Business success comes from inventions created out of necessity

Published 6:30 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

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By Kim Gooden for the Tribune

EMMONS — It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and Martin Bernau can definitely attest to that.

Bernau owns and operates Bernau & Sons Inc. in rural Emmons, a business that performs metal fabrication, welding, machinery repairs, manufacturing, retail steel sales and car restoration.

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People often come to Bernau with ideas for things they want him to build, but no plans for how to bring their ideas to fruition.

“That’s when I draw on my experience and knowing what’s required to fabricate something,” Bernau said. “It can take a lot of engineering to figure out how to get things to work, and sometimes it takes many attempts.”

But of all the things he does, those projects are Bernau’s favorite because he enjoys designing things.

One of the unique things he designed and built was the mounting stand and tail rotor blades for a decommissioned Huey helicopter that was set in place at Veterans Memorial Park in Emmons. To complete that project, he also had to figure out how to set the helicopter onto the stand and secure it.

A few of the other unique or one-of-a-kind things he has built include stands for church and fire hall bells, spiral staircases, gun safes and a storm shelter.

But those projects are just a small part of Bernau’s business.

“Seventy-five percent of our business is building rock boxes for front-wheel assist and four-wheel drive tractors,” Bernau said. “The other 25% is machinery repairs and fabrication.”

Most of the rock boxes, which bear the STURD-E-BUILT label, are sold through implement dealers in the Upper Midwest, but they have been shipped as far away as California, Texas and Hawaii. Others are sold to local farmers.

Some of the rock boxes are made with quarter-inch steel and used for picking up rocks and holding tools. Other rock boxes are made with up to 2-inch steel and used for ballast to hold the front end of the tractor down for better traction.

“Up in the Red River Valley, they use them as pushers on the front of the tractor to assist trucks when they get stuck during sugar beet harvest,” Bernau said.

The boxes can weigh from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds, but they have had special orders for two that weighed 7,500 pounds each.

Bernau makes rock boxes for John Deere, Case IH, Caterpillar, Ford, Fendt and AGCO-Allis tractors, but just as every tractor is not the same, neither is every rock box.

“Every tractor has different brackets and different styles,” Bernau said. “So every tractor requires a different rock box.

“As a result, when they [tractor companies] come out with new models, we have to go out and physically measure and figure out the right brackets. It’s a little challenging sometimes.”

When Bernau & Sons Inc. began building rock boxes many years ago, they were one of the first to do so, and Bernau came up with his own design.

“Back in the early days they were basically a square box to put rocks or cultivator shovels in,” he said.

Now the designs have changed and the corners have been rounded.

“When guys are spending half a million dollars on a tractor, they want the rock box to look nice,” Bernau said.

The finishing touches for each rock box happen in the paint shop where they are painted before being shipped out. Most of the boxes are painted green or black.

Over 50 years ago when the business began building rock boxes, they sold for $69. Today they sell for $4,000 to $5,000 retail, according to Bernau.

Many other things have been built, fabricated or repaired at Bernau & Sons Inc. in the more than 50 years since he first did some machinery repairs for a neighbor back in 8th or 9th grade.

Bernau’s business began in 1970 with a 3-point quick-hitch coupler that he designed to go on the back of a tractor to make hooking up and unhooking equipment easier.

Back then most of the cultivators were front-mounted, but when they purchased a rear-mount cultivator he put his talents to work and came up with the coupler that saved a lot of time.

“I was in 10th grade at the time, and attending ag school in Waseca. My mom would cut parts out and when I came home on weekends, I welded them together.”

While they sold 1,000 a year when they first started, now they sell about 20 a year due to the changes in machinery.

The latching mechanism on the Quick-Hitch Coupler was the only design that Bernau ever patented.

The patent was good for 17 years and when it expired in the 80s, they didn’t renew it because the responsibility to enforce it was on the patent holder.

Bernau and his employees have built many other things over the years including 54 belly dump gravel trailers, haying equipment, round bale feeders and folding cultivator bars.

They have also repaired many pieces of machinery for customers as far as 100 miles away.

Like the projects that come with an idea and no plan, repair work can be challenging at times as well, according to Bernau.

Bernau & Sons Inc. employs 10 people, four of which are full-time.

“They’ve all been here for quite a few years and they each know the area they work in,” Bernau said. “Two of them do the welding, some cut the steel, a couple deliver rock boxes, and one is dedicated to the car restoration.”

His wife, Julie, helps with the bookwork and billing.

Most of the work is done in the shop, which holds the many different machines needed to handle the different sizes of steel that they work with.

There are machines to shear the 5-by-10-foot sheets of steel, a machine to bend the iron, drills and milling machines to make holes, different kinds of welders to weld things together and torches.

All of that is what Bernau calls “old school” equipment because none of it is computerized.

“One drill press was patented in ’99. And that wasn’t 1999,” he said with a laugh.

“I bought it in 1970 and it was 70-plus years old at that time. But it’s what we drill most of the big holes with because it’s big and heavy.”

He recently acquired a computerized plasma table that will cut parts faster and with fewer different steps.

Bernau has been his own boss since he began working in 1970. His willingness to tackle any job and succeed, and the quality of the work at Bernau & Sons Inc. are the reasons his business has flourished with only word-of-mouth advertising.