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Not just farm boys.

How the Friesen Brothers Made it

ROSENORT, Manitoba - The low-level building lies almost hidden from view in the middle of an oasis of trees on provincial road 422. This is the head office of Meridian Industries Ltd., a 28-year-old business that was built from scratch by the Friesen brothers. You could call the Friesens a couple of farm boys from the Rosenort area with a strong work ethic, dedication to family and a belief in the existence of a benevolent God. But many people work hard, hold the Sabbath holy and are dedicated to family. So you know there is more to Elmer, 51, and Ron, 48, than these attributes.

It's the Friesens' industriousness and creativity that has put Meridian on the agricultural map. Meridian's product is special grain and fertilizer storage bins, and because of their expertise the Friesens are among the best bin-makers in Canada.

Their bins dominate the market in Manitoba. They bought out their significant competitors here and others in Alberta, and have another manufacturing plant in Iowa.

Elmer Friesen, the company president, says it all started on their father's farm many years ago.

"We knew we couldn't make it on the farm so we decided to do something else," says Friesen. "We knew that there were always problems with corrugated bins and we started to figure out what we could do to improve them."

At the time, the existing bins leaked, and because of the inside corrugation, were hard to clean. They were also difficult to unload.

The brothers decided they could improve the product. They found a small company in Winnipeg that would make a smooth surfaced bin to which they added a cone bottom or hopper for easier draining.

Ron, who is now Meridian's vice-president, was a welder and he knew what had to be done. In fact, he's done most jobs in the plant; a plant which has invented several new ways of doing things. A perfect example of the Friesens' inventiveness is the machine that rotates the huge bin horizontally so that when it's being painted by a spray nozzle, the paint won't run. And Meridian backs up its work to ensure customer satisfaction, which Elmer says, is of prime importance to the success of most small businesses.

A farmer near Beausejour, Manitoba, complained about the weld on his new bin. For the Friesens, it was important that the bin was replaced and in short order.

"Anything that is made with human hands can have problems," says Elmer. "You learn that customer service is everything because an unhappy farmer can hurt you like crazy."

Their business has grown slowly and, more importantly to them, with no government grants or loans, except a line of credit at the bank.

"We just didn't want to be in debt," says Ron. "Maybe we could have grown quicker but when it's your own money you work harder to keep it."

And work hard they did. Long hours learning how to make the product better and learning how to sell it. Each improvement made the product better. Some bins were 20 bushels in size and some were 5,000 bushels and the orders grew and the work continued until there were 40 men in the shop. Today the plant turns out 1,400 bins of various sizes a year. One would think that the market would be saturated with a peerless product, but Elmer says farmers always need more bins. "Once you have one you always find a reason to have another. And there are lots of farmers out there," he says.

The Friesens price their bins to customers at approximately $1.80 a bushel.

To service the other plants the company has done the right things. It purchased a Belanca -- a single-engine aircraft with an air speed of about 200 mph -- allowing the Friesens to respond quickly to the needs of the various plants, without the constraints of commercial flights. In 1979 they opened Wheatland Bins in Lethbridge, Alberta, employing 30 workers, and a satellite plant in Camrose, south of Edmonton. Wheatland's vice-president is Richard Friesen -- a younger brother -- and the president is Menno Kornelson. There is another plant in Iowa, which employs 15 workers and is run by Elmer's son-in-law Ray Waldner, and a brother, Gary Friesen. Meridian is a shareholder in all the other companies. The Friesens sell into South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota and are looking at Ontario. About 65 per cent of sales are in Manitoba with about 20 per cent in the U.S. and 20 per cent in Saskatchewan.

Elmer says the product is sold through a dealer network, farm implement dealers, feeds mills and fertilizer and seed plants. In 1981, a competitor, Load King, just down the road, was making a look-alike bin. In 1990, they bought out Load King and renamed the product, Stor-King.

While it seems like the business grew overnight, the Friesens say that looking back they know they put in their time to make it go. Both are of the Mennonite religion and of Dutch-German descent. They admit to a slight case of workaholism. "We're just starting to recover from it," they admit, laughing lightly.

The Friesens believe they've been successful because they have grown slowly, and they make sure that they retain the best workers available and compensate them for their skills. Ron says, "When it comes down to it, the product reflects the skills of everyone here. Welders, painters, shippers and drivers. The whole process is important."

And Elmer reminds that there is extra help. "Don't forget the Higher Power that's involved here. Planning and all else can go well but there are a lot of smart guys around that don't listen to what's inside them."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Elmer and Ron Friesen of Meridian Industries Ltd.
Author:Gage, Richie
Publication:Manitoba Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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