Teske Manufacturing marks 20th anniversary
Teske Manufacturing celebrates 20 years in the utility trailer business this year. Led by father/son duo Tom Teske and Matt Teske, the Springfield, Minnesota, company makes single-axle trailers. Its versatile products are used to transport golf carts, ATVs, lumber, leaves and landscaping, and anything else one would like to tow. Designed to be pulled behind pickup trucks or cars, they are helpful for work, recreation and everything in between.
The business opened in 2002 when Tom worked for a business broker in Mankato. At the time, his boss was looking to acquire companies that fit within their area of expertise, which was the construction industry. Though the Mankato area didn’t have a company they felt was the right fit, there was a different opportunity 55 miles west in a town with roughly 2,000 people.
“There was a small manufacturing company that was in bankruptcy in Springfield, and they were either trying to liquidate the business or sell it to get a little profit for it,” Tom Teske said. “The bank was underwater with the loan. The bank’s representative approached us, and they kept sweetening their offer until we finally decided to take a shot at it.”
In its heyday, the former Springfield company was an agricultural confinement system builder serving the pork processing industry. When the pork industry went through a large recession, like many other companies in the same field, the business needed to switch its focus and look for other things to set its sights on.
“So, they started making trailers,” Tom explained. “When we were looking at purchasing the company, we saw some interest and value in that marketplace.”
Currently, Teske Manufacturing actively produces nine different trailer models.
“Initially, the trailers we produced were much like the competition. Things changed when we came out with the 4-by-8-foot wood-sided trailer. That started selling in big numbers immediately,” Matt Teske said. “Even today, it continues to be our #1 seller. On the other side, our biggest trailer is our 6.5-by-12-foot landscape trailer. But we also make trailers of every size in between.”
Teske Manufacturing sells over 6,000 trailers a year across the United States, with dealer coverage concentrated in the upper Midwest. The company doesn’t sell through private dealers but rather through partnerships with companies like Fleet Farm and Farm & Fleet, both 20-year customers of the Teskes.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we came to the company with two major accounts and said, ‘Give us a year to perform, and if we don’t, you can cut us loose,’” Tom said. “But we showed the companies that we knew what we were doing, and I’m proud to say they’re still with us after two decades.”
Tom didn’t have any direct experience in trailer design and sales when the company was acquired, so he focused on what he knew: customer service.
“My idea was that I was familiar with customer service from my previous companies, so I knew what it took to build on not only existing relationships but new relationships as well,” Tom said. “We were upfront and honest with our customers about what we could and couldn’t do at the time. Thankfully, our customers granted us the flexibility to explore that.”
Though the infrastructure of the trailer manufacturing company was in place when Tom purchased it, the facility was not as automated as it is today.
“We could always make the trailers, but we wanted to figure out ways to make our trailers better, faster and cheaper but still high quality,” Tom said.
For roughly the past five years, Teske Manufacturing has acquired and utilized robotic elements in its business model, which helps speed up the construction process using automation.
“Automation is not meant to replace the human element,” Matt said. “The robots are here to assist wherever possible, and they are very useful when it comes to more technical and skilled jobs and the repetitive work that comes along with it.”
At its employment peak, Teske Manufacturing had 35 to 40 employees. Today, it struggles to keep 20 to 25 employees on hand.
“That’s why, in order to offset the low number of employees, we’ve invested quite extensively into automation with robotic welders and painters,” Matt said. “We always rely on people, and our goal is to have a big, happy, strong team, but it’s been hard. That’s where automation has been helping. It’s allowing us to stay where we are and gives us the opportunity to grow.”
“Moving towards automation is helping us to ensure we have a future in this business,” Tom said. “We were close to the front of businesses with bringing in this type of automation, but a lot of organizations are starting to catch on and are doing the same thing. It’s one of the only ways to get things done these days.”
Teske Manufacturing is unique in its business model of being a small, family-owned business in a small town in rural Minnesota. One of its goals is to have its employees enjoy coming to work every day.
“We want to bring people in with different backgrounds under one roof and make it an enjoyable experience for everyone,” Tom said. “It works for some people but not for others. It’s an ongoing challenge we have been working hard to face head-on.”
Currently, the company is looking to hire for multiple manufacturing positions, from the start of trailer construction to the end. Jobs include openings for fabricators, welders and assemblers.
“We need bodies. It’s as simple as that,” Tom said. “Since 2020, we’ve been struggling to find employees. The whole lack of employees has been a challenge in both big and small cities. Right now, that’s the biggest challenge … trying to figure out what people want. What used to make sense for the traditional workday doesn’t anymore, and that’s an unresolved challenge many of us are trying to come to grips with. We’re trying to talk to employees on both a one-on-one basis and a group basis to see what comes of it.”
The company has had much success being headquartered in Springfield. Tom attributes a portion of that success to the city and its people, which is why the business has stayed in the community for the past two decades.
“We have always hoped that the town would appreciate and support us, and they really do,” Tom said. “When Teske Manufacturing started, the employees had a lot of tribal knowledge in the building, which is what we needed at that time, and then we became comfortable being in Springfield. The town is nice, small and rural, and small rural towns need places like ours to help them stay thriving. We made a 10-year commitment to stay there, and that was 20 years ago. We want to be as good to Springfield as the town has been to us.”
