Minnesota Valley Testing LaboratoriesBy Grace Webb • Jul 2015 • Category: Cover Story
This father-daughter duo combines their love for their business with their love for their community at one of New Ulm’s largest companies.
Tom Berg and his daughter Colleen Skillings have a lot in common.
They share the same hometown: New Ulm, Minnesota. They share the same interests: swimming, skiing, cooking and traveling. They share the same commitment to their community, which is evident from the myriad of ways they volunteer in their free time.
Even their career paths are similar. They both didn’t imagine building a life in New Ulm. In fact, both of them first ended up in the Twin Cities right out of college, building successful careers in their chosen fields (chemistry for Berg, accounting for Skillings). But somehow, both of them found their way back to their hometown.
Now, they’re both running Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories (MVTL), a multi-million dollar testing company that’s one of New Ulm’s largest employers. Berg is the company’s owner and CEO, while Skillings serves as CFO and is in line to take over once Berg retires.
MVTL has been around for more than 60 years and has locations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa, attracting customers from across the Midwest and beyond. The New Ulm location alone employs more than 170 workers. One of the secrets to the company’s long-lasting success is its far-reaching scope—a rarity among area testing labs. While other labs focus on only one area of testing, MVTL has four: agricultural science, food science, energy technology and environmental testing. As Berg explained, whenever the folks at the company saw a need, they added something to fill it.
In fact, that’s how Skillings ended up at MVTL—the company had a need for a talented accountant fifteen years ago, and Berg turned to his daughter.
While the father-daughter duo might be doing different things within their company, they both approach their work with the same commitment to quality, accuracy and customer service. And it’s safe to say they both love their jobs.
It’s funny how things work out.
Why don’t you two tell me a little about yourselves? You go first, Tom.
Tom: I was born in New Ulm in 1939. I have two sisters, both younger. My mother was primarily a homemaker, which was pretty typical at that time. My dad’s employment always centered around accounting. When I was very small, we lived in St. Paul, where my dad was from, but then my dad got drafted into the Army during in the middle of World War II (in 1943). We came to New Ulm to live with our grandmother until my dad returned. I’m not totally sure why my parents decided to live in New Ulm once Dad came back.
What about your teenage years? Did you have any jobs?
Tom: In the summers, I always worked as a lifeguard at the pool. Swimming is a big deal for me; I still try to swim three miles a week. I also spent some time working at the local Sears outlet store. I went through the Catholic school system and graduated from Cathedral High School in 1957.
You spent most of your childhood in New Ulm, but you attended college in Texas. What pushed you to that decision?
Tom: A New Ulm family had a son who went to St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Then he got another guy to go there, and another… I was about the fourth guy in line to go. I went there, sight unseen. I just based it on what these guys were saying. I also received a nice scholarship, which sealed my decision. But I really did like it. And I liked Texas.
What did you study?
Tom: I started out as a physics major. When I started college, the Space Age was really just starting to heat up. It seemed like physics was a good place to be. But I found out that I really wasn’t as good of a mathematician as I thought I was going to be, and I decided, “I’m not sure I really want to do this.” By then, I’d taken some chemistry, which I really enjoyed, so I switched my major to chemistry, and that’s what I graduated in.
If you liked Texas, why did you come back to Minnesota?
Tom: Frankly, I never expected to wind up with a professional career here. But then I met this girl (wife Kathleen)… I came home for the summer every year, and we met at a dance. I’d gone to high school with her, but I was three years ahead of her so we didn’t really know each other. But I asked her to dance, and one thing led to another. When I graduated, I came back to New Ulm and we got married. That was in 1961. We’ll be married 54 years this fall.
What did you do once you’d graduated and moved back to Minnesota?
Tom: I wasn’t sure exactly how things were going to play out. I went to the Twin Cities to find work and got a job at the Gillette Corporation.
After Colleen was born, I decided that I needed a better job. One day, I was talking to a headhunter, and he said, “You know, I’ve got a job that would really be perfect for you, but it’s in a small town. Would you consider a small town?” I said, “Maybe, depending on where it is. Where is it?” And he said, “Well, it’s in New Ulm.” So then we were best friends. The job was at a company called Supersweet Feeds (which no longer exists). They had a research farm and quality control lab in Courtland. I supervised the laboratory for almost five years.
