The Old (mid) West: Heart & Littfin Celebrate 50 Years of Business
The Old (mid) West: Heart & Littfin Celebrate 50 Years of Business
- View Littfin Slideshow
- Winsted addition 1966
- Winsted 1970s
- First truss loads - early 1970s
- Winsted plant
- Howard Lake Plant 1979-80
- Howard Lake 1980s
- Howard Lake addition
- Littfin present
- Littfin present
- Littfin present
- Littfin present
Apparently, the secret to surviving 50 years in the truss business is to begin by selling lumber, and then working your way into it. Heart Truss & Engineering in Lansing, MI, and Littfin Lumber (Truss) Company in Winsted, MN, are both celebrating half a century of success this year, and they share some common characteristics: one, they both hail from Midwestern states; two, their founders all started by selling lumber and building materials; and three, they all resisted the urge to expand beyond their means. That may be simplifying things a bit, so let’s dig a little deeper and look at how these two stalwarts of the industry started, the decisions they made to evolve as the industry changed, and finally, how they weathered the cyclical nature of residential construction.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the structural components industry was just getting off the ground. Jerry and Don Schaberg owned and operated a wholesale lumber company in Lansing, MI, and Don Butcher managed a lumber yard in Grand Rapids, MI. They did a lot of business together back then, and when Butcher started experimenting with building roof trusses, he sold the Schaberg brothers on the idea of starting their own truss manufacturing operation. “Jerry and Don B. ran the company,” said Jerry’s son Curt, President of Heart Truss. “Don S. continued to sell lumber and acted as a silent partner.” Lansing, located in the center or “heart” of the state, became not only the home base of their new business, it also served as the inspiration for their name, Heart Truss.
Similarly, Jack Littfin started out working for his father’s construction company, and he opened Littfin Lumber in 1962 to supply building materials, not only to his father, but to other local customers. Shortly after opening, Jack took over his father’s construction crews and built agricultural and residential buildings in and around Winsted, MN. Initially, Littfin built roof trusses in their shop in order to reduce the amount of time his framers had to be on the jobsite. “The pre-assembled trusses saved our crews days in the field,” said Jack. “That allowed us to build a few extra buildings a month.”
One of the biggest challenges both companies faced was convincing builders and building officials to make the switch from conventional framing to trusses. In Heart’s case, Don and Jerry had already built many relationships with lumber distributors throughout Michigan. Since that state was and continues to be a two-step market, where most builders work through building material dealers to purchase structural components, they found themselves marketing their products to people they already knew. “They also had the benefit of having to only approach 50 or so yards across the state, as opposed to over 200 builders,” said Curt.
Littfin had the benefit of starting off with one captive builder, himself, but quickly there were additional customers. In the late 1960s, Jack embraced the next evolution in truss construction, the metal gusset plate. “Metal plates seemed to offer a huge cost savings,” said Jack. “Up until then, there was a lot of labor costs involved in cutting the plywood gussets.” That really was the key for both of these companies, as they convinced builders to adapt to this new framing method, they themselves had to adapt and embrace changes within the components industry.
In 1970, Jack invested in a panel-clip jig and a metra cut saw, and purchased metal plates. In 1971, he hired Stan Fasching, his brother-in-law and an electrical engineer who espoused the many virtues of computers and software that could help with the design of trusses. “We were really in the truss business at that point,” said Jack. “Or, so we thought.” Quickly, they were building trusses not only for their own framing projects, but they also sold trusses to neighboring lumber companies.
By 1972, Littfin outgrew their panel-clip line and started looking for an even faster way to build trusses. Jack met with Walt Moehlenpah of Hydo-Air and George Eberle of Lumbermate, and eventually decided to purchase machinery, plates and computer-aided designs from Eberle. By the mid-1970s, business was so good, Littfin started another retail operation, Home Center, selling lumber, components and other building materials to a market that stretched nearly 80 miles in every direction. It wasn’t until the housing downturn of the early 1980s that they were forced to make a choice between the retail business and selling trusses wholesale to their lumber dealer customers. “It wasn’t a hard choice, really,” said Jack. “We sold the retail side of things and focused solely on becoming the best truss manufacturer in the upper Midwest.”
Heart Truss also found themselves continually adapting. Almost from the beginning, they manufactured not only roof trusses, but wall panels and floor trusses as well. One way they differentiated themselves in the market was to sell all the framing components for small vacation homes. “There are so many lakes and streams here in Michigan,” said Curt. “A lot of people would buy these homes and throw them up on the banks of one of those bodies of water.” Yet, while they had no competition in the manufactured wall panel market, Heart found it was difficult to make them profitable, so in 1978 they sold off the wall panel line.
In the mid-1970s, Heart also embraced the computer revolution, and even went so far as to start an engineering firm, Shelter Engineering. They developed one of the first batch-cutting software programs, and at its height had dozens of other manufacturers relying on them for truss designs. The housing dip of the early-1980s hit that side of the business hard, but once things started to take off again in the mid- to late-1980s, that business, conversely, grew too quickly. “Just as with the wall panel line, Heart Truss was first and foremost a truss manufacturer,” said Curt. “I guess in that way they were conservative, but it was an approach that served them well.” In 1988, instead of expanding, they sold the rights to Shelter Engineering to Hydro-Air.
