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While the Wahpeton Canvas Co. – the company’s original name – made canvas belts, WCCO Belting makes vulcanized rubber products for use in the agriculture, construction and other sectors. Pictured are Karley Serati, marketing services manager, and Tom Shorma, president and CEO. IMAGE: J. Alan Paul

Makers: Manufacturing matters, and these three standout regional companies show why


GRAND FORKS – Manufacturing is like the fuel injector of the engine of the region’s economy. It’s a comparatively small part that plays a very powerful role.

Manufacturing accounts for only about 9 percent of North Dakota and South Dakota’s gross state products. In Minnesota, the number’s a little higher, about 14 percent.

But “manufacturing generates more economic activity than other sectors,” said Stephen Gold, president & CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity, in a 2016 interview.

“For every dollar of domestic manufacturing, another $3.60 of economic activity is generated elsewhere. For every manufacturing job, there are 3.4 jobs created in non-manufacturing industries.

“No other sector comes close to these numbers.”

Furthermore, manufacturing drives innovation. More scientists and engineers work in manufacturing (911,000) than in education (696,000), including colleges and universities, the National Science Board reports.

And the good-paying jobs in manufacturing are a reliable path to the middle class.

In short, “manufacturing helps raise living standards more than any other sector,” Gold concluded. That’s because “a vibrant manufacturing base leads to more research and development, innovation, productivity, exports and middle-class jobs.”

In this story, Prairie Business takes a look at three manufacturers – one each in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Their factories look nondescript when you pass them on the highway. But inside, each takes in raw materials and pumps out finished products, products whose sales pull millions or even billions of dollars into our region.

WCCO Belting

Speaking of “nondescript,” the word comes to mind when you see the WCCO Belting facility in Wahpeton, N.D. The building used to be a roller rink, and in some ways, it still looks the part.

But look closer.

See that flag, the white one with the blue “E” and star on it? That’s the President’s E-Star Award flag, and it testifies to WCCO Belting’s continuing success at exporting its products.

The E-Star exporting award was created by executive order of the president of the United States. And WCCO Belting is the only company in North Dakota to have received it.

So, that flag outside the building suggests the inside of the building deserves a look.

The look reveals a factory resembling a dry cleaner on industrial-strength steroids, as WCCO Belting’s 200 employees in Wahpeton use giant presses -- and the extreme heat and pressure they apply -- to turn rubber and fabric into custom-made rubber belts.

If you’ve ever seen a conveyor lift grain from a field into a hopper, you’ve likely seen a WCCO Belting belt in action. “We supply belting to every major farm equipment manufacturer in the world,” said Tom Shorma, WCCO Belting’s president and CEO.

“We ship directly into 24 countries.” And while agricultural belting makes up about half of the business, WCCO Belting also makes rubber conveyor belts for construction, industrial and other uses.

A key to the company’s success is a phrase that was used above: custom-made.

“Everything we make is custom,” Shorma said. “So, our typical competitor will go to a customer with a catalog and say, ‘Pick one.’ We go in with a brochure that describes our capabilities, and we say, ‘What do you want?’”

The customer spells out the belt properties that are needed – length, width, cleat pattern, puncture resistance and so on – and WCCO Belting complies.

“It’s just a different way of doing business that is unique to us,” Shorma said. “We are the best at what we do, and for the most part, we are the only ones who do what we do.”

As mentioned above, innovation is a big part of manufacturing. That’s true at WCCO Belting, as among its workforce are some 25 engineers. Their R&D efforts have resulted in multiple patents, as well as improvements to WCCO Belting’s products and production line.

Then there’s the culture that has resulted in multiple Prairie Business 50 Best Places to Work awards, the fact that nearly half of the workforce is female (well above the industry average), the fact that new employees – all of whom, including office workers, spend time on the factory floor – are told, “If you want a job, go elsewhere. If you want a career, stay here” …

“We had an industrial distributor visit,” Shorma said. “He’d lost a supplier.

“He’s in the industrial-belting Hall of Fame; he’s won all kinds of awards. Before he came, he thought, ‘I’m going to have to help these guys.’

“Then he got here and said, ‘Who are you guys? Where did you come from?’ He had no idea we had this capability or capacity.

“So we ended up supplying him.”   

3M Brookings

South Dakota grows all kinds of crops. But some of the most unusual are cultivated not in the state’s farms or fields, but in labs – labs found inside 3M’s vast plant in Brookings, S.D.

The crops are spores. The farmers are 3M microbiologists, chemists and engineers.

