Merle Felling never sold his business short. “He always dreamed big. He felt you can never dream big enough,” said Brenda Jennissen, Felling's daughter and the current vice president of finance and public relations for Felling Trailers.
As the central Minnesota business marks its 40th anniversary and many Felling's goals have come to fruition, it seems his optimism was well-placed. When Felling purchased the business in 1974, it was known as Sauk Centre Welding. Merle changed it to Sauk Centre Welding & Machine Works, Inc. The business had been in operation since 1954 and catered to local businesses and farmers by offering fabrication and custom welding jobs, according to a detailing of the company history on the business website.
There were four employees at the time, according to Jennissen. After Merle Felling purchased the business, he began manufacturing trailers for some local clients. Buoyed by quality craftsmanship, the trailers were soon in demand and by 1975 the Felling Trailer product line was launched. A decade later, the expanded company
In 2012, a second production facility opened in Litchfield, Minn., bringing production space up to over 250,000-square-feet, according to the business website. Today, Jennissen said Felling Trailers employs around 250 workers in two facilities, manufacturing trailers for clients around the U.S. and internationally.
The locations have proven ideal for the company. Sauk Centre, with a population of 4,400, is centered at the intersection of three major roadways: Highway 71, Highway 28 and Interstate 94. And Litchfield accesses Highway 12 and Highway 22. The access to transportation infrastructure is key to reaching Felling's dealers across the nation and Canada, Jennissen said.
Felling's family ownership is a matter of pride, and is something the current leaders hope will continue into the future. Merle and Kathy Felling head the company. In addition to Jennissen, her husband Patrick Jennissen works as the vice president of sales and marketing, her sister Bonnie Radjenovich serves as office administrator and vice president of human resources, and her husband Paul Radjenovich is the vice president of operations.
While Jennissen's children are too young to plan to work for the business, Jennissen said she does enjoy involving them in the company, like a recent group trip to northern Minnesota to drop off a delivery. It was a moment that took Jennissen back to her own childhood; being around the business as it grew and hearing talk about it over the dinner table. Being part of a family-run business has been a positive experience, Jennissen said.
Merle Felling's modus operandi of sticking to decisions once they are made helps the family coworkers with the integration of work and home life. “Work does come into personal life, but we try to keep our personal lives out of work,” Jennissen said.
Felling Trailers has weathered several economic downturns in its history, including the recent recession. Although the impact was not as dramatic as in some other companies, Jennissen said the business leaders did have to institute some belt tightening, primarily in the form of selling company assets. “We tried our best not to lay anyone off,” she said. “Merle's big thing is you can always sell equipment, but you can't replace people.” And by 2010, the economy started picking up again.
Today, company leaders continue to work on internal strategies for the future, with sights on growth and leaving a legacy of quality, Jennissen said. Felling has partnered with a dozen manufacturers in the area to form an LLC focused on training the next generation of workers, particularly welders. And however the business develops, Jennissen said giving back to the community will remain a critical component of the operation. Felling Trailers has taken part in cancer research efforts – including auctioning a custom pink trailer on behalf of breast cancer research – and has long contributed to Catholic Charities. “Merle and Kathy are believers in giving back,” Jennissen said.
Eileen Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 12 years. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen.