by Jim Boyle
Kevin Corpe and Jim Fritz grew up knowing about one another, but never met until shortly before they began working together at Timron Precision Gear, the company their fathers had founded in 1989 and they ultimately took over in 2001.
Jim was a wrestler for Chaska High School who had aspirations of becoming a doctor. Kevin was a hockey player for Elk River High School who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps in mechanical drawing and machining. They were separated in age by one month.
It was during their senior years in high school, however, that Ron and Bonnie Fritz and Tim and Marilyn Corpe put their homes up as collateral for the start of Timron Precision Gear. They started out of 4,000 square feet of leased space in Osseo.
Ron Fritz was in charge of sales and production. Tim Corpe was in charge of engineering and quality control. The wives took care of the office and books.
“I remember my parents saying: ‘Things are going to be very tight,’” Kevin said. “But they were confident they would be a success. They had budgeted for all of it.
“Our family was very excited for this opportunity. We helped out wherever we could to get the shop set up, from cleaning, painting to running air lines.”
Kevin’s younger brother Jeff even drew the micrometer for the logo on their father’s CAD software program.
By the time Jim was a junior in college, he was starting to question his desire to become a doctor. The thought of another four years of school wasn’t too appealing. After graduating from college in 1993, he began selling medical supplies.
Kevin had worked in lawn care, landscaping and sprinkler systems over the summers to help pay for half of his schooling. While in college he started to work at machine shops like Pomeroy Tool and J & J Machine in Elk River. Kevin would probably have worked at Timron, but the initial business plan was to hold off on having family members work in the shop. In June 1995, however, Kevin was approached by his father to work at Timron.
Jim said after a couple of years selling hearing aids, getting married and buying a house, Timron was starting to add to its staff, and that’s when Ron came to him asking about working for Timron.
“Kevin and Jon (my brother-in-law) were already working there,” he recalls. “Dad asked me if I was interested. I wasn’t ‘all in’ to start, but thought I should at least give it a try.”
He liked it right away.
“I liked making things, seeing a difference from start to finish,” he said. “Selling hearing aids was all rejection and not really doing anything, so manufacturing appealed to me.”
When Kevin and Jim had finally met, it was interesting for the crew at Timron. “Everyone assumed we knew each other,” both said in separate interviews.
Jim said he made his way around the shop learning thread grinding first, grinding outside diameters next and then he began managing a department.
“I gradually took on more office work and called on vendors,” he recalled. “As Dad neared retirement, I gradually started working with customers as well. I really liked my job, and med school faded far from my thoughts.”
Similarly, Kevin made his way around the shop and learned the trade and business. Slowly but surely the pair was filling their fathers’ shoes, so much so they were able to take over the business in 2001.
Kevin and Jim have shared the same office for 21 years. That’s how Ron and Tim set it up, and the pair had no reason to change it, Kevin said.
“They felt it was beneficial to keep a pulse on the day-to-day business happenings,” Kevin said. “Back then everything was done over the phone, so they could hear half of what was going on. Now, we have emails and everyone is CC’d, but there are also Zoom calls and team calls that we are able to overhear and sometimes interject if our name is referenced. It works for us as well.”
Both knew full well from watching their fathers that running the show would take hard work, dedication and commitment as well as a big dose of humility to make it a success.
Timron has been big into manufacturing parts for the aerospace industry for customers like Boeing early on and others like Collins Aerospace, Moog and Eaton in more recent years.
Kevin and Jim’s first challenge would be facing the fallout from terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. Because Timron was supplying many parts for the aerospace industry, they were among the manufacturers immediately impacted as shock waves ran through the nation.
“We had just taken over ownership and 9-11 happened,” Kevin said. “This shut down airlines and changed the way the world would use air travel. Timron being heavy in commercial aerospace put a halt on shipments.”
Timron also lost a key account that it wouldn’t recover for another two years.
