SMI and hydraulics

PORTER, Minn. — I popped into the tiny Yellow Medicine County hamlet of Porter, Minn. at about 10:45 a.m. on Sept 15 and didn’t leave until about 2 p.m.  I was expecting a much shorter visit.

My brother-in-law, now a seven-year resident of the town, had earlier told me, “Come see us … and when you get here, visit SMI and Hydraulics.  I think you will be surprised!”

The battered sign on the outskirts of town reads, “Porter, Population 183.” This spunky little domain sits about 28 miles from South Dakota border. Canby, Minn. is about 18 miles to the northwest, Marshall about 35 miles southeast. 

In a town this size it didn’t take long to find SMI and Hydraulics. I could quickly see this was a busy outfit.

SMI and Hydraulics, Inc. originated as a start-up hydraulic repair service in 1995.  The business and services grew to include metal fabrication which led to a relationship with Uni-Systems — a Minneapolis firm specializing in large-scale, mechanized building features such as retractable roofs, maintenance platforms and En-Fold retractable awnings.

SMI’s leadership continues to expand the business in innovative directions.  A new venture has put the company into the world of wind tower manufacturing; plus developing patenting, marketing, and manufacturing products which assist with tower manufacturing bottlenecks. More recently, SMI added grain bin erection equipment and specialty trailer manufacturing to their portfolio.  So indeed things are happening in Porter, Minn.

“We started in 1995,” said Dave Schrunk, vice president of engineering and operations. “It’s primarily a family company of brothers that came back and built this cluster of buildings.  Today, two members of the Stoks family are primary owners with others having key functions within the organization.”

Schrunk, 36, is a South Dakota State University engineering graduate and a keen mind for the innovative growth of American agriculture — plus the fortitude and ambitions of American farmers. “Our food and our lives are beholden onto them,” he said. “They understand the competitive nature of their industry and so do we here at SMI.”

So how important is agriculture to your overall operation? “Important yes, but we’re doing other things too. However, agriculture is a key component — either directly or indirectly.  We do a lot of work in the structuring and grain bin erection business.”

Has the economic covid-19 crunch slowed SMI operations? “We’ve noted the lift-jack and bin erection business is somewhat seasonal.  Some guys plan ahead; some leave it till ‘crunch time’ which we understand so we adjust accordingly.”

“Relating to our lift jacks, that market extends across America, into Canada and Germany.  No, we don’t have sales people in these several markets.  We do a lot of our work for support businesses that work directly with farmers and country elevators.”

Perhaps because of living and working in Porter, Schrunk is much aware of what’s driving the bin market these days. 

 “Much like everything else in farming, bigger and bigger bins are continuing — both on farms and commercial locations.  So more capacity in our lift-jack systems is happening also.  We’re working with both erectors and builders on a continual basis. Bins up to 60 feet in diameter were the norm; then 90-foot-wide bins; and now 105-foot structures really need some special equipment.”

Schrunk mentioned a customer last year that lifted a 1 million-pound bin; and a client right now starting on a 1.6 million-pound bin needing some lift jacks.  And how many lift jacks are involved in bins of that size?  Get this:  “It depends on bin capacities,” he said, “but anywhere from 130 to 140.” 

SMI also offers unified pumping skids so jacks can be preloaded to optimum pressures. Bins stay in balance, so to speak, when being raised — regardless of wind conditions during construction, or climb-ladder weights fastened to the bin.

Do farmers purchase bin jacks for their own use?  Not likely, said Schrunk, unless they do bin erections as an additional business.  Center poles — especially on higher bin constructions and anchor tie-offs — are two other areas of growing importance in large bin complexes.  Suffice to say, if a contractor needs special equipment for bin erections or other modular constructions SMI is ready to listen.

And that explains why sales and total revenue streams for this unique company continue to increase. 

I also had a chance to chat with SMI President Gary Stoks who gave a little rundown on the family history.

“We were raised on a farm, dairy cows, cattle and some hogs,” Stoks said. “Yep, big family … 16 kids and I was the number-six boy of nine boys. Folks moved into town eventually and Dad got a job working at a concrete batch mixing and delivery outfit … and became manager until his passing.”

“I went to work in the Cities (Twin Cities that would be) for fluid power firm, Cylinder Cities. My wife just didn’t want to raise her kids growing up in the Cities so we moved back here.  Buying the Dairy Queen in Canby was our first business. But I told my wife, ‘within five years I want to start my own hydraulic place.’ That was May of ‘95. I brought a couple of my brothers in a year or so later and its sort of been steady growth pretty much ever since.”

What was your first work in your own shop? “A lot was repair and rebuilding of hydraulic pumps and cylinders for area farmers,” Stoks recalled. “Then we got into work for Magnetic Trucking out of Dodge Center and into welding fabrication. Some guy from the Cities stopped by; he was an engineer out of Uni-Systems. He wanted to know if we could build a few things for his outfit. We started with some small items, then went to stainless steel paint gantries for Boeing. (Paint gantries position technicians inside a paint booth. Each carriage ergonomically and safely positions technicians around the aircraft parts.) We then became involved in some stadium and maintenance dock systems. We had a good working relationship with them and it pretty much seems ‘word of mouth’ kept generating more work for us.”

 “A lot of our work is usually warranted for a year,” Stoks went on to say. “Today a lot of outfits cover their work for 30 days. But when we do big things with Uni-Systems and others — even these huge new grain bin complexes — if there’s a problem they call us and we go out and fix it.”

“Today we function out of our 100,000 square foot facility. Our team works with a full range of fabrication tools ranging from plasma/torch tables, break presses, punches, shears, sub-arc and wire feed welders, roller and paint booths. Our engineers provide complete services from design to project management. Each project is monitored by SMI’s quality control staff to ensure manufacturing to perfection.”

After my visit with Schrunk and Stoks, I ambled across the street to The Porter Café and Grocery, “The People’s Place.” And so it is. “The menu is always good,” both men told me and I learned early to listen to the locals about where to eat.

A grilled cheese sandwich, scrumptious tater tots, freshly-baked pie and (of course) freshly brewed coffee was my choice. The food was served by Jodi — a cheery waitress sporting pink hair tips! 

Lunchtime social gatherings abound at our country coffee shops and much the same at The People’s Place. Soon about 12 or 13 of us were enriching the chatter and enjoying our tasty chow. When leaving I asked Jodi for my lunch ticket.  She said, “Your lunch is already paid by the folks at your adjoining table!”  

Yep, Porter, Minn. is indeed a friendly place and The People’s Place tops my list.