Cindy Hemmer and her sons Nick and Steve draw upon entrepreneurial spirit to guide ironworks business

by Jim Boyle

Editor

The family of Cindy Hemmer and her two sons Nick and Steve Hemmer opened Distinctive Iron 10 years ago this week out of Steve’s garage in Nowthen.

The trio, who calls the Elk River area home, has been weathering tremendous growth of their business ever since as well as the constantly changing dynamics presented in the structural steel fabrication business. Most importantly, they still seem to be loving every minute of it.

The Elk River business will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Nov. 4 in a new facility. They bought and moved last fall into a new location at 15970 Jarvis St. NW. It’s their second location in Elk River. They went from 10,000 square feet to 17,500 square feet, and added a lot more outdoor storage on a 2.81 acre site.

The Hemmers are ingrained in the community through the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce, and they were recently part of the Cool Jobs Tour, a partnership of the Elk River Area School District’s Career and Technical Education program as well as the chamber, local economic development directors and businesses. They turn to the Elk River community whenever possible and “keep it local” as a matter of principle.

Distinctive Iron offers jobs in welding to make everything from stairwells to entire structural systems. They will complete more than 100 projects this year while working with 33 contractors. Steel beams and columns are fabricated to building specifications and used in construction for large buildings like schools, warehousing, retail strip malls and other commercial buildings.

The business pays anywhere from $16 an hour to $35 an hour and offers salaried positions, too. Jobs at Distinctive Iron include more than just welding jobs. The business offers everything from job costing, project management, computer aided design, sales and human resources.

Students toured Distinctive Iron, Sportech and Metal Craft as part of the Cool Jobs Tour, which showed off a variety of trades and the variety of positions available in manufacturing that command high wages and benefits. The tour was all part of Manufacturing Month activities being held around the state.

Here’s a look at the Hemmers’ story as they embarked on their manufacturing business.

Humble beginnings

Their goals starting out were modest.

Nick, of Otsego, who built a successful lawn care and landscaping business, wanted a paycheck doing something he loved. He enjoyed building the lawn care and landscaping business, and at the same time he cultivated a side business doing ironworks. He and his brother had both dabbled in that when they were younger, and it seemed like customers were always needing something welded.

Steve, of Nowthen, who went to college for a degree in computers and electronics and found work as a field service engineer for a medical equipment firm, wanted to make a reasonable living doing something he loved without all of the traveling. He helped his brother with the landscaping and steelworks side business more and more and eventually left his job that required so much traveling.

The decision to join forces with their mother, Cindy, who worked in the human resources side of manufacturing, was less of a light bulb moment and more of an evolution toward a logical conclusion.

“Our previous customers started asking about why we weren’t doing this (steel fabrication),” Cindy Hemmer said. “Nick and Steven were running into them with the different jobs they were doing, and it just kind of snowballed.”

It was an easy choice for the family members to work together. They had done it before, and they sensed they had the makings of a good team.

Cindy, of Otsego, brought the operations and people side of the house to the table to be able to deal with the human resources, safety, accounting and paperwork.

Steve, or Steven as his mom still calls him, was good at the sales, the estimating, job costing, project management and hands-on operations.

Nick was also a hands-on guy, too, and he had even more passion for sales.

“I go out there and bid the jobs and sell them,” Nick said. “That’s what I enjoy.”

Steve says his brother is able to network and build relationships, be it in-person or over the phone for hours at a time.

“You just answer your phone and do what you tell people you will do,” Nick said. “That’s all it takes.”

Transition

The landscaping business had been successful, but when the economy tanked in 2008, the market became flooded. Laid off workers decided to start their own lawn business. The prices they could command dropped and the workforce was unreliable.

It was not uncommon for Nick and Steve to be out on big jobs they had landed and not have workers show up to share in the load.

“We’d be out there for like three days by ourselves,” Nick said. “We were getting beaten up and getting less and less for what we were doing. That was motivation, too. Can we just not be doing that anymore?”

All three Hemmers are driven to succeed and have an entrepreneurial spirit that they draw on.