During that time, I got to know the men who had started MVTL, Richard Novak and Henry Nupson. They were both microbiologists, and they needed some chemistry expertise from time to time. So I would do a little consulting here and there with them. It got to be more and more, and finally they said, “Well, why don’t you just come and join us?” So I did. In 1967, I became a permanent employee. And I’ve never left.
Now you’re the sole owner of the company.
Tom: Novak and Nupson wanted to retire in the early 1980s, so another man and I bought them out. We ran the company as a partnership until the beginning of 2000, and then I bought out that partner because he wanted to retire, too. When he retired, Colleen agreed to join me. She’s a CPA, and I needed her expertise. Fifteen years later, here we are.
Are you planning for Colleen to take over once you retire?
Tom: I hope so. There are a couple of other people involved, too. To put it quite frankly, I really feel strongly that I would like to see the ownership remain local. I’ve had lots of opportunities to sell the business to larger organizations and investment groups. Apparently we’re very attractive to some of those businesses. I’m not interested in that. I’d like to see it in the hands of Colleen and a couple of other people: Mike Grob and Jerry Balbach. The four of us are the operating executive team for this company.
Why is it important for you to keep the business local?
Tom: I’m from here. This community has been very good to me. I’m also fifth generation New Ulm, and Colleen is sixth generation New Ulm. We’ve got a lot of family history here. And I would very much like to see that continue.
Colleen: MVTL has been in New Ulm for almost 65 years. We have many long-term employees who’ve chosen to work with us and committed to living in New Ulm or the surrounding area. I feel it’s important to maintain our commitment back to them. Our dedicated employees are the backbone of the company, and they contribute greatly to our success. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Speaking of employees, businesses across Minnesota are feeling a workforce crunch as they try to find new workers. Have you felt this pinch, too?
Tom: We have to work at attracting people just as everyone else does now. Times are changing. It’s getting harder to find people, especially people with the skills we need. But we’re finding them.
Colleen: I believe we offer something that a lot of our other competitors don’t: a unique quality of life in a great, small community. New Ulm, for its size, really offers a wide variety of options for professions as well as quality options for recreation, restaurants, shopping, etc. Also, as an employer, MVTL offers flexibility to our employees when the job allows. While we are a larger company, we try hard to maintain a family atmosphere. These are some of the things that are attractive for potential employees as well as retaining employees.
Give me a run-down of your business in layman’s terms.
Tom: We have four business units: the environmental unit, which is primarily water, waste water, hazardous waste, and soil testing; the agriculture group, which is soil fertility and feed testing; the food science group, which is chemical and biological testing; and the energy technology group in Bismarck that performs coal and oil testing. Sometimes it’s a challenge to manage it, since some of the technologies are pretty diverse and different. But we like it that way.
Which sector is the largest?
Colleen: I’d say our food science work and our environmental testing. Those are the two biggest.
Tom: The food science and environmental services are year-round. There’s been a lot of growth in our food business during the last couple of years. On the other hand, soil testing is a very seasonal thing. It’s all the way up or it’s all the way down. The fuels business goes somewhat year-round, but it slows down in the wintertime, too.
I understand you offer internships to students during the summer months.
Colleen: About ten years ago, the influx of work during the summer months grew beyond our capacity. We began to hire college students to help. We identified college students rather than high school students because employees need to be 18 to work in the lab under OSHA rules. The benefits are twofold: we need the help, and working with us is a way for students to determine if the sciences would be something they would want to pursue for a career. If they came back as a permanent fulltime employee, that would be the ultimate benefit. At times, students do join us after graduation, and, even if it’s one or two kids, I think that’s a success.
Typically, we have about 30 student workers at a time, working in a variety of areas, from sample preparation to a little more technical science tasks, as well as office work. On occasion, a student will receive credit for their work with us, but regardless, the knowledge gained during their employment can be helpful for their studies and beyond.
We also help with science fair projects with our local schools. We can offer technical assistance as well as a place for students to test their theories. We hope this assistance will encourage them to continue in the sciences.
Where’s your primary customer base?
Colleen: Most of our work revolves around the Midwest, although we do have a few food customers who are national and international. Due to logistic reasons, the majority of our business is generated in the Midwest. For instance, environmental samples have specific requirements regarding holding times, which would prohibit services beyond the Midwest.
You have facilities in New Ulm, Bismarck and Iowa. How did you choose where to expand?