“Our cash flow was not meeting our projections,” Kevin said. “We had to cut costs. We did not lay off staff but did reduce hours from 46 to 32 hours a week. This really taught us a lesson. You never know what will happen.”
“We have since become great friends over the years,” Kevin said. “Like our fathers, we also travel together for business, go to Vikings games, other sporting events and dinner with our wives. Our families have done family dinners and a winter vacation together over Christmas break.”
As new owners, a vendor took them on a tour of Germany and followed that up with a trip to Italy a few years later.
“Both of these were with our wives and were unforgettable,” Jim said. “So much fun. Kevin and I also took a five-day trip to the Philippines for work. That was about 24 hours of travel each way. If you can get along on a trip like that, you can always get along.”
The pair also went to Chicago every other year for IMTS (International Machine Tool Show), another trips where they usually take their wives along.
Their families are also close.
Kevin and his wife Shannon are godparents to Jim and Angie’s firstborn, Zach.
“We have been included in all of Zach’s life events from baptisms, confirmation to his high school baseball and football games to his graduation from UW Madison this spring,” Kevin said.
The shop personnel are also a close-knit group, too. Many of the employees have been with Timron since the early days. Several have been there for 20-plus and some have even topped the 30-year mark. That includes Brad Lorge, a 1989 ERHS graduate who celebrates 32 years with Timron on Nov. 1.
Other longtime employees include Eric Wolf, Scott Rea, Paul Dilley, Jeremy Dahlheimer and Jessica (Storkamp) Larson.
Kevin and Jim are grateful to their fathers for establishing such a solid foundation. They had worked together for another gear manufacturer when it was sold, and they decided to go into business for themselves.
“It was a niche business started by two guys who knew what they were doing,” Jim said. “Tim and Ron treated their employees well. Half-day Fridays, good benefits and they did the little things to make employees feel appreciated. Dinners, Christmas parties, giving each employee a turkey for Thanksgiving.
“Kevin and I have tried to emulate that, and I think we have done a good job. We still give that turkey.”
They employ 30-plus full- and part-time employees. They had about 40 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The early years were the most grueling.
“When we first started at Timron, we were here all the time,” Jim said. “6 a.m. or earlier, 6 p.m. or later. Luckily, we have very competent, experienced and talented employees here now that can handle things in our absences. Also, our dads knew that the employees are really the key. You have to provide them with the tools and equipment, but they have to make them run.”
Over the years, Timron has worked with Elk River High School and the Elk River Area School District to provide apprenticeships. Back in the day they worked with teachers like Joe Angelo, Tim Wick, and Paul Nelson. Now they work with Amy Lord, a CTE coordinator for District 728 schools. Their efforts with Lord were stunted when the pandemic hit and they had to back off. They are beginning to roll again. They have a Rogers High School student working there now as an apprentice and planned to participate in the Oct. 27 Cool Jobs Tour sponsored by the school district, local businesses and the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s almost impossible to find people with gear experience, so we look for people with good work ethic and common sense,” Jim said. “Military people and farmers make great candidates. But young people do as well.”
He said they can help kids who want to work, especially if they want to work in a field where they will have the opportunity to grow and learn a profession.
“We have very good processes, an absolute necessity in a quality driven field, and we can make them into a great employee,” Jim said. “We are always looking for talent.”
Building expansions have been considered, but then economic downturns have squashed those talks. They remain focused on providing great products, on time and at reasonable prices.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Jim Fritz said of taking over the business. “I can’t imagine what I’d be doing without this opportunity. I am forever grateful for it. I guess I am most proud of the fact that we have changed with the times in order to keep up with the world, but have still held on to the core values and relationships that have made us successful.”
Kevin Corpe agrees.
He credits the success of Timron to its great team of employees.
“I am most proud to have continued the legacy of Ron and Bonnie and Tim and Marilyn who risked everything early on,” Kevin said. “I want to make them proud they gave me this opportunity.”