After profits jumped 40 percent in 2011, officials at SRS Crisafulli Inc. in Glendive faced a business problem.
“It’s the encore problem. What do you do next?” said Laura Fleming, president and chief financial officer of the pump and dredge manufacturer.
This Glendive company started in 1966 with a patented pump that could be mounted on a trailer to irrigate local farms and ranches. Now the company’s 32 employees make 400 varieties of pumps and dredges.
Forty percent of the products are sold internationally to customers in more than 30 countries.
Even though the Mandarin speaker understands there can be benefits to foreign manufacturing, Fleming buys American products whenever possible and has no plans to move the company out of Glendive.
“We need to develop our American workforce,” she said.
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Last year’s record floods across the U.S., including Montana, boosted demand for the company’s durable, high-performance and transportable pumps and dredges. Total sales are proprietary, but last year one customer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
bought 20 more pumps for a total of 80, largely to deal with last year’s floods.
“Quite clearly, sales grew from our new product development and the floods across the U.S. and Canada,” Fleming said. “Everybody here really stepped up to the work.”
Amid a sonata of welders’ torches crackling and air tools squealing, workmen mold steel and aluminum to exact specifications. The finished product gets sprayed with Crisafulli’s signature red. Nearby, a banner says: “If you’re not proud of it, don’t ship it.”
This company is probably the largest manufacturer in the county, said Amy Deines, executive director of Dawson County Economic Development.
“It really shows how a small town can have a manufacturing business that can be a cornerstone,” she said. “They have been such a good mix for us.”
Dry Land diversification
After Angelo Crisafulli patented a centrifugal pump, he and his two brothers started the company 46 years ago.
Dredges were added to the mix and, in 1993, an SRS sludge removal system was added to the name.
In 1996, the company helped prevent a potential environmental disaster by shipping dredges to Venezuela to pump toxic “red mud” from an aluminum plant’s tailing ponds before the spillover polluted nearby rivers.
In 2010, France bought two dredges, and one was shipped to Africa last year.
Sales manager Maureen Lundman, who has worked with Crisafulli for 27 years, said the growth is unique for the industry and for Glendive.
“Each day we have the opportunity to talk with customers all around the world and solve problems for them,” she said.
In late February, company engineer Charles Nichols and Laurel electrician John Becker flew to Santiago, Chile, to set up the company’s first manned electric dredge to remove sediment building up at a dam.
“It was a very expensive solution, frankly. If we’d have known how expensive, we would have pushed harder to haul diesel up the mountain,” Fleming said.
The company buys parts and hires expertise from Montana to Seattle.
A “flump,” or floating pump, costs $120,000 to $200,000 and needs to be moved by truck because pumps and dredges cannot easily be broken down and shipped in parts. SRS Crisafulli spends more than $100,000 a year with Quality Transportation Inc. in Baker.
Several Billings companies trade with the Glendive manufacturer, including Spencer Fluid Power, which provides pump components.
Becker, who owns Warren Electric Inc. in Laurel, has gone from making one control panel a year for Crisafulli to seven panels last year.
The 4,160-volt electric control panel for the Chilean dredge took six months of design, fabrication and testing because a product shipped so far needs to be near perfect, Becker said.
Unlike some small companies, the Crisafulli team is interested in the latest technology, he said, and tries to buy American parts, including electrical components.
“U.S. accuracy was very tight, very precise. It’s not that way anymore with the quality of imports,” Becker said.
Company engineers get hands-on experience, Fleming said.
“The engineers produce as ordered, as opposed to Boeing where you might get to design widgets after five years,” she said.
Shipping the product
After the last oil boom went bust in 1982, Fleming’s father, Connecticut investment banker Richard Memhard, bought the Glendive company. A Crisafulli family member continued to run the business for a decade and then outside managers took over.
After the terrorist attacks in 2001 dimmed prospects in investment banking, Laura Fleming decided to manage Crisafulli more actively rather than work with her father. And last December, her son, Aldace Fleming, who studied economics, moved to Montana to help make sure products are built and shipped on time. After Discovery Channel’s new series “Gold Rush: Alaska” debuted last month, about a dozen gold miners called Glendive.
“But most of them were college kids who don’t have the money to buy our dredges,” Aldace Fleming said.
The company may be staying in Glendive, but it cannot expand further along the banks of the Yellowstone River.
The spartan offices are being remodeled, and a recent 4,000-square-foot addition to the factory took two years largely because it took so long to obtain a variance.
“The irony is not lost on us. We’re a company that deals with floods and we’re located in a floodplain,” Laura Fleming said.
Employees earned lots of overtime during last year’s rush and, two years ago, Crisafulli started sharing profits with employees.
“Everybody is talking about margins now, not commissions,” Aldace Fleming said.
Other company engineers are headed overseas to set up dredges in Israel and Mexico.
Meanwhile, Fleming is working on trade in Africa.
“The sweetest thing about this business is it’s got a balanced product line, which helps to serve small niches in a global market,” Fleming said.
But a trip to Zambia last summer with officials from the Montana World Trade Center resulted in mixed messages.
“They wanted to trade honey. I said, ‘No, we don’t do honey,’ “ she said.
And trade with Nigeria is tempting but risky.
“They have the demand and they have interest in our products. We just have to do a legitimate transaction,” she said, adding that the check has to clear.
After learning Mandarin at the Beijing Language Institute in the early 1980s, Fleming is poised to set up trade with China.
“I know China very well, but I’m not interested in exporting American jobs,” she said.
In the competition to win contracts in Africa, Fleming has chosen sides.
“I’d rather sell to Africa and help Africa and America,” she said. “Africa competes against China, and I’m all about competition.”
Now Laura Fleming is deploying what she calls an intellectual SWAT team to focus on the next business opportunities.
“We’re trying to figure out how to service the oil industry,” she said.