Wells couple builds metal working business from scratch to serve growing Upper Midwest client base.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
If not for being shaped and sharpened by challenge after challenge, Brett and Dynette Niebuhr almost certainly wouldn’t have had the background or passion to start Wells-based B&D Metal Works—let alone grow and adapt it so well—to serve the metal working needs of Upper Midwest customers. The five-employee company offers a plethora of services, including customized project manufacture and engineering, agriculture-related and hydraulic cylinder repairs and fabrication, support equipment and repair, plasma cutting, and farm implement manufacture.
Husband Brett Niebuhr, especially, seems to have an instinctive knack for being able to face these stiff challenges calmly and to readily respond with workable solutions. For him in life, the stiff challenges began simple enough on his father’s Wells farm, where destructive hogs and normal wear-and-tear on farm machinery kept him hopping as a young boy making repairs.
“I have to give my dad a lot of credit for letting me wreck all his stuff and then allowing me to try to fix it,” laughed 49-year-old Niebuhr from inside the office of his 6,000 sq. ft. foot facility on Highway 22 south of Wells. “On the farm, I just naturally learned how to repair everything. I made hog gates, and removed and replaced bearings and drive belts in the combine, for example. I enjoyed working on them, and my dad always seemed like he would grab me—rather than my older or younger brother—to make repairs. I took more interest in farming than the other two.”
In time, his challenges began evolving into tweaking hot rods and motorcycles, and constructing fast snowmobiles for competitive racing, and figuring out the intricacies of feed grinders. But it was a personal challenge besetting a sophomore at Alden High School, Dynette, which changed his life more than anything.
“I didn’t know Brett when he was in high school,” said 47-year-old Dynette. “He had graduated by the time we met during the summer before my junior year. We dated throughout the rest of my high school years. I was attracted to him in part because he was different from anyone else I had ever met. And he was persistent. He had a little bit of that ‘bad boy” image, too. By that I mean the last place he wanted to be was in school and he enjoyed souping up cars and motorcycles and driving them fast. A lot of people, including my high school principal, told me I should stay away from him because he was trouble.”
When Brett was in high school, one afternoon he and a friend removed his car’s exhaust pipe and replaced it with an impressive six-inch stovepipe to increase noise. The car rumbled down the road only long enough for a great deal of pressure to build inside the pipe causing an incredible explosion. “It went boom!” laughed Brett. “There must have been an overrun of fuel that hadn’t burned and it backfired and just shredded the pipe to pieces. We took it back to the drawing board.”
Another time, he and a friend in the late ‘70s drove to Willmar searching for a Buick for his friend to purchase. Their transmission broke down in a McDonald’s parking lot. While waiting for his father to bring up another transmission from his friend’s house in Wells, Brett and his friend pushed the front end of the car up onto the parking lot curb and crawled under to remove the transmission. When Brett’s father and the replacement transmission arrived, they skillfully installed the new one. No one from McDonald’s complained.
On the surface, at least, theirs seemed a romance destined for failure: Dynette was an “A” student with college aspirations who enjoyed learning and extracurricular school activities. On the other hand, all Brett had wanted to do was farm with his dad.
At that point came their first personal challenge: Dynette’s father passed away not long after her high school graduation, leaving behind nine children and a widow. Brett stepped in with financial help for Dynette. In 1981, they married.
“Brett had included me in on everything he did and we even used to raise dogs together,” she said of her high school boyfriend. “We always hung out in high school. Lots of times, we would just go to his friend’s shop while they painted a car or we would try figuring out an easier way to move the pigs for farrowing.”
Their lives seemed to begin unraveling in fall 1983. The farm economy was headed downhill, interest rates had reached 21 percent, Dynette was pregnant, and, after viewing ultrasounds, a physician was saying their first child might have kidney cancer.
“But he was born with a condition called gastroschisis,” said Dynette. “All his intestines were outside his body. He spent almost eight weeks at Mayo in Rochester. (He is now a mechanical engineer living in Chicago.) We absolutely needed extra income back then.”
