Blaine manufacturer wins business of the year award

General Pattern has been family-owned and operated ever since Ernest Reiland founded it in 1922.

J. Carlos Perez Chavez (left) talks with Denny Reiland (center) and Staci Thill (right) about a project he is working on. Chavez has worked for General Pattern for nine years as a machinist. Photo by Eric Hagen

J. Carlos Perez Chavez (left) talks with Denny Reiland (center) and Staci Thill (right) about a project he is working on. Chavez has worked for General Pattern for nine years as a machinist. Photo by Eric Hagen

The business is a one-stop shop that can design and engineer prototype parts for new products and design and manufacture tools that ultimately produce the parts. Its clients over the years have included the automotive, medical, industrial and toy industries.

It will continue to stay in the family for many years to come now that Ernest’s great-granddaughter Staci Thill, 35, is the company president.

Her father Denny Reiland, 62, is still the chief financial officer and has no plans to retire anytime soon. He was company president from 1973 until 2012. His father George Reiland and uncle Ernie Reiland Jr. were the second-generation owners.

The U.S. Small Business Administration in early May presented the Jeffrey Butland Family-Owned Business of the Year award to this company which has steadily expanded even during economic recessions.

“Small family-owned businesses like General Pattern are the engines of job creation not only in Minnesota but the entire United States,” wrote Central Minnesota Development Company (CMDC) President Michael Mulrooney in the award nomination letter.

CMDC provides loans and technical assistance to small businesses in Minnesota. When it started working with General Pattern in 2009, there were fewer than 70 employees. It currently employs over 90 people and has increased its sales revenue by 143 percent in the last four years, according to Mulrooney.

Thill said General Pattern is “not the usual manufacturing company.” When work was slow to come in during this most recent recession, it kept employees busy by designing and building a miniature Christmas village, which makes a great backdrop for the company’s family Christmas party. The first small building went up in 2001, but most were built during the very tough year of 2009.

Although the company would have saved money in the short term by laying off employees, Reiland believes long-term savings came from not having to train new employees. The average employee has been there nine years.

Kim Campbell will celebrate his 40th anniversary at General Pattern this October. His father Harlan had also worked for the company for 20 years.

“It’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere,” he said and credits Denny Reiland for making this possible. Reiland and Thill are cooking on the grill most Fridays when it is warm enough outside. The people in the computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) office Campbell works in get along really well.

History of General Pattern

General Pattern has been around for 91 years because of its adaptability. Its machines were run by a line shaft powered by steam engines for the first 10 years before electricity was available.

Until the early 1980s, the company had made tool patterns for foundry companies, but this work started going offshore to Argentina and Taiwan starting in the late 1970s, Reiland said. He had barely taken over the company from his father and uncle and he was already facing an economic crisis.

“The company went through a very serious time in the early 1980s to re-figure out what it is that we wanted to do,” he said.

Reiland laid off most of the eight employees they had for up to six months in 1982. Campbell was out of work for two months.

By the time he started bringing back employees, General Pattern’s biggest clients were toy companies. They were making toy prototypes such as dolls, horses, cars and even Super Mario Brothers characters and they had to be flexible and fast so the next hot toy could get on the market. By 1985, the business had grown to 35 people.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, major toy companies started consolidating and the work General Pattern had been doing went to Japanese and Portuguese manufacturers.

General Pattern was once again at a crossroads, but its efficiency and flexibility to try new things enabled Reiland to keep the business going. It went from making toy prototypes to making prototypical vehicle parts and then injection molding tools that could make parts for the interior of vehicles.

“The reason for our success is that we are a very time-sensitive company,” Reiland said. “Had the toy companies not taught us what we know today, we’d probably be struggling a lot more than we did during the recession.”

General Pattern at its peak of working with the auto industry had plants in Detroit, Mich., and England, but by the early 2000s, the automotive companies were not paying their bills on time so they closed those plants.

Today, Bobcat and Caterpillar are two of General Pattern’s biggest clients. One part it makes for Bobcat is the safety bar that must be lowered and secured over the operator before the machine can turn on. It also makes covers for medical devices such as CT scanning machines. It has 80,000 square feet of space among five buildings on its main campus in southern Blaine at the Mounds View border. It purchased another 50,000 square-foot building not far north of Blaine City Hall in 2010, which it calls “the Ham Lake building” because it replaced an old building the business had in Ham Lake.

General Pattern only had one 7,000 square-foot building when it moved to Blaine in 1983 after previously being located in Roseville and St. Paul.

Thill became the company president a year ago, but considers herself “a president in training,” who has a lot more to learn from her father.

Reiland said it is the biggest challenge he has ever had because he is not used to explaining tasks that were second nature to him. He now sends out a “did you know” memo to all the managers and Staci each week to explain what he is working on.

Reiland worked as a pattern maker for his father and uncle throughout college, so it seemed natural to him to continue working for General Pattern because he loves the work and the money has been good.

The fit was not as natural for Staci the first time she tried to work for her father, so she went into the human resources field before ultimately getting into operations and products assembly management and coming to work for General Pattern over 10 years ago. At that time, she was just starting her own family and now has three daughters that Reiland adores.

Reiland said Ford tried to buy General Pattern in 2001 when it saw that General Pattern was getting out of the automotive business, but Reiland dreaded what would happen to his employees if he sold and it was becoming apparent that his daughter wanted to be part of the company.

“Primarily the reason we didn’t sell to Ford and the reason that I am just thrilled to death that Staci is interested in the company is the fact that the culture we have developed and the people that have helped us make this culture successful would never survive through an acquisition,” Reiland said.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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