The Story of Innovation: Millerbernd Manufacturing Company
Paul A. Millerbernd founded Millerbernd Manufacturing Company in Winsted, Minnesota in 1933. Born May 25, 1914, in Victor Township, Wright County, Minnesota, Paul was the son of Joseph Bernard and Josephine (Thiemann) Millerbernd. His father was born near Munster, Germany and came to the United States in the late 1800s where he was schooled in the metalworking trade and later became a farmer. Following in his father’s footsteps, Paul worked about his father’s farm and shop, gaining experience in operation, maintenance and repair of machinery. Later, he was seasonally employed as a mechanic for a road construction company.
At the age of twenty, Paul went into business with his brother Carl. They worked on their father’s farm in a shed doing automobiles and farm machinery repair. After a few years, they felt they would get more business if they were in town. In 1933, with a $500 loan from their Uncle Ben, they opened a small shop in Winsted.
Welding was their key trade. From farm machinery and automobiles, to storage tanks and water pipe thawing, business was thriving. In 1937, Paul and Carl decided to build a new shop. It was built at 231 West Main Street in Winsted and it is presently referred to as Plant 1. The original building was approximately 50 ft. x 50 ft. Here the Millerbernd Bros. continued to make tanks, snowplows, trailers, and many welding repairs. They also sold farm machinery for CASE, fabricated stainless steel tanks for Pure Milk Products, cooker crates for Minnesota Valley Canning Co. (later named Green Giant Canning Co.), corn stalk shredders, and wagon loaders.
A few years later in 1941, because of war priorities, materials and jobs were difficult to obtain and there was not enough work for Paul and Carl at the shop. Paul managed to find work in Minneapolis for Grayco Co. while Carl managed the shop. After working in Minneapolis for a few months, Paul was introduced to the Onan Company. Onan was making electrical generators for the war effort and were very busy. The company was buying steel rings for generators and asked Paul if he thought he could manufacture the rings in their Winsted shop.
Excited about this new challenge, Paul took the print back to Winsted where he and Carl spent most of the night making a simple ring. The sample was submitted to Onan for approval the next day. Onan came back with an order for 50 more rings. This was the start of a new product for Carl and Paul, and the orders continued to roll in. Between 1941 and 1945, the Millerbernd Bros. built thousands of rings for Onan, Kohler Company, Kato Engineering, Jacobs Wind Electric, Wincharger and more. The small company grew to 20 employees, four of whom were women.
Post World War II
Despite the war, business began to pick up. But when the war ended, so did the orders. Carl and Paul had to lay off all of their employees and didn’t have enough work for themselves. It was at this time Carl decided to buy into a concrete block plant, so he sold his shares to his brother Paul. Paul continued to build a few tanks and some farm machinery, but generally things were slow in the repair and welding business. One of the unusual orders was a request by the Holy Trinity pastor to fabricate a new cross for the local church. Paul delivered a stainless steel cross which is still in service today.
Fortunately, more unique orders began to flow in. Local sports enthusiasts wanted a lighted baseball field and approached Paul about building lighting towers for the Winsted Baseball field. Paul took the job, and Winsted was one of the first towns to have a lighted baseball field. It wasn’t long before other towns wanted towers too. It was the beginning of a new product for Millerbernd Manufacturing Company, steel lighting structures.
Enthused by this new product, Paul worked hard at promoting his company’s new capabilities. He hired a salesman and decided to dabble in advertising. People were hired and road crews were organized to go out and erect the new towers. In order to keep cost down, people from the town buying the towers would help in the assembly and erection. In the years to follow, Millerbernd fabricated and erected hundreds of baseball field towers with many still in service.
The Introduction of Lighting Poles
While at a council meeting in 1949 to determine if a town was going to buy towers for their baseball fields, Paul learned this town had also received quotes for street lighting poles that would take 18 months to be delivered. He felt that there must be a real demand for lighting poles, so in the months following, he and his men designed and built a machine for forming tapered eight-sided pole shafts.
The first machine was built but they were unable to get it to work properly. Taking another approach, they built a new machine. This machine formed the pole shafts in tapered halves. The two halves had to be welded together to make a complete pole shaft. The first complete job was for 27 poles in Winsted in 1951. By this time, the generator business had picked up again, and the Millerbernd Manufacturing Company product family now included steel rings for motors and generators, lighting towers for athletic fields, and now street lighting poles.
Since Millerbernd was not located in an industrial area, metal fabrication skills were hard to come by. Most of the fabrication methods used had to be learned by trial and error. It took a lot of effort on the part of the employees as well as Paul to keep his business secure and profitable. Realizing this, Paul felt that because of their efforts, the employees should share in the profits of the company. In 1955, Paul started a profit sharing retirement fund which later proved to be very rewarding for the employees and their families.
As business continued at a steady pace, in 1958 Paul expanded the lighting pole business. He bought land southwest of Winsted and ordered a set of tandem 2000-ton Verson press brakes with a total length of 52 feet. The large press arrived by railroad in pieces and weighed over 500,000 pounds.
After the machine was assembled, a building was built around it and a pole plant was laid out. At the time, this press was considered to be the largest in the country. Millerbernd could form a variety of poles shafts and tapers with this new press, and now shafts could be made in one piece instead of two halves. The new press would also have the capability of forming thick plate in long lengths. This meant large poles could be made and used to take the place of the many piece lattice towers. Most of the equipment needed for the rest of pole fabrication could not be purchased, so Millerbernd had to design their own.
Again realizing the importance of the enthusiasm and efforts put forth by Millerbernd employees, Paul felt each one should be rewarded based on their performance. In 1964 a cash profit sharing program was started in which a portion of the profits were paid to the employees based on individual efforts. This program, along with the retirement fund, was a real boost for employees.
As the ring and pole divisions were booming, Millerbernd introduced new products and designs. In 1966, the stainless steel pole with a breakaway design base was put on the market, and as a result, many lives have since been saved.
In 1969, Hi-Rise lighting was introduced in highway lighting. One of the first installations in the country was installed on Interstate Highway 90 in Worthington, MN. Millerbernd received an Engineering Excellence Award from the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers for the lighting design. The purpose of Hi-Rise lighting is to cut down on the number of poles along the highway, provide more even ground-level lighting, and get the pole further off the highway to minimize accidents.
Millerbernd manufactured more pole related products including traffic signal poles, power transmission poles, substation structures, athletic field poles, coal field poles, parking lots poles and street lighting poles. The pole sizes ranged from 10 feet to 200 feet with a wall thickness from 1/16” to ½” high-strength steel.
The steel ring plant also expanded its capabilities. Millerbernd manufactured rings of many sizes ranging from five pounds to 15,000 pounds each. The rings are component parts of many products such as motor frames, generator housings, pipe flanges, asphalt road packers, railroad cars, missiles, large telescopes, snap rings, large cement mixers and more.
1980s – Present Day
In May 1985, Paul Millerbernd retired. His two sons, Dave and Steve Millerbernd managed several plant expansions in both the ring and pole divisions. To add value to the ring and cylinder products, several CNC turning machines and milling machines were acquired, and a whole new ring fabrication and machining facility was built. In a move to add press capacity, two hydraulic presses with 3500 ton and 5000 ton capabilities were added to the ring division. These presses are some of the largest in the nation.
The light pole business has also expanded with five separate building additions including a state-of-the-art paint line. Two additional tandem press brakes were acquired along with various pieces of equipment to increase pole capacity.
Today, Millerbernd Manufacturing Company is led by third generation innovator, Trevor Millerbernd. The company employs more than 350 people and covers more than 55 acres of land with more than 600,000 square feet of facilities.