How Superior Became an Idler Manufacturer
I’m doing a project this week that requires me to look back in our history books a bit and read stories of how we came to be a company. When you grow from two employees in 1972 to more than 950 today, I certainly read a lot about hard work, determination and passion, but my favorite story was how Superior happened to become an idler manufacturer.
It was 1974 and “Superior Machinery Company” — as it was known back then — was just two years old. Renting a corner in his dad’s repair shop, Neil Schmidgall originally defined Superior as a builder of portable conveyors, gravel washing plants and portable crushing plants. His first customers were family, specifically supplying machinery to his father’s gravel production business.
1974 also happened to be another volatile period in our country’s economic history. America was known as the “Limping Giant” as rampant inflation, a recession and a worldwide energy crisis crippled business. The emergency eventually triggered President Nixon to do something drastic; he imposed price controls in the early part of the decade, making it illegal for an American business to raise the price of its products.
While the plan proved popular on main street, it meant the end of business for Superior’s idler supplier, Ersham Manufacturing of Enterprise, Kansas. Neil remembers the company had a high overhead and when they couldn’t raise prices, they stopped making a profit.
Ersham approached Neil and offered to sell him their idler inventory, presses and tooling. Eventually, a purchase price was negotiated and in 1974, Superior Machinery was an American idler manufacturer; a unique business model to this day as the only American manufacturer of both conveying equipment and conveyor components.
My favorite part of the story was of the slow acquisition process to move the machinery from Kansas to Minnesota. Neil tells of how he and his wife made several trips to Enterprise (a 1,000 mile round trip). At maximum speeds of 20 miles per hour up hills, the couple’s mode of transportation was an International Tractor powered by a 238 Detroit diesel engine.
That first winter proved the hardest. Minnesota survived one of its worst blizzards on record that season. From January 10 to the 12, most of the state was shut down; buried by 20-foot drifts, two feet of snow and winds of 80 mph. Neil remembers digging down to the racks of rollers and parts stacked outside. He would climb back out with what he needed and the hole would quickly drift shut.
Each fall after, Neil would take pictures of the yard and mark the locations of hot spots so he could recover the tools like a squirrel when they would be buried by snow. He continued to do this until his tenure as president ended in the early 2000′s.