Tyler Deike was mowing lawns before he was old enough to drive and cleaning hotels before he could book a room.
As a 14- and 15-year-old, Tyler and his siblings would load a mower onto a trailer and get rides to customers from their father. At other times, the teen would clean rooms at a hotel owned by a family friend.
“It wasn’t the most glamorous,” he said, but he was eager for the opportunities.
But even as he grew his roster of a few dozen lawn clients, Deike felt the pressure to hew more closely to the well-trodden career path.
“You’re growing up and everyone says ‘Go to college, get a good job, contribute to your 401(k),’” he said. So he did. Though he maintained the lawn business in college, he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 2010. He got a job at Kato Engineering, a North Mankato company that makes electric generators.
He tried out a variety of roles, from quality engineer to continuous improvement to sales, but after eight years decided he couldn’t reach his career goals at the company. So he tapped into his inner entrepreneur.
Buying a head start
Most entrepreneurs start their own business, but it’s not the only path. Buying an existing business comes with advantages like a customer base, employees and a reputation, says Wendy Anderson, senior finance consultant at the South Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center.
It’s not unusual for a business owner to turn to an outside buyer as they retire, she said.
“There are plenty of options out there,” Anderson says. She works with entrepreneurs, including Deike, to evaluate the financial health and purchase price of a potential business acquisition.
In early 2018, Deike learned of a small St. James-based fiberglass manufacturing firm called Blackhawk Fiberwerx up for sale. But he was skeptical.
Born and raised in Mankato, where a commute meant driving from Hilltop Mankato to Upper North, Deike didn’t like the idea of a 30-minute drive. And he knew nothing about fiberglass.
Still, he figured he was bound to learn something from a visit, so he went.
“I walked in the door, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I can see through all of it,’” he said. Though he didn’t know fiberglass, he knew manufacturing, and he saw plenty of places to improve, including the production process and pricing.
Manufacturing, Deike said, is a little like baking a cake; it’s about assembling quality ingredients at a good price, getting the timing right and refining the process.
The company’s owner was ready to sell, and Deike had overcome his initial skepticism. Meanwhile, he and his wife were taking care of a newborn baby.
“I would be up all night taking care of the baby and finish up going through all the financials,” he said.
The deal closed on June 1, 2018, and Deike left his job at Kato Engineering. When Deike took its helm, Blackhawk Fiberwerx had one full-time and a few part-time employees.
The company’s premier product is called a “cab back.” It’s a piece of fiberglass placed on the back of a vehicle’s cab. For example, when the frame, or “chassis,” of an ambulance is ready to be retired, the box can be put on a new frame. The cab back is the boundary between the re-used box and the cab.
“We’re the only ones that make them in the country for smaller trucks” he said. The company also makes roofs for Polaris off-road vehicles.
After scaling the learning curve, Deike began brainstorming new products. Fiberglass has properties similar to metal; it’s strong and can be molded into almost any shape. But it’s lighter than metal and doesn’t rust or conduct electricity.
As he added potential new products to his list — he’s got his eye on making motorcycle riding bags, for example — Deike realized he had to take it slow. Making molds into which fiberglass is poured is a long, expensive process, so creating a new product line is a major investment.
Product development is like a funnel, with ideas coming in the top, getting refined and emerging as finished products. Cramming the funnel at the top with plenty of ideas, even good ones, can ensure nothing makes it through.
“You want to not get in over your head,” he says. He’s looking to expand the company’s production of outdoor fire tables, which are tables with a propane-fired, ornamental flame in the middle. The company had previously made only the base, but he’d like to make the entire table and sell directly to retailers or customers.
The employee count has fluctuated, at one point going as high as 10 full-time workers before settling at six people by May.
Even though he didn’t start the business from scratch, Deike shares the anxieties and pleasures of a business owner.
“It’s stressful in that it’s all up to you, and at the end of the day it’s not as if there’s a company there to support you,” he says. At the same time, getting a big contract and shipping it out can provide an adrenaline rush, not totally unlike the feeling he gets riding motocross.
“It’s a gas, it’s fun,” he says. You’re going fast, it’s kind of dangerous.”
Meanwhile, he’s still balancing it all with keeping his wife and three children happy. When the kids come home, he becomes Dad, but when it’s lights out he may return to the grindstone.
Something about Deike’s mindset craves variety, and he’s still on the hunt for other acquisitions.
“I think the market is ripe with companies running conservatively, not taking risks and not investing in newer technologies,” he says. Deike believes relatively minor tweaks, like selling ads on Facebook, could make many existing companies more profitable.
And through it all, he’s still been managing the landscaping business and has been dabbling in real estate and vehicle sales.
Still, he’s managing to focus on refining a handful of fiberglass products.
“Trust me, as much as I want to start on those Harley saddlebags, it’s not time yet.”
35119 746th Ave., St. James