Family-owned Anderson-Crane Co. is on a roll.
The tiny manufacturer of grain conveyor systems is hiring, buying faster equipment and making plans to double the size of its factory in Litchfield, Minn.
“There are 20 different jobs going on. We are swamped. It’s crazy,” said Rob Crane, company spokesman and great-grandson of the founder. He said sales should double in five years.
The growth comes amid a rush of new orders from breweries, taconite mills and animal-feed mills in the United States, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Trinidad. The company, which has just 20 workers, has traditionally made product-handling machines for Cargill, General Mills, 3M, Anheuser-Busch and scores of smaller manufacturers.
But new customers are joining the list due to a surge in demand for agricultural and brewing equipment. At times, it’s overwhelming. “Last year, we literally had to turn down jobs,” said Crane from the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis.
Anderson-Crane joins hundreds of Minnesota machine and parts makers that have avoided the economic doldrums suffered by firms making goods with much shorter shelf lives.
A recent economic report by Creighton University found that equipment firms associated with machines and a strong agricultural sector have done well all year, and Minnesota is no exception.
“As a result of strong exports and a very healthy farm economy, the Mid-America economy was expanding at a strong pace ... and our results point to positive growth for the final quarter of this year,” report author Ernie Goss said. But growth hasn’t come without chaos.
To meet demand, Anderson-Crane, which has more than $2 million in annual revenue, had to become more efficient. Employees were spending nearly two hours a day just grinding the burrs off its freshly made machine parts.
The shop recently replaced its jagged-edged plasma metal cutter with a high-tech water-jet cutter made by Jet Edge of St. Michael. The 14-foot beast instantly made a difference.
“We are probably saving 20 percent of the time that had been spent refinishing parts off the old machine. Now that time is spent welding” and making conveyor products faster, Crane said.
Bob Kill, CEO of the productivity consulting firm Enterprise Minnesota, has seen such spikes before. “This is clearly an example of a company growing to a certain size where they just can’t do it manually anymore … [and] they need to decide if they want to grow up. When they start embracing some technology, there is a real opportunity. … In some cases it’s a quantum leap in the volume you can produce with greater precision. The machine will always have greater precision than the human being.”
But that doesn’t mean the company will cut workers. More efficient equipment often forces plants to beef up workers’ skills, Kill said. In this case, Anderson-Crane is able to move workers from burr removal to the more difficult, but valuable, task of welding.
The Jet Edge water jet not only made Anderson-Crane faster — it brought in fresh business. That’s because the jet cutter can slice both metal and plastic to exacting specifications. That’s a skill several outside area companies demand, so Anderson-Crane is suddenly doing contract manufacturing in addition to pumping out its own customized screw-shaped conveyor systems.
“Over the decades, we had done really well with a handful of really good customers. But we are just being able to expand our reach,” Rob Crane said. “The work is out there.”
To get it, Crane, his father and grandfather and the other employees are trying to do a better job of getting the word out.
Six weeks ago the company hired Jim Schendel as new regional sales manager. And the family is scouring trade schools in search of new welders. The goal is to hire four new welders, which will bring the staff to 24.
While that’s good, Anderson-Crane Co. has one more hurdle to overcome. The company has a “sister company” in a different business with nearly the same name: Anderson-Crane Rubber.
That confuses lots of customers. The other entity is also growing quickly. So much so, it also needs a new building, “It’s time to get that marketing plan in place,” Crane chuckled.