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Midwest Prototyping helps employees feel at home

Even during periods of high unemployment, a good, reliable, skilled worker is notoriously hard to find, so it’s no surprise when employers pull out all the stops to retain their people. But buying them homes? That seems a little extreme.

Well, that’s not exactly what Blue Mounds’ Midwest Prototyping has done, but getting its workers to commit to the area by ponying up some cash toward new digs is certainly one way to set your benefits package apart.

According to Steve Grundahl, Midwest Prototyping’s president and co-founder, the company was looking for a way to acknowledge the hard work its employees put into the company while also giving them a reason to stick around.

“The demands here can be pretty ridiculous at times, with machines running through the night and through the weekend, so we wanted to give [our employees] some more incentive to live close to the shop so that coming in to check on something on a weekend or in the middle of the night is not such a hassle” said Grundahl. “We were trying to find ways to make it easier on the guys, and make it easier for us so we didn’t have the angst of dragging someone here from Middleton or Madison in the middle of the night.”

“The demands here can be pretty ridiculous at times ... so we wanted to give [our employees] some more incentive to live close to the shop.” – Steve Grundahl

The program isn’t exactly designed to put Midwest Prototype’s workers into lavish McMansions, of course. It provides $4,000 that workers can use for a down payment if they buy within a 15-mile radius of the shop. At the outset, it’s a loan, but if they stay with the company for five years, the entire loan is forgiven and becomes a gift.

With the median home price at around $172,000 in Blue Mounds, $4,000 is going to be a pretty small percentage of one’s total mortgage, but as any new homebuyer knows, when you’re trying to scrape together a down payment, every little bit helps.

Trent Appleby, a senior model maker, was the first Midwest Prototype employee to take advantage of the program, which was launched about three years ago.

“It was definitely helpful,” said Appleby. “It was my first time buying a house, and I figured I was going to be here for a while, and I could take advantage of it.”

Appleby said he’s also grateful to the company for going the extra mile to help.

“For a small company to offer something like that was pretty nice,” he said.

A model of growth

While the goal of the mortgage assistance program is to foster goodwill while giving back to employees, one could argue that the company doesn’t really need more reasons to get people excited about working there. A recent winner of a Dane County Small Business Award, the company builds prototypes for larger manufacturers, and business is booming.

Using stereolithography, selective laser sintering, and other methods, the company takes engineers’ and industrial designers’ CAD files and turns them into tangible products.

“The bottom line is, we are making the first version, the prototype of whatever that customer has designed,” said Grundahl. “We’re sort of the delivery room, if you will. This is the new baby they’ve been able to see on the screen, just like you can see a baby in an ultrasound. This is their first chance to see something real in their hands.”

Being a part of the launch of a new product has to be gratifying, of course, but there’s also a palpable thrill that goes with being part of a thriving enterprise. Even as the Great Recession dashed the hopes of many Wisconsin businesses, Midwest Prototyping was surging forward. In the past several years, it built a new 18,000-square-foot facility and acquired two other companies.

Even in its slowest year of growth – 2009, when the economy as a whole was cratering – the company managed to grow its revenues by 16%.

“The first six months of 2009 were pretty brutal for us, and then it turned around,” said Grundahl. “The second half of 2009 was when we felt our recovery and growth, and then 2010 and 2011 continued that trend very dramatically.”

Grundahl said that to some degree his company’s success during the downturn was due to its partnerships with other companies, including Madison’s Bjorksten|bit7, that subcontract work out.

“I think in hindsight the secret may be that we’ve really tried to identify strong customers and do a very good job of taking care of them,” said Grundahl. “And because we’re in the new product development field, our belief is that the strong companies recognized the slump, to make an understatement, in the economy as probably an opportunity to begin developing like crazy and be ready for when things eventually did turn around. So we were a little bit lucky to be aligned with those kinds of companies, and we also try very hard to make sure we keep those relationships solid.”

Preserving relationships

The company is also concerned about its relationships with its employees, of course. Grundahl said the company has nearly doubled in size over the last year or so, to 17 employees, so along with the mortgage assistance program, it has been diligent about giving back.

“For the 10th anniversary of our company, we took our staff up to Road America, did a race car driving day with the Skip Barber School of Driving, so we’ve tried to do some over-the-top events like that,” said Grundahl. “We’ve included our staff in many of our customer appreciation parties and try to get them interacting directly with our customers. There’s so many forwards and email conversations, but there’s never any face-to-face interaction, so we try to encourage that when we can.”

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