BEMIDJI - From the industrial park to downtown, Bemidji’s economy is both expanding and diversifying.
Want proof? A recent ranking of America’s fastest growing companies included four from Bemidji.
In this year’s list of 5,000 fastest-growing companies compiled by Inc. Magazine, local companies AirCorps Aviation, Choice Therapy, Karvakko Engineering and EXB Solutions all made the rankings.
With four companies listed, Bemidji showed more growth than other, larger Minnesota towns outside the Twin Cities metro area. For example, Brainerd, St. Cloud and Duluth each only had two companies make the list.
For Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, an economic development organization, having four Bemidji companies on the Inc. 5000 is a validation of what he’s noticed the past few years.
“I’ve been calling Bemidji the emerging start-up city of Minnesota, and this is just another one of those indications of that,” Hengel said. “We’ve had some great entrepreneurs that have started wonderful companies that are springing up across the city. We’ve seen a lot of that in the entrepreneur meet ups here at Greater Bemidji.”
According to Hengel, one of the key benefits from the recent listing is the variety.
“Historically, over the years, Bemidji hasn’t had as diverse of an economy as we’d like to have. It certainly has been focused on tourism, retail and services,” Hengel said. “On this list, though, we have healthcare, manufacturing, engineering and technology. It’s a really good sign for the Bemidji area.”
Coming in with the highest Bemidji ranking on Inc. Magazine’s list was AirCorps Aviation, a restoration company specializing in vintage WWII aircraft that started four years ago. AirCorps Aviation was ranked as the 599th fastest-growing company nationally, and ninth nationally in the manufacturing sector.
“We were pretty surprised that we were ranked that high, but it’s been exciting. We’ve put in a lot of work since 2011 when we started here,” said Erik Hokuf, AirCorps Aviation managing partner. “We’re proud of all our people. Obviously, we couldn’t do it without the people we have.”
Hokuf said some of the forces driving the growth at AirCorps Aviation include the time an aircraft restoration project takes to complete, the number of projects scheduled and how many workers are needed to bring it all together.
“There is quite a bit of work out there for aircraft restorations. One of the things with that is these restorations are a lot of work, they are big projects. Simply by taking on one or two projects, it creates a lot of work,” Hokuf said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a big boom in the industry, but we have found a niche and have had a lot of requests.”
One of the criteria to be included on the Inc. list is the percentage of growth from 2011 to 2014. In that aspect, AirCorps Aviation is soaring, with a growth rate of 768 percent.
There’s likely 10 years of work ahead of the staff at AirCorps Aviation, Hokuf said, and the company will likely continue adding more employees in the future.
“There’s definitely more room for growth. We’re located both in the Industrial Park area and at the (Bemidji Regional) Airport,” said Hokuf. “We’d like to have more of a facility at the airport and move the restoration from here to there and increase the parts manufacturing back here in the industrial area.”
The second-highest ranked Bemidji company, at No. 1,158, was Karvakko Engineering, which has made the list two years in a row.
“It’s definitely a huge honor, it’s a way to show the employees the great job they’re doing,” said Kellie Dixon, Karvakko marketing and sales coordinator.
“I think it’s a testament to the entrepreneurial climate in this community, especially with Greater Bemidji and the resources that everybody has access to,” said Dixon. “So it’s not just one industry seeing this growth, it’s across the region.”
Karvakko’s growth rate for three-year period was 365 percent.
EXB Solutions, a company with offices in Bemidji and Hopkins, Minn., was ranked No. 2,458 by Inc. and is one of the latest to take advantage of the Mayflower Building, according to President and CEO Chris Schwartzbauer.
One of the largest resources entrepreneurs have in Bemidji is the Mayflower Building. Located downtown, the refurbished Mayflower offers space for networking, business start-up room and office space.
“People think about the Mayflower Building, and there are two pieces to it. Certainly the first is the space for people starting a company,” Hengel said. “The second part of it is making resources available. Right here, we have access to the Small Business Development Center, a program called Office Hours, which brings in current and retired CEOs and we also have mentorship programs for entrepreneurs. It’s all to help people who have an idea get started.”
“We recently leased new space at the Mayflower Building, which has been really exciting for us,” Schwartzbauer said. “We’ve worked with Greater Bemidji and they’ve been a good organization to work with.”
For Schwartzbauer, the ranking is a great opportunity, and recognition, for the engineering services company that works in the medical, aerospace and defense marketplaces.
“I think the value will be the recognition of the work we’ve been doing for many years. So far, it’s been under the radar and this is a chance to get some recognition back to the employees,” Schwartzbauer said. “We strive to get better every year, too. We now have a benchmark for us to improve upon. While we made the list, we want to continue to improve.”
Schwartzbauer said the company set goals to double its size the past three years, and they achieved that mark. Their growth rate from 2011 to 2014 was 153 percent, and by the end of this year, he said, they will have tripled in the size of the company.
The fourth company to make the top 5,000 was Choice Therapy, at No. 2,313, which owner Jason Brodina credits to both the staff and the resources available in the community.
“It’s a great accomplishment for us. It shows the hard work and dedication of our staff at Choice Therapy to allow our company to grow and excel. It’s a testament to our staff making this achievable,” Brodina said. “We also wouldn’t be where we are today without the Small Business Development Center.
“Having our business listed with the others in the community, it’s a testament to Bemidji that the city is growing and that there is more room for growth in our area. There’s no other town or city in greater Minnesota that has that. We have shown that we have great entrepreneurs here in town.”
And more success should breed more success, the entrepreneurs said. And it helps reverse the trend of out-migration from the Bemidji area to larger cities.
“I think it’s a pretty cool thing as a community that we have four businesses ranked,” said Hokuf. “It excites me to see the growth in Bemidji. I think there’s a lot of potential for more in our region.”
“People don’t have to leave after they graduate from BSU or other area colleges to go to a metropolitan area,” Dixon said. “They can stay right in Bemidji and have great professional career and start their own businesses and they have resources to get those goals achieved.”