The workers harvest the spores, then package them in vials for use in hospitals around the world.

And there, health workers use the spores to help determine whether surgical instruments have been properly sterilized.

They do this by putting a spore-containing vial into the sterilizer with the instruments. After the cycle, the vial gets put in an autoreader, which detects whether the sterilization killed the tough little spores.

If it did, then the workers can trust that the process killed other organisms, too – and that the instruments can safely be used.

That’s science and innovation in action. And 3M’s Attest Biological Indicators are just a tiny fraction of the more than 1,700 unique health care products that are made in the 3M Brookings plant, 3M’s largest health care plant in the world.

“For example, we make a variety of medical tapes,” said Dale Tidemann, plant manager.

“In fact, each year we make enough medical tape in Brookings to cover 21,000 football fields.”

One of 3M Brooking’s flagship products is Micropore tape. The surgical tape is used to secure dressings, IVs and other devices to skin.

“We’ve been making that here for 40 years, and in that 40 years, we’ve made a billion yards of Micropore tape,” Tidemann said.  

“That’s enough to go to the moon and back. And that’s just one tape.”

3M Brookings employs more than 1,100 people. Most them gown up and put on special shoes, hairnets and other personal protective equipment before they step onto the production floor.

There they find a process that, in the case of the tapes, takes raw materials from railroad cars, fashions huge rolls called jumbos and then cuts, packages and (for many products) sterilizes the tapes before shipment.

Over time, the steadily growing workforce – 3M Brookings is one of the largest employers in Brookings – also has become more technical. So, 3M Brookings now partners to encourage STEM training.

“We continue to see a need for skilled workers,” said Becky Jirava, HR manager at the plant.

“For that, it’s important for us to make investments in technical institutes as well as colleges on the STEM front, and we’re looking to do that at the high school level as well.”

Along those lines, 3M Brookings maintains generous parental leave, volunteer service, personal wellness, charitable donation and other benefits to help not only employees, but also Brookings.

3M’s vision statement speaks of advancing every company, enhancing every home and improving every life. “At 3M Brookings, we talk about that last one a lot,” Jirava said.

“Improving every life, including the lives of our employees, our community and the people who use our products. That’s what we’re trying to do.”   

American Crystal Sugar

Direct economic impacts: $1.7 billion. Direct and secondary impacts: $4.9 billion.

Direct full-time employment: 2,473. Secondary full-time employment: 18,830.

That was the sugar beet industry in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2012. Which is why a team of North Dakota State University agricultural economists concluded the following:

“Although the sugar beet industry in Minnesota and North Dakota is not large in terms of acres or geographic area, the magnitude of key economic measures ... indicate that the industry contributes substantially to Minnesota and North Dakota economies.”

Substantially is right. As the numbers show, the sugar beet industry is central to the rural economies of the two states.

And American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., is central to the industry.

“American Crystal is the largest beet-sugar producer in the country,” said Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration at the cooperative.

“In the United States, 40 percent of all of the sugar that’s consumed is beet sugar. We produce 39 percent of all of the beet sugar, and 20 percent of all of the overall sugar production.”

And there’s more.

“On Oct. 1st, when we move the beets from the field to the piles, we start the most concentrated movement of a crop anywhere in the world,” Borgen said.

“The window is narrow, and the amount of crop that we have to bring in is huge.”

Local newspapers chronicle the migration, warning drivers to steer clear of the beet trucks and to watch for roads made slippery by spilled beets.

“There are about 12 million tons of beets that get piled,” Borgen said.

“During the harvest, there are 9 million farm truck miles that are driven, and it also takes about 10,000 extra people to move those beets. Isn’t that something?”

American Crystal is a cooperative, which means it’s owned by 700 grower/shareholders. The company employs about 2,000 people and runs six factories, five in the Red River Valley and one in Sidney, Mont.

“A couple of things stand out about American Crystal,” Borgen said.

“First, ours in an American-made product, and the people who grow it and who work in our factories are all really proud to be part of something that is made in America.

“Second, we’re always conscious of the financial impact we have up and down the valley.” It’s rewarding not only to create jobs, but also to help farmers stay on the land and pass the legacy of farming down to their children, she said.

Third, the technical skills needed to work in the factories continue to grow, which is why American Crystal has extensive training programs to help workers advance.

And fourth, “there’s pride that this is a process in which we start with tiny seeds, and we turn those eventually into 3 billion pounds of sugar. It’s just really amazing.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business