LAKE MILLS — Scott Seljan was hired in the early 1970s by APV Crepaco to run a grinder on the company's manufacturing floor.
The Lake Mills High School graduate spent two years making food processing, refrigeration and automation equipment but returned to the sprawling facility this summer after striking a deal with his former employer, which was later purchased by SPX Corp.
Seljan didn't get his job back.
Instead, he purchased the building that had been idle since 2008 and began moving his own operation, Seljan Co., into the 502,000-square-foot space that at one time had more than 1,100 workers.
It's unclear if Seljan's plastics and metal fabrication company will ever use all of the space under the 14 acres of roof. But he's unlikely to outgrow his new address, where the back of the building is a quarter mile from Seljan's front office.
"We're not limited anymore," Seljan said. "Our problem wasn't revenue or the ability to get things done. It was where to do it. Now, there are no excuses."
Seljan's company was founded by his father in 1967 and makes more than 1,100 plastic and metal parts for about 200 companies. They include wheels for mobile irrigation systems, garbage cans, trailer parts and lawn mower accessories. One of the newest products is a snowmobile seat for an arcade game.
In the last three years, revenues have more than doubled to more than $15 million while the number of employees has grown from 65 to 120. By the end of 2013, Seljan said his workforce should approach 200 people.
The company was located in two facilities, a 30,000-square-foot building constructed in 1997 in the city's industrial park and a 40,000-square-foot, leased structure a half mile to the west.
Seljan was seriously considering spending about $2.5 million to add on to his building in the industrial park, but when SPX lowered the $6 million asking price on its vacant facility, Seljan made an offer just a few hours after touring the facility in July. SPX countered, Seljan accepted and one of the largest vacant manufacturing spaces in the state was about to again become active.
"A building of that size, you have limited uses," said Steve Wilke, city manager of Lake Mills. "Scott had a need to expand and a use for it and that was a great opportunity for him."
It also keeps the facility on the tax rolls. SPX had a few interested parties in the property over the last few years but also considered razing the building and subdividing the land, Wilke said.
Seljan now has an enviable problem. He has 50,000 square feet of office space but ideally only needs about 20,000. The manufacturing area covers 452,000 square feet, but about 150,000 square feet on the building's southeast side could be leased to another company at some point, Seljan said.
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"I was not planning on buying this building," Seljan said.
"This was just too ... good of an opportunity to pass on. Normally you take a calendar to time these kind of events. We took a stopwatch."
A few challenges
The primary manufacturing area for Seljan includes 10 overhead cranes, ideal for moving materials and metal molds that can weigh 500 to 1,500 pounds apiece. There are interior loading docks, a 57,000-pound scale, a 50,000-gallon water tank for the fire-suppression system and a 2,500-square-foot lunchroom. The building can take in enough power to run a quarter of the homes in this city of just over 5,000 people, Seljan said.
Moving equipment from the old facilities to the new began in August, something easier said than done.
"The challenging part is getting all the stuff over here without losing any sales," Seljan said. "Now that we have space, we see a lot more opportunity out there. Our goal is to grow."
Seljan uses a golf cart to roam the manufacturing area, where metal work is located on the west side of the building along with a tool-and-die room. The plastics division is on the east side of the building where five rotational molding machines are in use on all three shifts and a sixth is being assembled. In 2013, Seljan wants to add four more of the machines at $400,000 apiece. There's also ample room for storage and staging. The company has a silo that can hold 40,000 pounds of raw plastic and is adding a 60,000-pound silo.
"If we need eight more, no problem," Seljan said of his lack of space concerns. "My big mission now is energy conservation. It's real easy for your energy bills to take hold of you."
Seljan praised SPX for the condition of the building but has spent more than $200,000 on painting, roof repairs and mechanical upgrades to gain energy savings.
Changes include a new heating and cooling system for the offices and a new air-compressor system. It operates at half the cost and can do twice the work compared with the old system.
He's also testing new fluorescent lighting to replace the existing sodium lights that blanket the 34-foot-tall ceilings and is hoping to cut lighting costs by one-third.
Dennis Heling, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium, said finding a user for a building over 200,000 square feet is challenging, but finding the right user is also important. Seljan is a perfect fit.
"There's a substantial difference between using a building for warehousing than for manufacturing," Heling said. "You might have a warehousing firm that employs a dozen people where a manufacturing facility may employ 250."