Tom: We’ve been in Iowa for a long time. Soil testing is traditionally one of our fairly large activities, so we got started in Iowa performing soil tests a long time ago. Over the years, we’ve changed our business model there, even though the market itself hasn’t really changed that much. We used to have a laboratory facility there, but now we prepare soil samples in our Iowa facility and bring them to New Ulm for analysis. It’s only three hours from here, so it’s not that big a deal to bring samples here. Now, Bismarck’s a little different. We’ve been in Bismarck since the late 1970s. We originally went up there with a view toward doing testing with the coal mining and electrical generating businesses. Most of that is either environmental work or fuels work. We’re starting to perform testing for the oil patch industries, too. North Dakota is the second largest oil producing state in the country now, next to Texas.
Colleen: We grew out of the original building in Bismarck, and the business potential keeps growing. Because of this, about four years ago, we built a new laboratory there for anticipated growth.
Have you considered setting up more facilities beyond the Midwest so that you could work with more customers?
Colleen: No. Managing multiple locations is a challenge, and I’d prefer to do it here.
Tom: There’s plenty of opportunity here in the Midwest. We’ll think about that someday maybe, but right now, just managing what we have is the goal. We have had a fair amount of growth in the last couple of years, the last three years particularly. This year is running significantly ahead of the last couple of years, and I’m expecting it to be our best year by far. The best sales technique you’ve got is giving good quality service, and everything that good quality means: timely, accurate, reasonably priced… If we see an opportunity, though, we’ll consider it.
But you have recently expanded at your New Ulm location.
Colleen: Yes, we added on to our corporate building about a year and a half ago. We needed more space, particularly in our microbiology lab, and reconfigured several areas to allow for more microbiology lab space. We’re still in need of more space, and we’re in the planning stage to expand again. We’re not quite sure precisely when it will happen. Laboratory space takes longer to plan because of the specific science infrastructure that’s required.
You say you’ve had record growth lately. Why do you think that is?
Tom: We’ve got smart people who work hard.
Colleen: We have a great sales team to feed work to the rest of the team. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a great team. We’re fortunate to have a great group of people working with us. And Tom’s right: it’s all about giving a good product, which is data. With that, we help people make and save money. And so, when we provide a good service, that’s accurate and timely, people know about it.
Do you have much competition in your line of work?
Tom: The competition is fragmented. We have a couple of environmental labs up in the Twin Cities area that compete with us in the environmental realm, and we’ve got one agriculture laboratory in Iowa, one in Nebraska, and one in North Dakota that compete pretty hard with us.
Colleen: There are food laboratories in the metro area that compete with us too, but they’re not as diverse as we are.
Tom: We’re very unusual in that we run all of these technologies simultaneously. Hardly anybody does things like that. We’re rare. It kind of goes back to the two men who started the company. They believed very strongly in diversity, and they had a big influence on me.
Is it challenging to offer so many services, when many businesses in your line of work focus on just one type of testing?
Colleen: We have it down so that it’s business as usual. The diversity started a long time ago, so it’s nothing new. That’s one reason why Tom came on board, in that the founders realized they wanted to offer more services, primarily in agriculture. There were many little dairies in the surrounding communities when the company started, and the company’s founders realized there was a need for other agriculture services. As time went on and regulations started to occur, the business grew. When new needs develop, we respond.
Tom: It is a challenge, but it’s something we’ve grown into, and we just accept it. A lot of the work that’s required in our four main sectors is similar, so we organize our work by inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, microbiology, etc. In the inorganic chemistry lab, we may be doing environmental work, food science-related analysis and agriculture-related analysis all at once. The skill sets that are required to do that are very similar. That’s how we deal with that.
What other challenges are you facing in your industry right now?
Tom: Over the years, our clients’ speed requirements have grown a lot shorter, across all the technologies and locations we operate in. People need their information much faster. For example, for soil testing, we used to take a week to get the data back. Now, the turnaround time is 48 hours or less. Laboratory automation and computers make it possible.
Also, price pressure is something that we deal with all the time. In some of the areas we work in, the price pressure is greater than others. We have competitors, and they’re looking for any advantage they can get, just like we are.
MVTL has been around for more than 60 years. How has the business changed during that time?