Said Brett, “The church said they could host a benefit for us. But I’m the type of person that if I can make it on my own, I don’t want anyone helping me. I said, no, we don’t need a benefit. And we made it through.”
At that time, Brett had been regularly traveling into Wells to have certain farm machinery parts fixed at Herman Manufacturing. He and owner John Herman became friends. On one such trip, Herman jokingly said to Niebuhr, “As much has you’re getting stuff fixed here, why don’t you just work for us?” The comment caught Niebuhr off guard. Soon, the joke became a rock-solid offer, Niebuhr became employed full-time, and the type of work “just came naturally” to him, he said. Suddenly, out of financial necessity, farming became a part-time occupation.
From John Herman, Niebuhr learned “all the aspects of the business,” he said. “”Not to toot my own horn, but I just caught onto it so easily. John taught me the skills, because I had none through high school. Being able to help run a business and deal with ag customers was valuable experience. Working there was like having a vocational school education for 14 years. John’s father had started the company making snowblowers, and then made hog gates and did ag repairs. At the end of my time there, we made a VCR tape machine for 3M that wound VCR tape on these huge discs.”
By 1997, financially speaking, the Niebuhrs were finally breathing easier. Their three boys were physically fit and growing older, and Dynette had finished her degree in college years earlier and by now was established in her full-time work as a dental hygienist. And now, certain people in Wells were bugging Brett to begin his own metal working business. But to do it, he would have to leave Herman Manufacturing. It was quite a challenge.
The decision to start out on his own became easier when Brett realized his natural internal makeup of wanting to “do things my own way,” he said. “But I really enjoyed working up there—as I do here—3,000 hours a year or more, which is about six days a week, 10 hours a day. Working doesn’t bother me, even on Saturdays.”
The Niebuhrs talked with a banker. Brett’s father had on his farm site an old barn that could be remodeled into a machine shop. Neighbors, who would become his first customers, came over at nights and weekends to donate their time to help with lighting, interior work, and erecting steel. They had been Brett’s contact person at Herman Manufacturing and didn’t want to deal with anyone else.
“We kept the arrangement with my father business-like,” he said of his renting the building from his father. “We had a separate electric meter. I was also raising hogs then on that farm site, so I had the machine shop there too and was busy day and night.”
At first, Brett did mostly farm repairs. Dynette worked the books in their bedroom office. Said Dynette, “It was so exciting sending out our first invoice. We thought we had the world by the tail. Our first milestone was ten thousand in sales. We thought: Oh, my gosh! This is so incredible. It was very fun.”
In short time, through a friend, Brett made a timely business connection with a hydraulic company in Albert Lea, which manufactures solid waste pumps for farm, food, and municipal waste applications. They asked for a quote. “Back then when I was just starting out, any kind of business was good,” he said. “But I didn’t want to act too interested in getting their business.”
Once the connection with the hydraulic company was solidified, Niebuhr made another with the Swift Eckrich processing plant in Wells. “I knew the maintenance people there and they trusted me,” he said. “They knew I’m the type of person that if you call me at eight at night I’ll go up there to help.” For them, he custom-made assembly line equipment, such as conveyors to transport meat product from one machine to another or support equipment, such as stainless steel drying racks and carts. And he would have to fix equipment breaking down.
“Most of the equipment was foreign-made,” he explained. “It was all metric equipment that if sent overseas for repair could take a week or up to a month to get it back. Instead, they could bring the equipment out to me and I could have it fixed by next morning. If anything ever happened, I was right there to fix it. In other words, I could manufacture, install, and repair the equipment.”
He said another selling point was his cost to Swift Eckrich, which was significantly lower than if the manufacturer had hired a company sending crews down from the Twin Cities. Eventually, Swift Eckrich accounted for about 30 percent of B&D Metal Work’s business and all looked rosy until the plant was sold to another company. That plant closed several years ago. This became another challenge to overcome.
“That’s when we started getting new business from Nuvex in Blue Earth,” said Brett. “An engineer from here went there. It’s all who you know. Then we picked up business from another food service company in Albert Lea—sifting screens we welded and fabricated.”
