A cut above the rest
The new Bemidji Steel Company facility has helped to put a laser focus on the benefits of doing business in Beltrami Electric Cooperative territory.
Alex Grasdalen is bending the metal industry to his will. As Bemidji Steel Company’s chief operations officer, he has helped reinvent his family business (established in 1983) by offering not just metals locally, but metals molded to fit the global needs of industries ranging from agriculture to aerospace. The company’s true springboard to success came in the form of a new facility with smart technology, gigabit internet and reliable power.
And the bulk of the evolution happened in less than three years.
“It’s a crazy thing to think about,” Grasdalen said, taking a seat at Bemidji Steel’s conference room table. “A year ago, I remember standing in here and it was just stud walls, and the wind was blowing in my face because the windows were delayed.”
Bemidji Steel’s new state-of-the-art facility sits on a 32-acre patch of land just south of Bemidji, Minn., off of U.S. Highway 71. The team broke ground for the 40,000-square-foot production and office hub in the summer of 2021. Less than a year later, the doors opened to usher in the future of fabrication.
Laser processing and forming are the heart of Bemidji Steel’s clean and modern production floor. The company’s machines each support a specific task, and each customer is able to build off of its capacity and capability. What these clients are looking for are precisely cut and bent, high-quality metal parts to create top-of-the-line products. Bemidji Steel delivers, with intelligence and proficiency.
The company has garnered worldwide attention and now serves a large number of customers across the United States, with a workforce that has grown to 41 employees (up from 11 in 2020). New partners are not only impressed with the facility, but also the company’s certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO Quality Management System certification is awarded to entities who prove their processes and procedures consistently meet the product and service standards of customers across the board.
Yes, Bemidji Steel has expanded quickly, but this is only the first of many phases of expansion planned for their new campus.
“The growth plan is aggressive, so knowing we have a power partner here that can sustain that is really important,” Grasdalen said.
The right connections
After two years of looking at 20-30 sites for the new Bemidji Steel facility, Grasdalen finally found the perfect campus.
“We reached out to Beltrami Electric and asked them if the power was here, and they were like, ‘Yes, it is!’” he recalled. “It was perfect, with the support services already here. That was critical to us, because reliable power was the number-one priority, and internet was the second one.”
Bemidji Steel worked with its engineering firm and Beltrami Electric to ensure the building would be energy efficient, making smart electric decisions like LED lighting and a building management system. Many of those choices earned efficiency rebates from the cooperative and have served to keep costs low and reduce environmental impacts. As the campus continues to grow, the company may explore even more energy solutions like geothermal heating and renewable energy credits from Beltrami Electric’s wind and solar programs.
“I enjoy working with Alex – he is energetic and positive and always seems to have a smile on his face,” said Bob Gregg, business development manager for Beltrami Electric. “He’s very forward thinking and excited to move Bemidji Steel Company into the future. Employees, community and environment seem to be at the forefront of his priorities.”
Grasdalen’s passion is contagious. Brian Stefanich, Bemidji Steel’s Director of Business Excellence, witnessed it develop early. He was Grasdalen’s Bemidji High School principal before heading up the school system’s Bemidji Career Academies, which helps students explore post-graduation career paths with the help of local businesses. The two were soon working together again as Bemidji Steel welcomed student interns for work experience. When Stefanich retired from Bemidji Area Schools in 2022, he joined Bemidji Steel’s team and continued to work with students utilizing the Youth Skills Training grant offered by Minnesota’s Department of Labor.
“The grant allows students ages 16-18 opportunities to work and get mentored in facilities like ours, in advanced manufacturing. So, we have five high school students who come here every day at 3:30,” Stefanich said, adding that interning students often find roles in the company after graduation. “The majority of our laser operators came through the program. They started out as interns, and that’s how I got connected with Alex. And now they’re mentoring our high schoolers. It’s coming around full circle.”
With such a strong school-to-work pipeline, Stefanich says that Bemidji Steel is able to avoid the workforce shortage plaguing others in the region. The reputation of the company’s environment, culture, cutting-edge technology and endless opportunities has created a waitlist of the local school system’s best and brightest.
“It has become THE place to work. It’s a privilege to be here and it’s an honor to work here,” Grasdalen said. “Just this week, we had a 21-year-old employee talking to a 50-year-old engineer in Italy, and he was giving design feedback about how to make their product better. That’s what happens.”
Although Bemidji Steel could take its sought-after venture anywhere in the country, Grasdalen isn’t interested in leaving the place where it all started.
“We have an exceptional team here. We’ve made a lot of investments in them, and we want to keep them here and keep them employed and continue to give them opportunities to grow so they can enjoy living in Bemidji,” he said. “Beltrami Electric all the way to Bemidji State University, everybody is accessible and wants to help, and we all really want to grow together.”
MAIN IMAGE: Director of Business Excellence Brian Stefanich (left) and COO Alex Grasdalen work together to offer experiential learning opportunities to local students.