Don Salyards is always on the lookout for a good idea.
The Winona State University economics professor, businessman and entrepreneur has picked a few winners and a few losers over the years, from his first venture providing start-up capital for Comfortex, to his current role as co-owner of Winona Pattern and Mold--and a few failed ideas like the automated can-crushing device the Canible.
The Daily News talked with Salyards about the entrepreneurial spirit of Winona and the importance of innovation. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What makes Winona special?
“One of the things I have noticed as an economist is other than Watkins, if you think of all the manufacturing firms in Winona--and there are a ton of them--to my knowledge all of them started in Winona, and that is amazing. Almost all other communities our size or bigger, they landed a 3M factory or they landed a small engine manufacturing facility, or they landed another company.
“We didn't do any of that. We just grew it from within. This is one heck of an entrepreneurial town. It is an amazing story.”
Why is innovation so important?
“Being innovative is not only good, it is necessary. If you are making a standard product that can be found anywhere, it is probably being made somewhere else. And a lot of it has gone offshore if it's not a difficult or technical thing to do.
“But the technically difficult stuff, that is where America has the edge over other countries. