Editor’s note: This story is part of the Republican Eagle’s 2019 Progress Edition. This year we take readers “Behind the Scenes” of the sometimes hidden work of organizations around the area. Find the rest of the stories at Behind the Scenes.
GOODHUE-When Karl von Knobelsdorff took over Knobelsdorff Electric from his parents in 2008, the company had five employees. Now it has more than 160.
"Karl's parents did a lot of residential work, farm work, and light commercial," said Jeff Olson, business project manager. "Karl's vision was entirely different. He wanted to take the company to a whole new level and focus on the heavy industrial."
While Knobelsdorff Electric, whose 45,000-square-foot main office is at 25701 370th St. outside of Goodhue, has a few electricians that focus on residential work, their speciality has become large jobs where they often provide engineers, project managers, electricians, and even serve as general contractors.
"The bulk of our people are doing heavy industrial jobs, huge jobs," Olson said. "We do a lot of work that other companies don't want to touch."
Two years ago, Olson attended a solar convention and talked to many people there. Solar seemed like a good fit, so Knobelsdorff Electric launched into several solar projects, and today, the firm is ranked the 23rd largest solar installer in the nation.
When the solar contractors learned that "we did everything from low voltage and fiber optics right up to 35,000-volt pole work, the next week the phone started ringing, because they realized that they didn't have to go to three different contractors to get a job done," Olson said. "The solar portion of our business really took off."
Dundas Community Solar Garden
One solar project, the Dundas Community Solar Garden in Rice County, won a first place from the Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade association representing the non-union construction industry. The project was delayed by heavy fall rains, so most of the work of trenching and driving piles happened in rocky terrain in winter conditions as low as 20 below.
"We were able to successfully lay down over 138 miles of wire, make nearly 90,000 wiring terminations and oversee the installation of 19,800 solar panels," Olson said. "The project was completed on time, within budget, and with zero safety issues."
Adding new projects and new industries to their workload meant expanding just about every aspect of the company.
"We get a request to come and do work, and we figure out how to do it," said owner Karl von Knobelsdorff. "If we need more people, we figure out how to get more people."
The company seldom advertises except for job openings, according to von Knobelsdorff. He said new work comes from customers who are pleased with the work and bring them back for another project, or recommend Knobelsdorff to another company who hires them.
This expansion has moved the company from a southern Minnesota company to a company that is doing business in ten states. Each new state means paperwork to establish the authority to do work in that state.
With its work region constantly expanding, the company had to find "crews that are will to travel," Olson said. "A lot of our guys love that lifestyle. They are good at what they do."
This expansion also means adding more equipment. For example, adding the solar gardens to the project list meant that the underground equipment the firm had was no longer adequate.
"Now we own bulldozers, excavators, compaction equipment, dump trucks, skid loaders, scissor lifts, and more," von Knobelsdorff said. "The list of things that you need to do and know how to do just keeps growing."
The company's rapid growth doesn't really surprise von Knobelsdorff. "The reason that we have grown is that we do good work, and the customers see that," he said. "We are a service business. People want work done, and we come do work for them. We do a good job, and we get more work. It's as simple as that."
Olson said the growth seemed less like a rollercoaster and more like holding onto a rocket.
"I have told Karl that we should work on a three-, or fi e-, or 10-year forecast," Olson said, "but it is just pointless. It changes too fast, and usually we will far exceed what we put down on paper. It has been a fluid pattern of growth."
To support that growth takes a staff of people who are dedicated and enjoy their jobs.
"We offer opportunity here," Olson said. "We'll take a kid that has no experience but is a worker, and we'll train them here. We are a merit shop, and we pay the highest. If you want to work hard, the sky is the limit."
A place to grow
Olson said the company has positions for electrical estimators, electrical designers, electrical engineers, controls engineers, all levels of electricians, office jobs, construction management, and more.
"Wear a tool belt for a few years and figure out what's going on and decide what you want to do," Olson said. "We have trainers. We have safety people. All of that is in-house. We have every facet of the business."
Olson said the company has good family benefits for all its employees, because "Karl is quite a visionary in terms of wanting something more for his company and for his people. He has done so much for his employees. It is unbelievable."
Expanding a business across industries and state lines is difficult work, but von Knobelsdorff finds that work fun and interesting.
"I like taking what you learned in one industry and bringing it over to a new industry, and then learning the new stuff in that industry and bringing it back across the table," he said. "We like a challenge."
The teamwork involved in solving those problems leads to a strong sense of satisfaction when the job is complete, according to von Knobelsdorff.
"It's a great feeling of accomplishment," he said. "I like working together with a group of people to get a project done. Anytime you drive by a project that you did, you feel proud of what you accomplished, and it feels good."
With projects spreading across the nation, Olson said, "It seems like everywhere you go, there we are."