As if that weren’t enough, Heart Truss also started a manufacturing company, called Diamond Machinery, which produced truss fabrication machines. Eventually, they sold the rights to that company to MiTek. “Until things became more centralized, like they are today, Heart’s approach was to get it done themselves as opposed to going to others for what they needed,” said Curt.
A Focus on Being the Best
By 1985, the housing industry was picking up once again. It was a bittersweet time for Littfin Truss, as Stan, who had contributed a great deal to the successful evolution of the company, passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. Yet, Jack and his employees persevered, and presided over unprecedented growth over the next decade. By the late-1990s, Littfin had expanded three times, and had a total of over 150,000 square feet of production space. “We became the single largest truss plant in the upper Midwest,” said Jack. “We could build 26 different roof trusses and ten floor trusses at the same time.” (See photo above.)
Littfin continued to expand, and even started offering nailed laminated poles along with roof trusses to agricultural customers wanting to construct pole buildings. They delivered both products directly to the jobsite, saving their lumber dealer customers the expense of warehousing and handling the poles themselves. By late 2005, Littfin employed 340 people and life was good.
Jerry Schaberg and Don Butcher’s sons, Curt and Joe respectively, started working in their fathers’ business in the early-1980s, when times were tough. As they witnessed their fathers’ decisions to focus on their core business (truss manufacturing), and sell off the engineering and machinery businesses, both Curt and Joe developed an appreciation for that conservative approach. Joe and Curt purchased the company from their fathers in 1994, and they continued to employ a similar approach to running the business.
“Whether you are talking about the early-1980s or the late-2000s, we knew the busts were coming; it was only a matter of time,” said Curt. “We were ultimately successful because we didn’t over-expand or over-purchase, we always remained a small player.” So, while they witnessed an 80 percent drop in business between 2004-2009 (the recession hit Michigan before it hit most of the rest of the nation), their almost single-minded pursuit of being first and foremost a great truss fabricator left them with a strong customer base and enough cash on the balance sheet to survive the precipitous drop off. (See photo above for a recent shot of Heart Truss.)
People Are the Key
Jack, Curt and Joe all concurred that the single biggest key to their success was the strength of their employees. The housing industry is finally showing signs of improvement, and Littfin Lumber is back up to 180 employees (roughly half of where they were at prior to the recession). Steve Laxen, Dean Neumann, Bob Mochinski and Ken Reinert have all worked for Littfin for many, many years, and have been an instrumental part of company’s longevity. “We never could have gotten that big, nor could we have gotten back to where we are now, without having the very best people for the job,” beamed Jack.
Joe and Curt point to their Director of Manufacturing, Dave Green, who has worked for Heart Truss over 30 years, as a core reason why they have continued to succeed in the components industry. “The biggest aspect to our success has always been the good reliable group of employees we have here at Heart,” echoed Joe. “They are our family, and we’ve gotten to where we are today by getting through the tough times together. Everyone took cuts and tightened their belts.” Finally, they are starting to reap the benefits of those hard decisions.
Beyond great employees focused on producing a good product, both Heart and Littfin point to their loyal customers and reliable suppliers as the other essential contributors to their success. “Without having them as partners, we never would have had this level of success,” explained Jack.
The Most Rewarding Part?
“The most rewarding part of being involved in the truss business is the perpetual change,” said Curt. “You can never stand still, but in that is the reward of constant accomplishment.” Indeed, both Heart Truss & Engineering and Littfin Lumber are testaments to the fact that much has changed in the structural components industry over the past 50 years; and driving that change have been individuals like Jack, Stan, Joe, Curt, Don and Jerry, who strove to do what was best for their customers and for the truss industry as a whole.
In the fall of 1972, we heard of a gathering of some of the larger truss component manufacturing and plate suppliers in Dallas, TX. We attended and heard how the truss industry could benefit from forming a national truss organization. This trade group would focus on improving the use of trusses across the country and work with building code officials and builders to increase the market share of trusses in houses, commercial and farm buildings. The organization would also strive to educate the construction industry about the new floor trusses that could be used in houses to compete against conventional framing 2x8 and 2x10 floor joists.
It made sense to have an organization focused exclusively on what we did and the products we made, so I became involved. Initially, the organization was called the Component Manufacturing Council, and was part of the Truss Plate Institute (TPI). After serving on the CMC Board, I was chosen in 1980 to become Chairman of the organization. Over time, it became clear the CMC should become its own separate organization, and so a group of us component manufacturers helped form the Wood Truss Council of America (WTCA), which recently was renamed the Structural Building Components Association.
There were many challenges to face in the early years of WTCA. One was getting on a solid financial foundation, the other was finding an Executive Director who could speak the language of the engineers. I was one of the members of a search committee that hired Kirk Grundahl, who was a Professional Engineer, and someone who has served the industry and the association well over the years.
I felt my time involved in the early years of forming WTCA was very well spent. It gave me the opportunity to develop friendships with component manufacturers all over the U.S. Many of these fellows are friends to this day. The association has always been very informative and important in the life of Littfin Truss.