“It has to be in your blood,” Cindy said. “We just keep going back to it. You have to have that drive within you.”

That includes when you outgrow your operation in a Nowthen garage. The Hemmers had semis coming out of their driveway every other day. Steve said, “Nowthen wouldn’t give us a conditional use permit anymore.”

It was too expensive to build in Nowthen. They looked around at their options, solicited the help of the Decklan Group and found the city of Elk River willing to help them. They cautiously bought a building at 19128 Industrial Boulevard in Elk River. Steve was driving around industrial parks and found this one for sale by owner. The taxes would be cheaper.

“Given hindsight, we probably would have bought a different building,” Steve said. “We try to make cautious moves. We were forced to make that move, and it was a little scary.”

The Decklan Group helped with some of the funding and hiring issues they faced as little Distinctive Iron was about to get bigger.

“What we didn’t plan on was immediate growth there,” Cindy said. “We immediately outgrew it, using all of our outdoor storage.”

Growth in workload, team members

Along the way, the Hemmers have realized that while they make a good team, they had missing pieces as they grew. Not only did they need to grow their shop staff, they have needed to add key positions, too.

The first key link they noticed missing immediately was a senior project manager. They hired Amanda Bass, with Cindy noting she provided “stress relief for Nick and Steven.”

She has been with Distinctive Iron for two years now.

“We’re good at most of the things, but lots of times you’re not great,” Steve said. “We needed that person to fix us, to bring a little higher level of organization.”

Cindy, with her HR hat, said it has been important to put people in the right places.

The hardest move, but also one of the best moves, was to add a CAD room for in-house computer-aided design. That was a hard one to take on, knowing they were two full-time salaried positions. The Hemmers have never laid off anyone for a lack of work or inability to pay, they didn’t want to start.

“We wouldn’t be where were at without all of the employees we have,” Steve said. “They all bring something to the table and they’re all part of this growth.”

On the hunt for more space again

Needless to say, Distinctive Iron went back out looking for another for a bigger property, which they bought late last year and moved into earlier this year. Ironically, the Hemmers ended up selling the building to the nice people of Speedcutters, a large and successful outdoor maintenance and lawn care business.

Deja vu is now setting in: Distinctive Iron would be bursting at the seams again if not for outdoor storage space.

Steve said this is precisely why he doesn’t play the stock market. He says he never would have guessed the growth would be so explosive. “We’re dealing with steel prices, but the amount of work that’s out there is insane,” he said.

The Hemmers know that their five-year and 10-year anniversaries were big milestones, but note that there’s still a sense they need to remain on their toes as things are always changing.

“It’s all about staying ahead of the game,” Nick said.

“And being ready when the game changes,” Cindy said.

“I think all of us ask ourselves the what if? How do we step back if we have to step back in a big way? With COVID-19, we were essential — thank goodness. We always have to have a Plan B.”

And if all else fails, Nick and Steve will put on a welding helmet and get things done.

Things keep rolling along, however. This year, Distinctive Iron has already had 1,600 tons of steel come in and out of its doors for projects. The Elk River manufacturing firm works with dozens of contractors and averages 100 jobs a year.

“We started out just doing one job,” Nick said.

Now they do schools, warehouses, restaurants and others. They say they have touched every school in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and they can’t drive around the area or the Twin Cities without seeing their handiwork (tucked inside of buildings). Keg and Case Market, built on the Historic Schmidt Brewery site in St. Paul, showcases their work especially well.

“You go with the flow with what’s there and the money’s right,” Nick said. “We’ll be doing schools forever. They’ll always have something going on.”

What do the Hemmers hope to be able say in another five years?

“We made it another five years,” Nick said.

In the words of Steve, they want to weather the storms, remain sustainable and continue to enjoy the work that they do.

“We just want to be that much more comfortable with where we are at with our business,” he said.

Cindy summed it up succinctly: “We’re driven,” she said.

In other words, the Hemmers and Distinctive Iron will persevere and probably grow more.

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