Veteran manufacturer John Norris is helping build a wall along the Mexican border.

It’s just not the wall President Donald Trump envisions.

“It’s the virtual wall,” explained Norris, 68, a Minnesota small business owner-operator for 40 years.

Tower Solutions, one of two Norris-owned firms, recently landed a $14.75 million contract with General Dynamics for 50 of its 80-foot “roll-up” towers. General Dynamics equips the towers, which can withstand hurricane winds, with cameras and other technology that can detect movement for unspecified miles. It sells them to the U.S. Border Patrol.

They can be cheaper and more effective than physical walls, which are impractical along parts of the border.

The record General Dynamics order, following $5.5 million in Tower sales last year, is long-sought success for a company that almost didn’t make it.

Norris has worked for 18 years to prove Tower’s mobile structures could be the anchor product for his other company, the larger manufacturing job-shop, Atscott Manufacturing.

Atscott is a Pine City manufacturer that Norris joined in 1979. It now employs about 75 workers, but it almost failed. Thanks to Tower.

“If the 2008-09 recession had happened in 2005, I probably would have lost Atscott,” Norris said. “I had to write off Tower-related losses and I had to mortgage Atscott and buy out another Tower owner in 2005.”

“Today, Tower [finally] is becoming the tail that wags the dog. Tower will be our largest customer this year. We have … an 80-foot tower and variations of it. The objective is to broaden to a full line of products that generates [more] commercial and government customers.”

3M is Atscott’s oldest and next-largest customer to newcomer Tower (with General Dynamics). Combined, Tower and Atscott should have profitable 2018 revenue in excess of $30 million.

Fred Zimmerman, a retired University of St. Thomas professor and industry veteran, joined the Tower board after meeting Norris in 2012. He would be a key player.

Zimmerman, 82, who owns no stock in the company, helped Norris recruit two other veteran board members for Tower, and a couple of key employees. And he advised Norris to buy out a dissenting senior owner-manager in 2013 at then-money-losing Tower.

“Without Fred, there would be no Tower,” Norris said. “We almost went out of business a couple times.”

Tower’s sales had been low and inconsistent for years.

It sold a few of its structures for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Marines also became a customer, mounting cameras on the towers to conduct surveillance. They liked how quickly the structures could be raised and lowered. Norris fondly recalls a Marine at a trade show who said the towers saved lives.

Norris decided to double down on Tower. He invested, but did not take a salary. Tower CEO Steve Kensinger, an engineer and chief salesman, went months without pay during the lean times.

“We usually paid him back when we had some money,” Norris said.

Tower’s fortunes finally turned northward when revenue doubled to more than $5 million in 2017.

Zimmerman credits Norris with also taking only a modest paycheck from Atscott, the traditionally profitable company he owns. Zimmerman calls Atscott a “well-equipped plant” that employs about 75 skilled workers.

Tower is now the several-employee growth customer for manufacturer Atscott that Norris long coveted.

Tower continues to improve and tweak its design to meet specifications demanded by portable-tower buyers.

“Steve sells stuff that we can’t do yet,” said David Kensinger, 38, son of Steve Kensinger and vice president of engineering at Tower. “My job is to then make it happen.”

That led to the 2018 competitive-bid award by General Dynamics. Tower had to design new outriggers and pads to ensure the towers could withstand 90 mile-per-hour winds.

“We’ve got a lot of places to go with this tower,” said Norris, who drives a company pickup that sports a 20-foot model in the bed. “We’re starting to get visibility, particularly from our work on the border.”

This is heady stuff for a guy who also lost money on other products he tried in search of an anchor product for Atscott — founded in 1963, partly by Norris’ late father, after losing his job at a shuttering industrial company.

“We invested in ice-shaving machines … used instead of crushed ice for snow cones,” recalled Norris with a laugh. “That was hot in the late 1990s.”

John Norris joined Atscott in 1979 from IBM after deciding not to accept a transfer. The senior Norris was soon debilitated by dementia and John Norris found himself running Atscott by age 30.

Norris inherited 10 percent of Atscott and slowly bought out his siblings, as well as his dad’s fellow owners as they aged and cashed out.

Norris first invested in Tower in 1999, which was founded by a Red Wing inventor. The company had sold towers to rock concert promoters and sports event producers to hang communications equipment.

Tower was dogged by multi-owner conflict until Norris bought out the original partners. He installed Steve Kensinger as head of sales in 2010.

“This place now acts like a good, growing small business,” Zimmerman said.

Norris, finally, is pleased with Tower’s outlook. There also has been interest from prospective buyers.

Norris is just happy the business has a future.

“This has been an 18-year struggle,” Norris said of Tower. “It took longer than it should. It looks like our last five-year plan is going to work.”

 

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