Tom: One of the fundamental changes was how we’ve switched from a labor-intensive business to a capital-intensive business. We used to be very labor intensive, but that’s kind of been reversed over the years. We’re constantly buying and replacing equipment and computers, and that takes a lot of capital. We have very large investments in instrumentation and computerization. Those are things that we didn’t have years ago. Most of the work was done in the old classic chemistry and microbiology techniques that were very labor intensive. Those techniques are all gone now. It’s all done with instrumentation and computers. The bottom line of all that is, these technological advances require a continuous change and continuous investment. We still employ a lot of people, but we could not do what we do without technology.
Another thing is how we’re employing four or five times as many people as we had years ago. We do a breakfast for new hires every once in a while, and the last one had 16 people. There’s some turnover, of course. We’ve got people coming and going all the time. Our workforce tends to be fairly young, although we’ve got a core of older employees in middle and top management. We’re a first job for a lot of young people right out of school. I’m proud of that.
I heard you’re a pilot, Tom.
Tom: I learned to fly a long time ago, and we still have an airplane. It all started when one day, back in 1968, we were sitting around talking about all the things we wanted to do and all the places we wanted to go. Dick Novak, who was somewhat of a visionary, said, “You know, it would really be nice if one of us knew how to fly. We could go places and do things that we just can’t do now.” There were several other people in the conversation, and they said, “No way.” But I said, “Well, gee, that sounds like an interesting thing to do.” I rarely pass up opportunities. He told me that if I took the time and effort to learn how to fly, he’d pay for my lessons. And I said, “You’re on.” That was in the morning. That afternoon, I went out and took my first flying lesson. So I learned how to fly.
After that, we started doing more things, because we could fly. We spent more time in Iowa. And that’s also how Bismarck came to be. We were doing some work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Bismarck, and I was up there to talk about the project. I was alone in this restaurant at a hotel, and a bunch of men came in. I figured out they were coal miners and electrical generating people. They were talking about all the things that were going to happen in North Dakota. And I thought, “Holy cow, this is a big deal.” So I came back and told Mr. Novak that we might want to think about doing something in North Dakota, and he said, “Why don’t you spend some time up there and check it out?” Bismarck’s only a few hours away with an airplane. So I spent a lot of time in Bismarck, and we finally learned, “There’s a lot of work up there.” So we eventually built a facility up there, wore that out, built a new one, and that’s what we’re in now. North Dakota in general, and Bismarck in particular, are very business friendly.
Let’s hear your background, Colleen. As a kid, did you want to work at Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories?
Colleen (quickly): No. I was on a different career path. My interests didn’t include the sciences, so I never expected to work in the laboratory business. But things change.
The three things I said when I was younger was: I’d never marry anyone from New Ulm, I’d never move back to New Ulm and I’d never work with my dad. Now I’ve done all three. Never say never.
What were you interested in, instead?
Colleen: In high school, I loved math and accounting. I also played tennis and sang in Menagerie, a young people’s singing group, as well as my high school’s concert choir and the Payne Street Singers. Our family grew up swimming, because of Tom’s involvement in swimming. We probably spent, in the summer, the whole day at the pool. We would go for lessons in the morning, come home for lunch, we’d have swim team practice and afternoon swim. To the end of the day, we’d go to family hour swim and then go home. Eventually, I started working as a lifeguard at Flandrau State Park and also at the indoor pool, which opened in 1978.
Once you graduated high school, where did you go?
Colleen: I attended the College of St. Benedict to study accounting. My first job out of college was at the Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s office, where I spent the next five years. That’s actually where I met my husband, Bob. We had gone to the same high school but he was two years older, so we didn’t really know each other. While I was auditing at the Department of Revenue, he was working at the Lt. Governor’s office. When I first saw him in the hall and said hi, he couldn’t remember my name! But later he asked me out on a date. After a few years of dating, we were married in 1987.
Why did you choose to come back to New Ulm?
Colleen: I liked my job at the Legislative Auditor’s Office, but it didn’t offer a lot of growth. State employees tend to stay at their jobs a long time, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to move and grow. Also, my husband and I wanted to start a family, and we just couldn’t see ourselves raising children in the metro area. He grew up most of his life in New Ulm, and so New Ulm was a natural thought. He moved before I did, and he lived with my parents for a few months. Now he knows why I do the things that I do.
At that point, I began working at a local CPA firm, where I stayed for 10 years. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with that firm. They provided me the opportunity to grow in my field, exposing me to a wide variety of skills and businesses. I will be forever grateful for their contribution to my growth as a businessperson.
