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Business thrives under employee ownership

SJE Rhombus employees assembled to celebrate ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program) Week on Feb. 11-15 with various activities. Different events were held each day. Submitted Photo1 / 2
SJE Rhombus employees tested their targeting skills with a variety of carnival-style games during ESOP Week. Submitted Photo2 / 2

Though he has only been the CEO of SJE Rhombus since December, David Thomas says he already feels a sense of pride in being part of its success.

"I feel very proud to be part of this company, not only because of our financial success, but because of the positive stamp we've had in the community," he said Monday. "I see wonderful things for its future."

An industry leading control solutions provider for nearly 40 years, SJE Rhombus celebrated 25 years as an employee-owned company last week, Feb. 11-15.

The company's annual ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program) Week festivities included "guess the stock price" and ESOP trivia games, a coloring contest for families, and more.

"Once a year we celebrate ESOP Week, to remind everybody how great this is (being employee owned)," said Jill Eilers, who works in the panel production department. "We have activities planned throughout the week."

"We try to make it a fun celebration," said Josh Erckenbrack, who works as an administrator in the engineered products division.

"This has always been a very good culture to work in," he added. "They've always pushed that your opinion matters, and your voice is heard."

That's one of the benefits of being employee-owned, Eilers noted.

"When you're employee owned, you feel more of a personal involvement," she added. "Every employee has shares that they see grow every year; you have something to work towards."

"It drives the employees to better the company, from the bottom up," Erckenbrack added. "We're all looking for ways to cut costs and improve the company overall -- because it affects our future investment in the company."

As a result, every purchase is carefully examined, and supplies are only thrown away when no further use can be found for them.

"We operate very frugally," Thomas said.

"The culture around here is very ESOP-driven," Eilers explained. "Anytime someone throws something away or scraps something, they're hesitant."

"In business, people use the phrase, 'spend (the company's) money as though it's your own' -- it really is their money," Thomas added. "We think very hard about what the right thing is to do. A big motivator for me is that we have more than 260 employees in the U.S. and over 300 around the world, all looking to us to make the right decisions with our money."

"It really drives us to make our quality better," Erckenbrack added.

"Being employee owned for 25 years is quite an accomplishment," Thomas said. "I look forward to giving Jill and Josh and all the other employees the support they need to be successful -- not just here in Detroit Lakes, but in all our other locations."

Though still headquartered in Detroit Lakes, SJE Rhombus now has divisions in New Hope, Minn.; Milford, Ohio; Ashland, Ohio; and Clearwater, Fla.; as well as in China.

Becoming employee-owned was an 11-year process initiated by company founder Steve Johnston in 1987.

"When he decided to retire, he started the process to transfer ownership from him to his employees," Thomas said. "It took about 11 years. We became 100 percent employee owned in 1998."

Since then, Thomas said, "we've had a nice track record of growth, both at our facilities in Detroit Lakes and through acquisition. We even started our own operation in China.

"We have about 60 people working there (in China)," he added, though unlike SJE's other operations in the U.S., the Chinese division is not currently employee owned.

"Just because we've had some slow times in the economy, that doesn't mean that we've (SJE Rhombus) been slow too," Eilers added.

"A lot of that has to do with the leadership we've had from all of our upper management," Ercken­brack said. "They made sure we were in good shape through all of the tough times."

"This company has been very good for a long time," Thomas said, noting that it was a major motivation for him joining the company in December 2011 (one year before becoming its CEO, when predecessor Laurie Lewandowski retired).

This past year was a particularly good one for SJE, Thomas added. "We had record sales performance, and a 12 percent increase in our stock price."

In other words, it was a very good year to be an SJE Rhombus employee -- and the future looks even brighter.

"We have a goal in mind of where we want to be seven years from now, and a very clear path for how we need to get there," Thomas said. "We need to grow our sales, control our costs, make prudent investments -- and we feel we have a pretty good handle on what we need to do to get there.

"If we achieve these goals, it's everybody who shares in that success."

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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