For a company to celebrate 90 years of successful business in a local community, it’s considered a great milestone. That achievement requires strong leadership, quality product, and a substantial amount of hard work by its employees. Millerbernd Manufacturing, located in Winsted, was recently able to reach that milestone. But what’s even more worthy of note is when they can say that their team loyalty is so strong that they have an employee who has contributed to their success for more than half of those 90 years. As of August 2023, Donnie Laxen will reward himself for five decades at Millerbernd by setting his hard hat aside and starting his retirement.
For Donnie, five decades doesn’t define a job; it’s a long-established career that began with an unexpected opportunity in 1973. Back then, he was primarily working in road construction but also helped his dad, Leo Laxen, bale hay and fix equipment on Paul Millerbernd’s farm. On that fateful day, the baler broke down. As Donnie was fixing it, Dave Millerbernd, approached him and redirected his path from a job in construction to an offer for a career in steel pole production.
The first few days on the job were filled with uncertainty; trying to determine where his skills would fit in on the floor. After a few months of performing various tasks, Donnie found his calling. He was asked if he wanted to work on “the big press.” This brake press was so big that the building had to be built around it. Per Donnie, “This press wasn’t some ordinary press; it’s two 1,000 tons working together to form plates of steel over 54 ft.” He was up to the challenge and has been forming poles with that press for 40+ years.
Company CEO Trevor Millerbernd says that Donnie has run the brake press for as long as he can remember. “Donnie, as an individual, has formed more light poles than probably any human being on the face of the Earth. He’s held the same position for a long time. There’s only one other company that’s existed as long as Millerbernd, so he’s probably worked on more poles than at least the top 1% of those who run the machine.”
He's particularly proud of one company record that he and his dear friend Larry Stifter once achieved. They went for a record of how many shafts they could build in a day. “Dave Millerbernd did a time study of how many poles per hour could be done on our press. Dave thought we could get 14 poles done per hour. Larry and I made 129 quality poles in an 8-hour day!” He recognizes that the team now has the record with capabilities and innovation that did not exist several years ago.
Having a career that spans five decades means that Donnie has had the pleasure of working with all 3 generations of Millerbernd leaders: Paul, Dave, Steve, Yvonne, and Trevor. But that Millerbernd/Laxen connection doesn’t simply span across 3 generations. While Donnie has the longest tenure of years worked on the shop floor, he’s technically beaten for total employment years by his aunt Mixie who retired after 52 years. He’s proud to note that if you combine the years worked by his dad on Paul’s farm with those worked by him, his aunt, uncle, cousin, and son for Millerbernd Manufacturing, his family has been proudly working with the Millerbernd family for 210 years!
But for Donnie, quite a bit has changed since his first day in 1973. “In early years we moved heavy plate manually. It was more brutal to move the product around. We had to pull it in. We didn’t have fork trucks to push the steel. We used crow or pry bars. It was grueling work.” When he started, the company targeted a five-state region and had 110 employees. Today, Trevor has taken steps to advance the company with a focus on innovation, expansion, and having the best equipment for the job. As a result, Millerbernd has grown to over 500 employees with products being sold in almost every state across the country! Donnie expects that it will continue to grow.
As Donnie closes the chapter on his time at Millerbernd, he leaves behind a legacy of hard work and dedication to the job. Fortunately for his team, he leads by example and has been willing to pass that dedication on to others. Trevor notes that “Donnie has played a part in the training of different people on the Pole machinery. He’s probably trained most of the big brake press operators we have today. He got satisfaction out of training people and takes pride in the equipment he runs, keeping it clean and painting it over shutdowns and when time allows.”
President Eric Stack refers to Donnie as the “Conductor of the orchestra” due to his work ethic and willingness to jump in and help. “The work is strenuous. Our guys on the floor work hard and earn their pay. They’re on their feet on cement, so they need their time off, but Donnie Laxen is there every Friday, which is voluntary overtime. He is always there. That was an early impression, and it carries through his entire time here. It’s infectious to others.”
According to Eric, Millerbernd can attribute many changes that have been made to Donnie’s feedback, including improvements to a bar that could pivot for the swing arms in the Bay 2 press and the replacement of a large I-Beam lift with a smaller, more maneuverable lift that was safer and more efficient. Eric says that Donnie’s passion for safety improvements, “Was a great example to wake everybody up from Leadership to engineers, you name it, that we need to listen to the people on the floor and they’ll tell you what is and isn’t working. I appreciated that.”
Donnie isn’t sure what retirement will have in store for him but jokes that his wife will probably send him back to work because he’ll be in her space too much. “She tells the guys [jokingly] she doesn’t want me at home and the guys say they don’t want me at work.” But he knows he’ll likely spend time with his family and will have no problem staying busy. Throughout his years at Millerbernd, he never stopped running his farm in Howard Lake and will continue to do so. His goal was originally to have an 80-acre farm and work 14 years to be 100% vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan. According to Donnie, those 14 years became five decades, “Because of dear friends not here anymore and those I work with every day.”
When asked if there are parting words they’d like to share with Donnie, both Trevor and Eric offered words of gratitude and well wishes.
Trevor, “I want to thank him for his contribution to making us successful. He’s played a big part in it. I appreciate it and know Millerbernd appreciates it. It feels good as a company to offer the opportunity for someone to stay at a company for five decades and for them to actually stay. Thank you, Donnie, for your contribution to making us the success we are today. I wish him the absolute best in his next chapter. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but I hope he can relax and enjoy retirement.”
Eric, “Enjoy your retirement and do something other than work, Donnie. Go out fishing, spend time with family and your boy and grandchildren. Find joy in that.” He added, “He’s ending on a high note. He’s an incredible part of the culture of the company and we appreciate that. We wish him joy in his retirement and welcome him back any time he wants. Everyone will love to see Donnie Laxen”.