Central Boiler, which makes high-efficiency outdoor furnaces, may be the biggest manufacturer you’ve never heard of in manufacturing-rich Roseau County in northwestern Minnesota.
And this is a nice time of year for the company’s 235 employees: year-end profit-sharing.
The owners of Central Boiler, Dennis and Terri Brazier, high school sweethearts and farm kids who started the company in 1984, distributed $1.26 million — about $5,400 per employee — to workers, including production workers who average $20.75 per hour plus benefits.
That’s about $43,000 a year, well above the area and northern Minnesota’s average manufacturing wage, according to state data keepers.
“You treat people the way you want to be treated,” said Dennis Brazier, who grew up on the farm upon which sits the Central Boiler plant outside the small town of Greenbush. “And we’ve been blessed to have so many talented people come to work for the company. They are the heart of the company. Most have been around for at least a decade.”
Hourly and salaried employees get about the same slice of profits, regardless of their compensation. It can be applied at employee discretion as an untaxed company contribution to their 401(k) retirement plans.
“We’ve always made money and try to focus on consistent profit-sharing for the employees,” said Terri Brazier. “We’ve asked if they would like more in their wages. But they like the profit-sharing. It’s harder to save from wages.”
There’s also a local-hunting-season twist to the fourth-quarter profit-sharing.
“We will give out a portion of the bonus early, before hunting season, for people who want to buy shotgun shells, or warm clothing or tires,” Brazier said. “We announce the bonus at a celebration for employees and guests in our large ‘convention room,’ with a catered dinner. It’s well-attended. I think we had about 400. It’s quite a shindig.”
Central Boiler and a smaller sister company, Altoz Precision Mowers, try to hire and retain good workers who make excellent products, the owners said. Central Boiler workers travel to the plant from as far as 50 miles away.
And there’s competition for workers in the neighborhood. Recreational vehicle maker Polaris and Marvin Windows operate much larger plants than Central in nearby Warroad.
Chet Bodin, an analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said about 4,560 jobs, or about half of Roseau County workers, are in manufacturing. And the average pay in Roseau County, where the state estimates it costs $39,000 for a family of three to live modestly, is higher than in neighboring counties. The unemployment rate is lower than the state average of 3.5 percent.
“Manufacturing tends to pay better and offer more stable jobs,” Bodin said.
Dennis, 53, and Terri Brazier, 51, don’t dwell on economic statistics. They just dreamed, schemed and built on good ideas that became popular products, not without setbacks, that grew into a company that generates $50 million-plus in annual revenue.
Dennis Brazier worked road construction after high school and always was a tinkerer, fixer and builder.
Central Boiler was informally launched when Dennis resolved to make a better replacement for an inefficient wood boiler used by Terri’s brother.
“I tried to build a better mousetrap,” Dennis Brazier said. “There were deficiencies in … a barrel stove with wood piled to the chimney.”
The typical Central system, which ranges from $5,500 for residential to $20,000 for large commercial boilers, is located outside, typically 30 to 200 feet away from a house or other building and can replace or supplement traditional heating systems.
A water jacket surrounds the furnace firebox and heat exchanger. And heated water is circulated through insulated underground pipes. Heat exchangers or direct circulation convey the heat through a forced-air or radiant floor heating system, allowing for normal thermostatic temperature control. That negates concern about indoor fires or overheating from a wood stove.
Dennis Brazier proudly said Central’s furnace line met the latest voluntary federal pollution standards before they took effect this year.
“We have a history of leading the pack,” he said.
But Central can’t control oil and gas prices. Sales of furnaces gradually declined after fuel prices peaked in 2008. The company cut employment, mostly temporary seasonal workers who were brought on during peak furnace-building periods in spring and summer.
Dennis Brazier determined that the company needed to diversify. He had long envisioned an economical commercial riding mower. After a couple of years of design and testing, the Braziers launched in 2012 Altoz Precison Mowers, now a 30-employee company at the Greenbush plant. Peak production occurs during fall and winter to support seasonal sales.
“I had a passion for lawn mowers, and we never had any decent ones on the farm,” said Dennis Brazier. “I had started working on one way back … but the wood boilers took off and I never had time to get back to mowers.”
Since 1991, Central and Altoz have grown from a 25,000-square-foot building to a 300,000-plus-square-foot manufacturing facility.
The business is throwing off heat — and a chunk of the profits to employees.