From there, the business took off. The company still does business with the Albert Lea company, which accounts for about 35 percent of estimated annual revenue of just under $1 million. For them, B&D Metal Works makes, said Brett, “all the guts of the hydraulic pump, the cylinders—everything that screws together, so all they need to do is put in the rubber seals and assemble the whole unit.”
They also do support work for Wells Concrete, in part manufacturing 14-foot-wide concrete rakes for using on its prefab panels, which enables workers to make uniform cement patterns. These special rakes are in the Wells and Albany facilities. B&D Metal Works also does shearing and bending work for the Wells plant.
“And we do support work for Gregor Tiling, do a lot of fabbing for Leland Enterprises in Kiester, and we are an area shop for Watonwan Farm Services,” he said. “WFS is in here daily, sometimes three or four times a day. For them, we repair their damaged booms and trucks.” The company also did a large project for the City of Chicago to help manufacture a machine that can compress human waste into hockey-puck sized chips to be burned in an incinerator producing electricity.
Most of these areas of business have growth potential—yet one budding B&D Metal Works project could have much more: The B&D Metal Works Tool Bar.
This farm implement is for farmers using strip till, which is a method of tilling roughly halfway between conventional and no-tillage. With strip till, fertilizer can be applied while only the seedbed is tilled in a narrow strip. The rest of the field is left undisturbed. The B&D Metal Works Tool Bar is an extra heavy-duty bar that holds strip till equipment. (The company had gained prior experience in this area by manufacturing not long ago a limited number of stainless steel, 950-gallon saddle tanks to carry liquid for John Deere Tracks Tractors.)
“We think our tool bar is stronger than the others out there,” said Brett. “It’s stronger in girth with a heavier main bar and hinges. I think it’s something that may take off. We’ve seen a lot of interest.”
The idea for the Tool Bar came from a strip-tilling friend who is also a mechanical engineer. One tillage equipment manufacturer, Dawn Equipment of Sycamore, Illinois, has begun recommending the Tool Bar to customers. (The U.S. has less than a dozen major companies manufacturing tool bars.) Niebuhr’s Tool Bar has an advantage in that it can easily hold the amount of weight these newer strip-till attachments require. The mechanical engineer, Sheldon, has become the product’s field tester and main contact person with Dawn Equipment.
Said Brett, “A neighbor has said once we get something figured out how you can inject hog manure with one of these Tool Bars, he’ll call us. It’s coming to that. Hopefully that will expand our volume of tool bar sales.” A B&D Metal Works Tool Bar can cost up to $12 thousand and so far Niebuhr has sold eight.
If experience counts for anything, Brett Niebuhr and B&D Metal Works should be able to meet the stiff challenge of launching a new farm implement during a recession.
Said B&D Metal Works co-owner Brett Niebuhr: “I don’t leave well enough alone.” This could be the understatement of the year.
According to wife Dynette, Brett has always looked for ways to improve just about everything. After being out boating with their children, for instance, Brett jerry-rigged two skis together so they could learn to water ski. He has made an aluminum-bolted bed loft for a college dormitory room.
“He buys things, but they are never quite right for him,” she sighed. “So he is always trying to modify things to make them better. For example, we did a lot of remodeling to our house. He thought a kick plate—so the kids’ feet wouldn’t hit the wood—should be made of steel. We also bought a new door and he decided we had to make the doorknob lower so the kids could reach it better. He is always changing things. He can’t be just normal or traditional.”
In the beginning of B&D Metal Works, Dynette played a large role setting up and maintaining the books. Today, her role is limited mainly to hiring new employees and helping out with taxes. She works full-time as office manager at Alpha Orthodontics in Albert Lea.
Said Brett Niebuhr: “Trust is the big thing around our neighborhood here in Wells. Most of my neighbors know if we are away for the weekend how to get in touch with me to get the supplies they need. When we get back, we’ll see their note saying what they took. The customers are all familiar with the shop.”