Steffes Corp. lands in Grand Forks 25 years after UND research gave it a fresh start


David L. Dodds

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Steffes Corp. lands in Grand Forks 25 years after UND research gave it a fresh start

You could say that, in a way, Steffes Corp. has come full circle.

Twenty-five years ago, the Dickinson, N.D.-based business was a stalwart in the agricultural manufacturing industry. But with a downturn in the agricultural economy in the 1980s and lingering effects of the oil boom gone bust rippling across the state, Steffes was looking for ways to diversify and strengthen itself for the future.

About the same time, another North Dakota success story, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, was looking for ways to promote off-peak usage of its electrical services. The co-op knew of electric thermal heating advances in Europe that were highly effective, but it was difficult to get hold of the expensive technology.

A homegrown solution was needed.

Basin Electric approached representatives of the University of North Dakota's Center for Innovation and Business Development (today known simply as the Center for Innovation) to assist in finding a solution. The center, then as now, was under the direction of Bruce Gjovig.

The Center turned to longtime UND civil engineering professor Oscar Manz and his students in the School of Engineering and Mines (now College of Engineering and Mines) to invent "thermal storage" ceramic bricks composed of North Dakota clay, North Dakota talc and Minnesota taconite. The bricks possessed high heat storage capacity, and best of all, they were relatively inexpensive to make.

Concurrently, UND electrical engineering students designed a process to use the bricks as part of an electric thermal storage (ETS) unit that could absorb heat at night, during off-peak hours, and release the warmth during the day.

A third phase of the project involved business management students under the guidance of former UND professor Don Porter. His students developed an ETS marketing and feasibility study. Then the Center took the students' findings and turned out a full-fledged business plan.

"We basically took it to the next level," Gjovig said.

Next, the Center needed a manufacturer that could take UND's research and technology and build it for the marketplace. The fact that a major rural electric cooperative, Basin Electric, was 100 percent behind the effort made selling the idea much easier, Gjovig said.

That's when Steffes Corp. entered the picture.

"Steffes immediately seized the opportunity and said, 'This is something we would like to do,'" Gjovig said. "It gave them a brand new opportunity to diversify into a brand new market."

UND's patent for the ETS units ultimately was sold to Steffes in 1988.

As for Porter, though no longer with UND, he currently sits on the Steffes Board of Directors. Recently, his role on the board has allowed him to again factor into Steffes' future growth plans by bringing the company full circle back to Grand Forks — and quite possibly UND.

As oil activity began to surge right in Steffes' backyard in western North Dakota, the corporation was quick to get in on the action. It wasn't long before Steffes had developed a solid reputation as a reliable manufacturer of quality oil field products, such as storage tanks and attached walkway systems, steel containment systems, recycling pump stands, cattle guards and berm walk-overs, to name just a few.

But the company had a problem: it couldn't find enough workers in the Dickinson area to fill the orders. Steffes management started looking for areas in North Dakota that weren't affected by worker shortages to the same degree as the west. What they saw in Grand Forks was a place with ample skilled and professional labor pools and close proximity to UND, with its world-class engineering college and other assets.

Steffes jumped at the chance, finding a suitable site for a manufacturing plant along U.S. Highway 2, west of the Grand Forks International Airport.

Steffes' Grand Fork location specializes in welding, painting, fabricating and machining of parts, much of it destined for the corporation's line of oil field products, according to Rodger Pearson, head of the Grand Forks operation.

Currently, Steffes Corp. has about 25 employees working in Grand Forks, with plans to increase its workforce to about 100, Pearson said.

"It's important for us to be in North Dakota; we want to be in North Dakota," Pearson said. "We really like the work ethic here. And having a major university, such as UND, with its talents in engineering and industrial technology, so close to us is certainly attractive as well."

David Dodds

University Relations Writer/Editor

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