Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Aug. 21, 2000

A growing SJF gets attention in Winsted

By Jane Otto

It was Dick Youngblood's column in the May 21 issue of the Star Tribune that prompted Rep. David Minge's visit to SJF Material Handling, Inc. Thursday.

"What impressed me," said Minge, "was all the kinds of opportunities available to you guys through what your family was already doing, and then, you took this company and did this."

What Frank, Jim, and Stafford Sterner have done is take SJF, a company their father, Gerald Sterner, started to help finance his sons' education, and launched it into what Youngblood calls "a one-stop shopping center for clients opening new warehouses and distribution centers."

"Every year, people say that we'll never make it, but we're still here," Said Stafford Sterner.

"We're still a growth company," Frank Sterner told Minge. "What we did years ago wasn't accepted. Now, it is."

And what growth. SJF, for the past five years, has averaged 22 percent in growth, and projected $17 million in sales for the past fiscal year.

Conversation between the congressman and Frank, Stafford and Gerald Sterner ranged from small business beginnings to employment situations to inventory management systems.

The Sterners said the most difficult thing with starting a business is learning where you can go to ask questions. Compliance to rules and regulations is tough when a business doesn't know what it is supposed to be doing.

They credit Floyd Sneer, who at the time was the city's economic development director., for often pointing them in the right direction.

"It's very helpful, when you have someone who is proactive and comes out to businesses and says, 'Hey, do you know you can do this?'" said Stafford Sterner.

With Winsted at just 2 percent unemployment, Minge asked how they find employees.

"It's difficult," Frank Sterner answered.

Sterner said that you need to offer incentives and benefits. Sometimes, he said, it's hard to be competitive.

"Our health care premium increased over 25 percent from last year," said Frank Sterner.

He added that they wanted to maintain the same level of benefits, so the company just had to swallow the additional expense.

SJF has many Latino employees. Gerald Sterner could not speak highly enough of their strong work ethic.

The problem, said Frank Sterner, is that even if the company has all its paperwork in order, it is never absolutely certain if they have a green card.

Sterner told Minge of an incident last year when it was rumored that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was going to pay SJF a visit. Just the rumor alone caused 15 employees to walk.

"That hurt us tremendously. We lost excellent employees that we had trained for three to four years," said Frank Sterner.

The Latinos fear the INS even if they have the proper credentials said Gerald Sterner.

Stafford Sterner said they presently have about 80 employees, of which about 60 are full-time.

They also have the largest inventory in the nation of used material-handling equipment that sprawls over 11 acres in the southeast end of town.

Touring the massive yard of racks upon racks of equipment, Minge could only comment, "This is some inventory."

Frank Sterner said that nothing is refurbished until they have an order.

Now, however, they can help small distribution businesses get their feet on solid ground.

"If they can take something second-hand, we can get them started," said Frank Sterner.

But "new" is also in the game. Frank Sterner told Minge they recently built and installed seven miles of conveyors for Mervyn's in Salt Lake City, Neb.

A Web site, designed by Stafford Sterner, has contributed to almost 70 percent of company sales.

SJF sells and buys across the nation. They hear from companies in Mexico, India and Russia.

Forever an entrepreneur, Gerald Sterner asked Minge how he could help SJF find contacts in China to buy material to enable them to remain competitive in their field

"We gotta stay with the big guys," Gerald Sterner said.

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