By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
One of the companies recognized as a Twin Cities Business Magazine’s 2012 Small Business Success Story is Felling Trailers Inc. of Sauk Centre.
Begun in 1974 when Merle Felling returned from service in the Air Force and purchased the welding shop where he had previously worked, Felling Trailers has grown through tough times and expanded. From three people doing welding and repair, there are now two manufacturing facilities encompassing more than 200,000 square feet with more than 225 employees.
Felling Trailers currently manufactures more than 3,000 trailers a year ranging from a 3,000-pound utility trailer to a 120,000-pound hydraulic gooseneck trailer. Its standard trailer line includes more than 220 models.
Felling, who grew up on a dairy/hog farm south of Sauk Centre, built his first trailer when he was 12, scavenging parts from other equipment on the farm.
While making repairs on trailers in his new shop, he saw poor workmanship and decided to launch his own product line in 1975.
Felling and his wife, Kathy, company vice president, work with their two daughters and their husbands, Brenda and Patrick Jennissen and Bonnie and Paul Radjenovich.
Brenda is vice president of public relations and finance, while Patrick is vice president of sales and marketing. Bonnie is vice president of human resources, with Paul as vice president of operations.
The Fellings also have two sons who are not involved with the company.
Merle Felling shares an office with Paul, while Kathy shares an office with Bonnie.
The Fellings, Jennissens and Radjenoviches took business transition classes at the University of St. Thomas.
“We got a lot of value out of it,” said Felling. “Other business families were taking the classes in all different stages of their transitions. We shared ideas and discussed pros and cons.”
The University of St. Thomas nominated the Felling family for a family business award. Through that, they came to the attention of Twin Cities Magazine.
“The expansion we took despite a negative business climate caught their eye,” Felling said.
“To grow through the recession, we took advantage of the fact that we build custom projects,” Bonnie said. “We diversified the product line through customizing.”
Another aspect of the business which supported growth through the recession is the diversification of the customer base.
“Over the last 15 – 20 years we have made the effort to reach different markets all over North America,” Felling said. “It takes time. We’ve been shipping to Canada since 1998. Since about 2008, about one-third of our product goes to Canada.”
Felling emphasizes that family succession planning is important.
“It’s something that we somewhat knew, but like so many people tended to hold off,” he said. “I started thinking about it when I was 55, but waited until I was 58 to start acting on it.”
Something the classes at St. Thomas pointed out is that families typically wait too long to begin the process.
“Family succession takes five – 10 years, ideally,” Felling said. “Don’t wait until you’re 70-75 or even 80 — that’s a big obstacle. The process just gets to be more and more difficult.”
Bonnie started with her family’s company five years ago, after living and working in the Metro area.
“It had always been in my heart to come back and be a part of it,” she said. “It was really my husband, Paul (then, boyfriend) who started with Felling first. He didn’t want to stay in the Cities either; he began in the parts department seven years ago.”
“Being part of a family business means getting to know each other on a lot of different levels,” Bonnie said. “It’s not often we see how our spouses work.
“We’ve grasped the entrepreneurial spirit from our parents and continue it,” Bonnie said.