Through his more than 10 years of experience in the trailer business, Matt expressed that although manufacturing isn’t the easiest trade, the family-run organization continues to make high-quality products that people want. The demand allows Teske Manufacturing the ability to continue its craft while growing at the same time.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” Matt said. “We enjoy being able to make something that not everyone can do themselves.”
For both Teskes, the trailer design and construction process is the part of the job they enjoy the most. Tom attributes this to their entrepreneurial streaks.
“I will say that when I drive down the road and I see a Teske Manufacturing trailer, I get a little bit excited every time,” Matt said. “I’ve been seeing them around Minnesota for years, but occasionally I’ll see one when we’re traveling out of state, and I get a jolt of excitement. It’s interesting and cool to see something that we made out in the wild with people using it.”
Tom agreed with his son and said it’s exciting to see the manufacturing process from beginning to end.
“I enjoy the whole process,” Tom said. “You start with a flat piece of steel at one end of the factory, and at the other end, you have a completed, functional product by the time it’s done. That whole piece has always been interesting to me.”
When it comes to his work, Matt said he enjoys the design aspect the most. In fact, the company has recently started manufacturing a new type of trailer with one of his ideas.
“We introduced a new kayak-hauling trailer this year, but the project is currently in the infancy stage,” Tom said. “This is a down year for most businesses due to high prices and uncertainty in the marketplace. At the end of the day, retailers have seen slower sales in some areas than in previous years. It’s given us time to reflect and position ourselves even better for when the market comes back.”
Tom noted that the supply chain in 2022 hasn’t affected Teske Manufacturing’s work as much as it did in the previous year.
“Our business and similar businesses are seeing a downturn in sales this year,” Tom said. “The logistics are beginning to improve, but some of the longer lead times have impacted us. We’re managing through it and are giving ourselves enough of a time frame to complete our work.”
With thousands of trailer manufacturing companies in their marketplace, Matt said the company continues to put out the best product it can within price constraints.
“There’s a lot of different opportunities to buy trailers out there,” Matt said. “We want our customers to have a product that functions and looks good, and one that people can be confident is built in a high-quality manner.”
One way the business ensures its trailers meet the highest industry standards is by maintaining safety compliance verification through the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers.
When a trailer has a NATM compliance decal on its frame, the purchaser knows the trailer manufacturer meets NATM’s high standards. The NATM compliance verification program features an extensive checklist of items to ensure member manufacturers have the proper processes to build trailers in accordance with federal safety regulations and industry best practices. According to the NATM website, a key component of the program is that an independent third party knowledgeable in the requirements conducts the consultation.
“The consultation includes things down to ‘Do the lights shine on the road the correct way?’” Tom said. “Our business is subject to National Highway Safety Transportation and Department of Transportation requirements. Even though we’re a trailer manufacturing company, we still have the same guidelines that automotive businesses do.”
That’s where the NATM comes in, he said.
“A number of years back, that organization established a strict set of compliance requirements,” Tom said. “If you build your trailers in such a way and incorporate these specific assets, you’ll get a seal for safety approval. It’s basically a way to be recognized within the industry that you have built a quality and safe product.”
When it comes to selling their products, the NATM seal of approval helps, Matt said.
“It’s almost like a way of checking our back swing,” he said. “NATM will come in during the year and perform audits to make sure we’re constructing our trailers as safely as possible. It’s a way for us to be compliant and accountable. It’s a big benefit for us. We go down this path not for recognition but to make sure our trailers are constructed correctly and as safely as possible.”
In addition to the NATM seal of approval, the Teskes pride themselves on using heavier grade materials than their competitors, along with a powder coat that is more durable than the standard wet paint.
“We try to incorporate items that we would want when buying trailers,” Matt said.
“And we’re made in America,” added Tom. “We’re picky suckers. I stress that in meetings with our team. We make stuff people want to buy, so everyone should be proud of the work that they’re doing here.”
Matt has officially been working full time at Teske for the past 10 years but has been around the shop since the beginning. He recalls that even as a young kid, he knew he wanted to be involved in the business with his dad. And a decade in, the business venture seems to be working well for the pair.
“We’re fortunate to have a good business relationship,” Matt said. “We, relatively, see eye-to-eye on most things. Ultimately, we both fill our roles and don’t step on each other’s toes. It’s been good.”
After 20 years at the company, Tom knows what it’s like to work with and without his son. He’s happy to have him on board.
“In terms of having Matt here, I couldn’t do it any other way at this point,” he said. “He’s critical to the operation and my sanity. We also maintain an excellent father/son relationship outside of our business relationship, too. I’m very fortunate on my end that we get to spend a lot of time together outside of work.”
With the end of his Teske Manufacturing tenure on the horizon, Tom said he will likely always have a role in Teske Manufacturing. However, his role will change over the coming years.
“Matt will have to take on a number of my leadership roles, and we’ll have to find some key players,” Tom said. “Teske Manufacturing will continue to grow and expand while increasing product capabilities.”
“Hopefully, we can find someone else to come from an administrative and management standpoint because I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Matt said with a laugh.
Teske Manufacturing, like all businesses, has challenges to overcome, but the Teskes know they have a good foundation to build on in the years to come, no matter who is at the helm.
“We’re very fortunate to have some key employees that are long-term, dedicated people,” Tom said. “Employees are the sink or swim component of any business, and we’re very fortunate in the core group that has helped us, and continues to help us, along the way.”