What made you decide to take your dad up on his offer?
Colleen: I really liked working at the CPA firm, as well as working with my clients. But tax season takes a toll. My dad approached me about the prospect of working with him, and I didn’t even have to think about it. Where else would I have the opportunity to have hands-on experience, learn new skills and eventually run the business? This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with my dad and create value for the business.
You said you hadn’t wanted to work in a lab when you were a kid. Was it difficult to make that transition?
Colleen: Not really. Business is business. When a business has a good team of people who are knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, particularly the scientific area that I’m not familiar with, it’s easy. We rely on and trust those individuals to provide the scientific guidance. Plus, with my dad being a chemist, there is already great scientific leadership in the company. I did my best to use my knowledge and experience in conjunction with the rest of the team to help the company grow and move forward.
What’s it like, working with your dad?
Colleen: It’s good. Tom listens to people. He always says, “I may say no now, but it may not be no forever.” He respects all the people he works with. He’s forward thinking and very open to new technologies and services in order for the company to grow. He strongly believes that the company should keep changing with the changing market, which makes life interesting and fun. We make it work. When I was working in the CPA firm, I worked with family businesses. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. And I think if you have an understanding and a respect for one another, along with open communication, it works well.
What about you, Tom? What’s it like working with your daughter?
Tom: It’s fine. I really needed her skills. I had this gut feeling that somebody with a background like Colleen’s would help us go a long way. And it did. And it continues to.
Tom Berg has a history with scouting. He joined the Boy Scouts when he was eight, following several friends who had joined the Cub Scouts. Throughout the years, he participated in the organization’s summer camps and even had the chance to attend a National Jamboree in California when he was 14. He eventually worked his way up to the rank of Eagle Scout—a distinction that fewer than two percent of Boy Scouts achieve. Now, he’s a member of the Boy Scouts of America, Twin Valley Council board.
“I got a lot out of scouting,” he said. “That’s where I learned to cook. If you can cook on a fire in the woods, you can cook on a stove. In the Scouts, you learn a lot about leadership and sharing, about being fair and being honest. I’m a real proponent of scouting.”
For Colleen Skillings, giving back to her community has always been important—and it’s obvious from the impressive number of community organizations she’s involved in. Here are a few places where she’s currently serving: board member of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), board member of New Ulm Telecom, treasurer and board member of the New Ulm Rotary, board member of Oak Hills Living Center, president and board member of Sunset Apartments, member of the American Council of Independent Laboratories, member of the Minnesota Society of CPAs.
She has also acted as past chairperson and board member of MBW, Inc., past board member and treasurer of the New Ulm Council of the Arts, and past board member of the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce.
As Skillings explains, “I feel strongly about giving back to the community as well as the business community. The reasoning is multifaceted. First, my parents instilled a strong sense of using my talents for the betterment of the community around me. Also, I receive back from my experiences more than I give. Finally, it’s important to me that our employees and fellow community members have a viable and healthy community that provides a high quality of life. So I do what I can to help make that happen.”
Getting to know you: Tom Berg
Education: Cathedral High School in New Ulm (1957), Bachelor of Science in chemistry from St. Edward’s University (1961)
Favorite subject: Any of the sciences
Family: Wife Kathleen, daughters Colleen and Kirsten, son Eric, two grandchildren
Hobbies: Swimming, skiing, reading, cooking, sailing, traveling, flying
Organizations: American Council of Independent Laboratories, chairman of the New Ulm Airport Commission, board member of the Boy Scouts of America, Twin Valley Council.
If you weren’t doing this: “I’d probably be retired by now! One of the reasons I keep working is because I’m having so much fun. I just don’t want to quit. There’s a lot of things that I’d like to do, and a lot of goals I’d like to achieve yet. I’ve got to start thinking about retirement, just as a practical matter. But I’m not going to do it in the next six months or something like that.”
Getting to know you: Colleen Skillings
Education: New Ulm High School (1980), Bachelor of Arts in accounting from the College of St. Benedict (1984)
Favorite subjects: Math and accounting
Family: husband Bob, sons Teddy and Michael
Hobbies: Golfing, knitting, skiing, cooking, tennis, pottery, traveling, and watching her sons’ sporting activities
If you weren’t doing this: “I’d probably still be working as a CPA.”
Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories, Inc.
Address: 1126 N Front Street, New Ulm, Minnesota