a strategy that’s worked.

“Fred is the numbers and technical guy and Jashan really knows the business and sales, and he instills confidence in customers and employees,” said Adam Nathe, an attorney at Gray Plant Mooty.

Eison acknowledges that H&B has benefited from the building boom, completing recent jobs in the Twin Cities, including U.S. Bank Stadium and the twin Wells Fargo buildings downtown, to convention centers and casinos in Las Vegas, a hospital in Chicago and a Marriott hotel in Austin, Texas. H&B also seems to demonstrate with its growth and results that a well-focused business performs better than an adrift subsidiary of a larger outfit.

“Things are going in the right direction,” Eison said. “I have a general feel for the elevator industry and how much work there is because we bid a lot and we see which jobs we get vs. the competitors. We know who’s getting the work. We’re doing pretty well.”

Eison’s goal over the next five years is to fill out the plant’s skeleton second shift and grow the business to $20 million in sales and 75-plus employees.

“We’ve got the equipment,” he said. “We’ll train and bolt on more people as we grow. That’s the plan.”

Eison has hired skilled and beginning workers from the North Side and speaks with pride of growing community connections in a diverse community that needs more employers that offer family-wage jobs.

Mayor Betsy Hodges appointed him to the Minneapolis workforce development task force and he’s joined a couple local nonprofit boards.

“I really like being part of this community,” Eison said. “I’ve been deliberate about giving people a chance in this company.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.