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Delivering critical infrastructure materials throughout the U.S.

Lemke Industrial Machine got its start in 1973 as a general machine shop providing services to local businesses

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February 5, 2024

MARATHON CITY – Lemke Industrial Machine LLC has been located on the same plot of land on County Highway NN for the past 50-plus years.

However, the inner workings of the Marathon City engineering and manufacturing business have evolved to keep pace with its growing markets.

Describing itself as a “lifting partner,” Lemke manufactures machinery and operating equipment for use in locks, dams and movable bridges – specifically in the dam gate hoist market for use with private, local, state and federally-owned dams.

“We often say we make big things move,” Business Manager Will Kreutter said. 

In addition, the business provides custom machining services for large, complex castings, forgings and weldments.

Its large-capacity machining and manufacturing capabilities, Kreutter said, are what differentiates it from other machine shops – which enables the Lemke team to serve large product/project needs.

“We are an engineering and manufacturing business that designs, engineers, procures, machines, assembles and tests the equipment we make,” President Dan Rice said.

Growth, Rice said, has followed, prompting the company to physically expand its facility including a recently completed office expansion, as well as a shop and locker room remodeling project currently underway.

The remodel, he said, includes improving the value stream to include an efficient material flow and creating space for additional machines on the shop floor.

Simultaneously, Rice said Lemke is implementing an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to further position the business for the future.

“ERP implementation is a great example of how we are professionalizing the business,” he said. “It builds on the rebrand last year to being a lifting partner, a partner to the industry and modernizing ourselves.”

Some of the most significant shifts, Rice said, accompanied the company’s purchase by Wisconsin River Partners, a relatively new and local private equity partnership in fall 2020.

He said the partnership aimed to invest locally to create greater returns and greater impact.

In early 2022, Rice joined the team as president, bringing with him what he described as a renewed management discipline focused on operational excellence.

Among other things, he said, this included formalization of the business’s strategic vision and execution plan and simultaneously codifying Lemke’s purpose, goals, core values and culture. 

“One of the things often used to describe Lemke to people outside of it is, it has a 50-(plus)-year history and long run,” he said. “But there is a resurgence of energy in the organization in terms of growth and creativity. The energy feels like a start-up, and we have a good, strong creative culture that’s driving a lot of innovation and creativity.”

The industries Lemke serves, Rice said, provide a consistent flow of work over the years – with the last few years’ growth being some of the most significant.

In 2012, the company had 16 employees – today, the company employs 32.

“In that time, we have (experienced) 10 times the top-line growth in revenue and profitability,” Rice said. “This industry is fairly isolated from macroeconomic trends, and so we can be a consistent supplier.”

Rice said a culture that encourages feedback has sparked a renewed sense of practice feedback, which has been well-received by leadership and employees alike.

Lemke, he said, is also leveraging Lean and Six Sigma principles to eliminate waste, reduce lead times and enhance process efficiency.

“‘Productivity and Efficiency to Improve the Bottom Line’ is our theme for 2024,” Rice said.

Infrastructure, other once-in-a-lifetime projects

Lemke got its start in 1973 as a general machine shop providing services to local businesses, but Rice said during the past 10-15 years, it has transitioned into an engineering/design firm.

In many cases, he said Lemke is building machinery and/or equipment to replace equipment that has been in place and used for 50-100 years.

“We are utilizing modern technology and modern designs in our architecture to do that,” he said. “That said, that can come with issues as the new products have to be driven off old specifications. These are often once-in-a-lifetime projects for many of our customers that (often offer) opportunities to provide new creative solutions to better the product.”

Projects, Rice said, run the gamut – often requiring interesting or even unique designs with features the business hasn’t done before.

But he said Lemke is up for the challenge – standing out in the market for its ability to construct new movable bridge machinery and rehabilitate existing systems

“We were six months into one project and the engineer ran into several issues so he pulled together a PowerPoint of 15 slides, one for each issue, and we held a roundtable with engineers in the company to work on innovative solutions to real-time issues,” Kreutter said. “We’re driving solutions.”

The resulting work, Operations Manager Mark Gehring said, on key infrastructure provides tangible results.

“It’s neat to drive around the country, especially different parts of the state, to see our projects,” he said. “We were in Green Bay with the kids and eating our lunch next to the Ray Nitschke Bridge. I got to show everybody there, ‘These are the parts we made.’”

Key differentiators

Rice said the company’s reputation is the result of many factors, including collaboration, professionalism, follow-through, innovation and carefully-culled expertise.

“We used to do fabrication and paint, for example, but realized you can be good at many things or be great at a few,” Kreutter said. “So, we focused on the machining side of things. Many of our competitors do fabrication and machining. In contrast, we are the hoist specialists and have established our niche and think strategically as the experts in hoisting equipment within dams. That’s an example of a market we own and drive innovation from.”

Rice said he’d add nimbleness, responsiveness and a mindset of ownership to that equation.

“If there’s an issue with a project, we’ll pull the whole team into a room within minutes, collaborating on figuring out the best approach so we can respond quickly to the customer,” Controller and Human Resources Manager Jacee Feit said.

Feit said that includes pulling together employees from all areas of the company as needed.

The collaborative environment, he said, has built a one-team mentality where there is no division between “carpet and concrete.”

“Everybody feels equal because there’s an equal playing field from entry-level (roles) to our top levels,” he said. 

Rice said Lemke is also investing heavily in developing employees.

One example, he said, is Cody, a student at North Central Technical College in the machine/tool program. 

As a result of some recent retirements, Cody recognized a gap – with no one having their CDL.

Rice said that’s an issue as the parts Lemke manufactures are large and occasionally require outside processing, so cost-effective transportation is important to profitability.

The company, he said, saw the opportunity to invest in an up-and-coming employee, Cody, and his CDL training to expand his skills matrix and close the gap.

Rice said the leadership team recognizes the entire team has a role in making Lemke a great place to work. 

“That’s about being open, transparent and good communicators, paying well, sharing when the company does well and protecting the culture,” he said. “We have done a good job in hiring and establishing an environment that integrates the shop team and the office team.”

Delivering the culmination of some big projects the team is proud of, Feit said, will happen in 2024.

“When you see the semis lined up in front of the building to transport what we’ve made, it’s overwhelming,” he said. “Projects can take one to five years, and to see them (in final form) is a good feeling.”

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