By ANDREA VARGO
Changes to the front of Cartmakers, Inc. strike the eye of visitors as they enter Howard Lake from the east on Hwy. 12.
The new brick front angles to the east, so it is very noticeable from that direction.
Owner John Deitering said he and son-in-law Rick Zurawski like to make building changes during their quiet time from December to February.
This year the building got a face-lift and new office spaces inside.
There are more than just cosmetic changes to the building. Cartmakers, Inc. is the oldest of only 15 to 20 of its kind of business in the nation, and it has changed from its beginnings several times.
John Deitering and his wife Karen purchased a business 18 years ago in Delano called Wheels by Bordein, Inc.
They moved the business to Howard Lake in the spring of 1987.
"Karen and I worked, and we had two full-time employees," said Deitering.
They made decorative wooden wheels that were used by other businesses to manufacture light fixtures.
"Then along came ceiling fans, and that was that," he said.
"So around 1981-82, we were stuck with this capacity to make wheels and no use for it," Deitering said.
The Deiterings went to St. Thomas College, and the school did a free marketing survey. The survey showed there was a need for mobile popcorn and lemonade carts in zoos and amusement parks.
"The concept is that of a street peddler, but we never could market to them," said Deitering.
When they first started, they sold 10 carts to a man on the east coast for flower carts in a shopping mall.
In the early '80s they did a lot of east coast business by going to trade shows and advertising in trade magazines. In 1992, the year Rick joined the company, they got into the Mall of America and have about 62 carts there.
"Southdale used its aisles to provide a friendly atmosphere for shoppers. Remember when there used to be an aviary and waterfalls with benches and plants?
"Then someone decided to use that space to display goods," said John.
John said the malls own the carts and lease them to small enteprenuers who want the mall environment and sales opportunities. Their products don't fit a store atmosphere or the business people are just too small.
The requirements for a mall cart are not so rustic as those early models, so new designs had to be created. With the new look came a new name for the creations.
They are no longer carts. Now they are Retail Merchandising Units (RMU).
This is kind of a unique business, said Jill Zurawski, Rick's wife, because it is a big ticket item that is customized to the mall it is destined for.
Customers will send photos of architectural elements in their mall, paint chips, tile samples, etc., and Cartmakers will do a computer rendering on a power Macintosh computer.
Zurawski went to the University of Wisconsin - Stout in Menomonie and graduated with a major in graphic design. She is the artist behind the product.
When she finishes the computer rendering, the customer reviews it and makes adjustments, until it is satisfactory.
Then she does a line drawing and elevations for the technical aspects of the project.
"We eventually agree on the design package, said Rick, and then we get into the production schedule.
This design period varies with the customer. It may take two weeks to a year and a half, although standard design time for a new customer is one to two months.
"We try to shoot for production of 10 RMUs in three weeks. There is always the period of time before production can begin where materials are ordered, and that may take a month," he said.
"Also some design features need to be out-sourced, because we don't have the equipment here in the shop to handle them," said Zurawski.
"We only do basic welding here, not any of the welded design features," said Rick. All the metal parts are out-sourced.
"Sometimes we out-source the cut pieces of wood just to get the precision. One of the people we use has computer-controlled router tables and the tolerances are infitessimal," Rick said.
The crew does the assembly on the project into its component parts. Those parts are prepped, sanded, primed, and painted. Then those components are assembled into a RMU.
All along the way, employees always have to think about where the wires for the lighting will go. Do the doors open the right direction or should they slide? They need to look toward the end function.
"We are making a miniature store. It needs storage, lighting, a cash register, and display area," Rick said.
"Last year we worked almost all year to achieve a listing from the Underwriters Laboratories. We are pretty proud of that," he said.
It is like a passport. When Cartmakers delivers units to New York, one of the first things that happens is an inspection by a fire marshal or electric inspector. When they open the door on the unit, they will see the sticker, and everything is fine.
After the unit is made, it has to be shipped.
"We've shipped to Anchorage two times, and hundreds to the east coast. Once we shipped to Vancouver, British Columbia, and we have gone as far west as Colorado," he said.
"We utilize a freight company that does a lot of furniture. It has a complete tractor/trailer unit with air-ride and is more expensive.
"We spend almost half a day loading a semi-trailer. There is lots of prep time, and when we put the units in the truck, they are strapped to walls with bumpouts to hold the unit off the wall," he said.
Floor chocks, screwed to the bed of the truck, are used to keep the castors from sliding, since the units weigh up to 1,100 pounds.
All removable items, such as lights and shelves are disassembled and wrapped and packed.
"We also assist in the unloading," said Rick.
It means either he or John has to fly to meet the truck at its destination. They make sure the mall personnel have the proper equipment to unload. They unpack the parts and assemble the RMU on site.
The unit is tested, and mall personnel are given some training on the units with a list of materials they might have to order someday for the carts.
A big part of the business is how seasonal it is, said Rick. A regular business knows that someone comes into its store every day.
"Our customers are mall developers or management companies who have a budget process they go through every year for every mall.
"So we have to wait to find out what monies are allocated to their specialty leasing programs. Somewhere on this budget is a little line that addresses this. A management company representative may say Mall X needs replacement units.
"Perhaps its traffic demands additional units, or maybe it just can't support any new ones. It all depends on how that mall did the year before and what the projections are for the coming year," he said.
The trade shows are in February, and the companies are ready to spend their money.
John and Rick make sure they have new, innovative units to take to the show. Jill has a portfolio of designs ready in a sales package, and they head out to present their products to the buyers.
The one they are attending Feb. 21-23 is the Temporary Tenant Trade Show, sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers.
When the orders start coming, the shop gears up for another hectic summer.
"December is totally quiet because we just got through with our crunch time. By the first of November, all the new units are in place for the holidays, and our work load eases," Rick said.
But that time is not idle. Gerald Bapp from Dassel and
Tim Rick of Waverly are kept busy over the slow season making prototypes
of the new designs to take to the shows.