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SJE Rhombus employee Brenda Houts, left, says goodbye to retiring CEO Laurie Lewandowski on the production floor of the business last week. Photo by - Brian Basham

Lewandowski says goodbye

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SJE Rhombus has come a long way since it was born in Stephen Johnson's garage in 1975 -- and retiring CEO Laurie Lewandowski has been a big part of the company almost from the beginning.

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"When I came there were six or seven people, so I got to do a lot of things -- make product, box product, ship product," she said.

There are now 380 employees across the company's multiple locations -- including about 180 employees at the company's manufacturing plant and headquarters building on County Road 6 just west of Detroit Lakes.

The founder's quiet, low-key leadership style led to the company's success, she said.

"He (Johnson) empowered employees and trusted them and let them succeed -- all the things a really good leader does."

In the mid-1980s Johnson implemented a stock ownership plan for employees, putting company shares into a trust for employees.

The plan means tens of thousands of dollars or more for long-time employees when they retire.

Johnson stepped down as CEO in 1994 and served as board chairman until 1998, when the company bought out his remaining shares.

Lois Solheim, a longtime employee and former teacher in Audubon, served as CEO from 1994 to 1998, when Lewandowski took the reins.

Lewandowski started in production, but ultimately worked in all sorts of areas -- from marketing to purchasing to IT.

At various times she was director of special projects, a vice president, and oversaw facilities and maintenance.

She became company president in 1994 and CEO in 1998 and she will officially retire next month -- although she will stay on as one of six members on the board of directors.

As CEO, she oversaw several strategic acquisitions and initiatives -- helping grow the company from $15 million in revenues in 1998 to about $55 million in revenues now.

The company's initial market was sump pump and holding tank switches and alarms.

"We had a really solid track until 2008 (when the housing market tanked)," she said.

"So as they stopped building houses, it definitely affected that market," she said.

In fact, one of Lewandowski's most difficult decisions involved the layoff of 30-some employees during that time period.

The company branched out into other areas -- ceramic wastewater filters, industrial controls and even custom-made (often very large) operating panels for businesses and local governments.

The first acquisition was Tamarac Engineering in the Twin Cities.

"We gained market share and brought in some great people," Lewandowski said. "If we can get people to come to Detroit Lakes, they love it -- but it's hard to get them to come here."

Another acquisition was Control Works of Milford, Ohio, which got the company into building larger control panels to the customer's specifications.

"It was a competitor that wanted to merge with us and be bigger," she said.

Others were Chandler Systems (CSI) and Embedded Controls, each obtained for strategic growth purposes.

The existing plant and headquarters building in Detroit Lakes was constructed in 1988 and more than doubled in size in the 1990s.

Also, Lewandowski said, "with the acquisitions we gained a lot of capacity in Ashland and New Hope."

SJE Rhombus also established production facilities in Suzhou, China, an hour west of Shanghai.

"It's a very pretty city, there are lots of canals in it, and two huge industrial parks," she said.

That plant allowed the company to better serve several large pump manufacturers that had facilities in China, and provided a foothold in the Asia market.

"We didn't shut down any jobs here," she said. "It actually supports jobs here."

The China plant now generates about $8 million in revenues annually.

The next foreign market could well be Brazil, which is "hard to export to," and likely will require a production presence, she said.

That's an area familiar to incoming CEO Dave Thomas, who was hired with the help of an executive search firm and formerly was an officer with Capital Safety of Red Wing, Minn.

"He was stationed in Europe and then led all of the Americas, so he's bringing a lot of good stuff for us," Lewandowski said.

Lewandowski credits her successful tenure as CEO to the hard-working employees at SJE Rhombus.

"I've had a great management and leadership team that made the company what it is today," she said.

Lewandowski served on the local Chamber of Commerce board and also served two three-year stints on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board in the 2000s.

When it comes to the business climate of the state, "it would be a complete overhaul if I had my way," she said.

Building permits can take two to three years to obtain, especially if there are environmental issues, and the corporate tax rate "is not conducive to doing business in Minnesota," she said.

The new federal healthcare law is also a concern for businesses, she added.

"Spending is a real issue and how do we get that under control? As a business, we can't spend more than we make or we go under -- that would be a real good thing for the government, too."

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