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A Conversation With … Russ Copeland

Food/Dairy and Beer/Beverage General Manager, Paul Mueller Co.

Posted online

You’ve been with Paul Mueller Co. for 32 of its 80 years in business. How has the company evolved?
It started up as a little sheet metal business. In 1955, (Paul Mueller) started to build these milk coolers. You go on any dairy farm, anywhere really in North America, and talk about Mueller and the farmers know. That’s our claim to fame. In my first year here in 1987, we moved some production from Springfield to Osceola, Iowa. There’s roughly 13 different business units. We’re serving a variety of markets: beverage, pharmaceutical, food and dairy groups. We have 590 employees in Springfield.

What has been the effect of trade negotiations and tariffs on Mueller Co.?
When the tariffs first took place, we saw the base price on the steel begin to jump. That’s because a lot of American manufacturers who were purchasing steel from, say, China mills, due to the tariffs on those materials, they turned back to domestic mills. The mills weren’t quite ready for it. We have been successful at negotiating lengthy contracts with our suppliers to help to mitigate any volatility in the pricing of our steel. In the brewery business, we’ve seen a lot of foreign goods flood our markets. The tariffs have helped a little bit to close the gap on the price point. It’s still not enough.

Mueller Co.’s third quarter 2019 revenue dropped slightly to $46 million and earnings rose 38% year-over-year to $1.14 million. What’s your financial forecast?
We’ve had such strong demand over the past three years. I’d say Q3, Q4, it felt like there was some pent up demand that money was not being lent and capital equipment was not being bought. But now, we’re seeing a very strong market. Trade discussions are working their way through, and we’re starting to see some relief.

How do technological advancements affect workforce?
You’re able to shrink your workforce just by designing your products a little bit differently. We’re working with our customers to find a solution that meets their needs, and ultimately it ends up being a custom product. Due to the nature of that product, you’re not going to see a lot of robots in our factory. Automation to us looks like how we design it to run across lasers and water jets to free up our co-workers on the floor from rudimentary work.

We’re walking through Mueller Co.’s nearly 1 million-square-foot facility in Springfield. What do you produce here?
There’s eight production bays. In this first area, they’re building component products … the pieces and parts to make up these tanks. Mueller actually has specialized capabilities that a lot of other fabricators don’t. We sell those to other fabricators all over North America. The second bay has a lot of preprocessing activities. This group is doing all biopharmaceutical products. With this one, we are going to create dairy farm products. They’re building the larger version of milk coolers here, and the smaller version is built in our Osceola, Iowa, facility. In this area, they’re building a silo. That holds milk so that you can make your yogurts and cheeses. We build up to a 100,000-gallon silo. We’re talking about brands like Saputo cheese or Daisy. When you go into the grocery store and select your sour cream, all that came out of a Mueller tank. We work with bigger breweries, the Founders of the world, Anheuser Busch. These are our tanks for Mark Anthony Brands, which makes White Claw hard seltzer. Those are so big right now.

Russ Copeland can be reached at rcopeland@paulmueller.com.

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