The orders were coming in and business was growing ahead of schedule.
That was the good news for Craig and Lee Opsahl and their business, Merrill Tool and Die.
The bad news, however, was that the brothers had stretched the boundaries of their existing physical space to complete the orders and continue to grow the business.
When we started the company, we did so out co-founded in July 1999. “He had a machine shop measuring roughly 15-feet by 30-feet, which (Craig) always referred to as a machine shop in a submarine. In 2003, we had used up his house, the machine shop and both of his garages, so we really had to decide if we were going to shut down the business or if we were going to take a leap of faith and expand dramatically.”
The Opsahl’s elected to proceed forward with an expansion which, according to Lee, “was more of a Field of Dreams concept than any- thing else.”
Similar to the baseball field Ray Kinsella created on his Iowa farm, Craig and Lee Opsahl built a 6,000-square foot facility at 202 Eugene Street in Merrill and watched as they (the customers) came.
Now entering its 20th year of operation, Merrill Tool and Water Jet has bore witness to a few cosmetic changes (from a name alteration, moving into a third facility and a continually expanding workforce, with 37 employees) while being true to the company's founding vision and principles.
"We do a lot of things, We’re a broad and diverse company.We don’t specialize in one thing ..."
— Heath Heidmann,
marketing and project
Merrill Tool and Die
“We do a lot of things,” said Heath Heidmann, marketing and project development specialist, who joined the organization in 2011. “We’re a broad and diverse company. We don’t specialize in one thing, we have a bunch of aspects of the shop, from the tool and die stage all the way up to kind of a job shop and component manufacturer for other places to complete prototype models.”
All told, the company’s complete catalog of services encompasses laser cutting (headlined by a five kilowatt fiber optic laser), water jet cutting that can cut nearly any material up to six inches thick, tool and die, CNC machining, painting and finishing, forming, welding and fabrication, and assembly.
In addition to its diversity, Heidman points out that the adaptability and quick turnaround on orders by Merrill Tool and Water Jet, 202 S. Thomas St., has helped establish the company.
“As opposed to a bigger shop where there’s typically a longer lead time — few weeks to a month plus — we can do a run in a tighter turnaround,” said Heidman, noting that the majority of the company's clients are rooted throughout the central area of the Dairy State, although they have provided service to businesses in Florida and California.
“We’ll tackle the tighter and smaller quantities, and that has been our market, which is something that a mass production shop isn't really going to want to take time on. Well, we do.”
"When you get to the point where we are, it's about trying to develop strategies to increase efficiency and productivity."
— Lee Opsahl,
Merrill Tool and Die
What the company also does, according to Lee, is never settle or be complacent.
“I think we need to continue to keep innovating and pushing ourselves," said Lee, who stands as the majority owner of the business following the passing of Craig in November 2018. “When you get to the point where we are, it's about trying to develop strategies to increase efficiency and productivity.”
One such example has been the introduction of a company product line, MTW Power Box Rake. Its applications can benefit, among others, commercial landscapers, developers, equipment rental companies, race-track and horse track operators in the smoothing, clearing and raking of surfaces. “If there’s been a guiding principle to the business, it’s been trying to ask, instead of being able to do everything, well, ‘What can we do better than most? What kind of value can we add?’ " said Lee, a native of Merrill who earned an MBA in microbiology from UW-Oshkosh. “We try to really communicate with our customers to try to supply the most cost-effective solution we can."
Considering Opsahl’s industry experience did not exist prior to co-creating the company he has led for the past two decades, such is a quality that he had to learn and master early.
Following his days as a youth and college student in Wisconsin, he found himself working in both Hawaii and Dallas in sales capacity. With a
young daughter and having intermittent in-person communication with his family, a desire to return to his roots was not far from his mind.
“My family would travel to Merrill for about a week, and my parents and Craig would come to Dallas and Hawaii for a week,” Opsahl said. “I guess I wanted more interactions with my immediate family.”
Such a possibility became a reality in June 1999.
“Craig had been a journeyman machinist professionally and had collected a variety of machine tools over the 10 years prior to us starting the company,” Opsahl said. “We were planning to leave Dallas and Craig has this opportunity he was thinking about. He had the technical and machining ability, whereas I had the business background. So, we came back to Merrill so we could start the business."
Jumping headfirst in his new career, Opsahl went through a tool and die apprenticeship program at NTC and learned the craft under his brother's guidance. Working in tandem, growth ensued.
“We expanded our capabilities to include abrasive water jet cutting," said Opsahl, adding that the company incorporated its first CNC machine in 2002.
“We chose that niche as there was not another shop that had a water jet in central Wisconsin, Opsahl said. “We thought there was more of a market, and this was a way to distinguish ourselves from other laser shops."
The company's move into its existing 25,000- square-foot facility in 2011 stands as, perhaps, the greatest testament to the fruits of maximizing
on such a niche.
Overall, from working within the confines of Craig’s garage to overseeing a staff north of three dozen employees, each day is a reaffirmation to Opsahl that his entrepreneurial journey remains one devoid of regrets.
“I always regarded making (this) move as one of the better decisions of my life,” he said.