For almost 20 years, Bob Ayers divided his time between two jobs so his wife, Donna, could be at home with their kids. He worked full-time nights as a truck driver for NAPA Distribution Center, and part-time days for Haberman Woodworking & Frames.
“It worked, but it was hard. I didn’t get much sleep, Donna and I had no time for just us, and the kids didn’t get to spend much time with me. In 1988, my friend Jerry Waldrop approached me about taking over a job he had been doing in his home, cutting packing foam for OTC/SPx. I hemmed and hawed for awhile, but pretty soon we had set up shop in Donna’s laundry room and we were cutting specially-designed foam packaging for SPx tools. After four years, we were so busy we added on an 800-square-foot garage. Within the first 10 years we had so much work we realized this was our future,” Ayers recalled.
In 1998, Ayers approached Ken Henricksen at the Owatonna Business Incubator. He had outgrown the shop in the garage, and was able to set up shop in the Incubator facility with Henricksen’s help. It wasn’t long before he needed to upgrade and add additional equipment so he could keep up with the demand. Ayers recalled how defeated he felt after his personal bank declined his request for a $70,000 loan to purchase a foam press .
“I remember visiting with Ken. I was pretty down, trying to figure out how I was going to get ahead of the orders I had. Ken had helped me with some compliance paperwork and other miscellaneous stuff when we moved into the Incubator, but he really came through for me when I needed to grow. Ken suggested some other financing options, and with his help, I got what I needed to help FoamCraft grow. Ken was the guy who really taught me how to be a businessman,” Ayers said.
Within two years, Ayers had paid back the loan, and in 2000, earned his “first clear dollar of profit” plaque from the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce.
It was always the Ayers’ dream to move their business into its own space, and in 2005, their dream came true. “When Donna and I started out in the Incubator space, we were doing strictly ‘foam’ projects, which included fitted pieces of packing foam that fit inside metal cases and held sets of tools, for example, a full set of socket wrenches special to the aircraft industry. But we were able to add new equipment in the new building to make us more competitive. And SPx had asked us to do some wood projects for them, including crates and pallets. This has really been our biggest growth area, the wood projects,” he said.
“About 4-5 years ago we bought an already-established packaging business in Albert Lea, and it was easy to convert it to our needs. As well as customers picking up their products, we can now truck products back and forth between FoamCraft and Albert Lea Crating, as well as ship our packing products directly to our customers. We have 2.5 full-time truck drivers, six 53-foot trailers (two flatbeds and four trailers) and two straight trucks,” Ayers added. Besides Bosch (OTC, SPx, Bosch), some of FoamCraft’s largest customers include Cambria (manufacturers of engineered quartz surfaces) and SageGlass in Faribault.
Ayers laughed when he recalled some “special” projects he had accepted through the years, including building a wooden crate with a foam interior to be used to ship a church organ to England and another special-build request to build crates for John Deere Gators so they could be “air-freighted from Minneapolis to Saudi Arabia to assist with a Saudi plan to construct a city in the middle of the desert. The special-build crates were to double as garages for the Gators,” he laughed.
“It doesn’t matter what we are packaging. I guarantee you pretty much anything we pack could be dropped from the top of the Empire State Building and it would likely survive. Our crew can do anything,” he said of his current staff of 38 full-time employees between the two plants.
Ayers is visibly proud of the direction the little business in the laundry room has taken. “You know, Donna and I are partners in marriage, partners in life and partners in this business. This is, and always has been, a full-time job for both of us. It took both of us a lot of hard work and many sacrifices to get this far,” he said, gazing at the dollar bill hanging on the wall of the conference room. “There were times we cried, lost sleep, juggled bills….just didn’t know what we’d do next. Times I wanted to break the glass covering that dollar because we needed it so badly.
“But those times motivated us too. To take care of ourselves and our employees. To do everything we could to make sure our customers were happy. To follow the ‘Golden Rule.’ We’ve learned some hard lessons, but we’ve also learned some really neat things,” saying he never thought he’d see the day where FoamCraft would have a ‘Mother’s Room.’
“One of our crew is a new mom who sometimes doesn’t have daycare, so her baby comes to work with her on those days. When the baby needs to eat or needs changing, mom has a place to go. That’s probably one of the best things about FoamCraft. We’ve become a family, and that’s not an easy atmosphere to create and maintain when a company grows as fast as ours has,” Ayers said.
“Yeah,” he mused. “I’m pretty darn proud of that.”
- Authored By Lisa Richmond