Zierke Built mfg. settles in Fairmont

Cole Sharp welds a fuel tank at Zierke Built Manufacturing in Fairmont.

As he walks through the new Zierke Built Manufacturing building in Fairmont, Greg Zierke proudly points out the open spaces and high ceilings in the remodeled. Take all the pictures you want, he says, but make sure he’s not in any of them.

Zierke bought the former US Foods warehouse at 1500 Winnebago Ave. in 2016 and spent eight months remodeling the building before moving his enterprise from Winnebago last August.

“I was semi-retired until a couple of years ago,” said the 62-year-old Zierke, who serves as the company president with son Kyle as vice president. “I’m working more hours today than in the last 10 years, but I enjoy what we’re doing.”

And what they’re doing is growing their worldwide business building custom fuel tanks and trailers to support generators of all sizes. Some larger ones have been 50 feet long and held 10,000 gallons of fuel. Smaller mobile units are in demand for temporary use after national disasters such as hurricanes. The company has built tanks for coal mines and oil fields in Alaska as well as many for farmers and the agriculture industry.

All Zierke Built tanks have double walls which prevent any leakage 99.9 percent of the time, compared to the industry average of 93 percent. The structure of the tanks also is favored by the Environmental Protection Agency and approved by Underwriters’ Laboratories, which Zierke said is a top selling point for the merchandise and a huge benefit for the business.

“We’re a customizing shop. What one customer wants, the other one won’t,” he said. “We pride ourselves on being a custom fabricator. That’s probably why we’ve grown. Pretty much everything is designed through our company.”

As Zierke walks through his new building — he sometimes puts on 10 miles a day hiking through the manufacturing areas — he dodges forklifts and checksin with employees as he recalls how his business got started in 1981.

“I was just a farm boy, but at the time, the ag situation was bad. There was no money in it so I started a welding shop in Elmore,” he said.

He fabricated sprayer bars for farmers and eventually expanded to Winnebago, where he had about 70,000 square feet in two buildings that were three blocks apart.

“Paint and prep were in one with welding and fabricating in the other,” he said. “We were constantly moving inventory back and forth. It was horrible, but we did that for 15 years. It got to the point we needed to expand some more.”

When the US Foods building became vacant in January 2014, it caught Zierke’s eye, but the parties involved couldn’t reach an agreement on the price. He looked at buildings in Albert Lea and Mankato but kept getting drawn back to Fairmont, eventually buying the building about 18 months ago.

“I’ve always liked Fairmont,” he said. “I bought a lake home here. I knew I was going to retire in this town.”

As the company was growing, it became increasingly difficult to find qualified employees.

“Nothing against Winnebago, but I had to get people to come to Winnebago to work. It was just challenging to find good qualified employees, and most of my employees were from Fairmont already,” Zierke said.

He praised city staff for facilitating the move and tax incentives, calling Linsey Preuss, Fairmont economic development director, “the driver” behind the relocation efforts. The city offered a 10-year tax abatement for 100 percent of the property tax on the building, with the amount not to exceed $231,000 over the 10-year span. Zierke pays the taxes but then is reimbursed by the city if certain criteria is met. One of the stipulations involves the hiring of 30 employees over three years, and the company is well on its way to that goal.

When the Zierke Built was in Winnebago, a newspaper ad for welders might net a couple of applicants. Since the move to Fairmont, that same ad could draw 15 or more applicants. All the 30 some employees in Winnebago moved with the company to Fairmont. Currently, the business has about 50 employees, and Zierke said he hires about one or two welders each week.

“I think the Fairmont school is really the best,” Zierke said, offering praise for the high school’s welding program. “We’ve hired a lot of kids fresh out of high school. We need welders. We need more and more welders.”

The new building houses 45 welding stations where employees work on all sizes of tanks, taking from 8-60 hours to complete a tank that is inspected and measured numerous times.

In the welding room, Zierke points out one of several employee-centered benefits. An air filtration system, with a $300,000 price tag, removes welding dust and smoke, purifies the air, scrubs it and recycles it, keeping the area relatively clean and pollutant free.

Cooling off work areas during the warmer months can be a challenge, but Zierke installed a trio of 20-foot “Big Ass” brand ceiling fans.

“In the summertime, you can get 60 mph winds off them. They work great. We love it,” he said.

Hiring and maintain quality employees is a priority for Zierke, and he will find ways to keep them happy.

“We were one of the first companies that did 10-hour days,” he said. “We started that in 1998, and we were told it would never work, but the employees really like it.”

When the 7 a.m. starting time was resulting in tardiness and absenteeism, Zierke offered flex time to his workers.

“Now then can come in anywhere between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Everybody still has to work until 5:30 p.m., and they still have to work 40 hours in four days, but it made a huge difference in the mornings,” he said. “With flex time, it eliminated the problems.”

The increasing demand for tanks and trailers resulted in working overtime on Fridays, and the company has had to outsource about 40 percent of its fabricating. Zierke is even contemplating a Friday-through-Sunday shift.

He also is considering upgrading a plasma cutter used to slice openings in sheets of U.S.-made steel, the only kind used at Zierke Built. He’s considering replacing the plasma unit with a $1.5 million laser machine that can self operate 24 hours a day. He estimates the machine could take up to six months to obtain, with payback reached in four years.

Zierke is planning a ribbon cutting and open house for the new facility, tentatively set for April 18.