20 Apr 18
HOUSE PARTY // 1986-1992
All year long we’re celebrating the moments that got us to this great spot: 35 years of Making the Workplace a Betterplace™. It’s a tribute to our history and the big part you’ve played in it. So join us every month for a new tale, a quirky giveaway, and a fresh playlist of tasty tunes … ‘cuz there ain’t no party like an Ergodyne party, and this one’s gonna go down in the books, kids.
“When I started at Ergodyne, we were in a little house on Grand, with two and three people working in offices the size of a bedroom.”
– Becky Nagel, Director of Accounting
Like the Polo collar of a John Hughes prepster, things really started poppin’ for Ergodyne in the back half of the 1980s — and the party could be found at 653 Grand Avenue. Serving as the HQ for the upstart industrial safety gear manufacturer, the unassuming two-story on St. Paul’s historic commercial thoroughfare (now ironically home to chiropractic offices, among other things) housed a small crew, that, when combined with the homespun feel of the company digs, may have belied the lofty — some might say borderline crazy — goals of its leader.
After all, who in their right mind would enthusiastically volunteer to pilot a plane hurtling toward the mountainside? But yet, that’s literally (not literally literally) what current Ergodyne President and CEO Tom Votel did, convincing company leaders to leave the keys behind as they strapped on their parachute packs. (Do airplanes have keys? Serious question, you guys. This analogy might be falling apart…)
Anyway, Votel took the controls, banked hard and set coordinates toward a new sales channel: industrial safety supply. Remember that. It’ll be super important here in these next few sentences.
ON THE ROAD (JUST LIKE KEROUAC! ONLY LESS ACID AND STRONGER REGARD FOR PUNCTUATION)
Ergodyne’s house on Grand Ave was a very (very, very) fine house. But its leader would see little of it in those early days, instead taking to the road in search of U.S. distributorship for the company’s innovative back support. “Elegant and glorious,” he recalls those travels with a facetious grin. But then things just kinda started to happen, you know? Seems his knowledge of the product and obvious dedication to the company founder’s idealistic mission of keeping workers safe proved a powerful sales pitch.
Jim Tumpane, now territory manager for ISK Industries, recalls his first meeting being pretty hard to ignore. “We called him ‘doctor’ when he left the room because he was very technical. And very passionate about his product. He sold us on it [the back support].”
“Once we got our sea legs we grew very rapidly,” says Votel.
By 1991, the kid had taken the old man’s side gig and turned it into one of INC.’s Top 500 Fastest Growing Small Companies in the U.S. And, portending future strategy, Ergodyne even began diversifying its product offering, developing innovative vibration-reducing gloves in addition to establishing and pioneering the office ergonomics category, a concept that would slowly take hold as corporate best practice through the 90s and early 00s.
“I don’t like rides at circuses or fairs,” says Votel, “and this was kind of an insane rollercoaster ride.”
The view was strictly blue sky during Ergodyne’s precipitous climb of 100% growth year after year. And then, as it tends to do on rollercoasters, the view changed drastically at the top.
UP NEXT: PARTY CRASHERS
PREVIOUSLY: THE WHIZ KID TAKES THE REINS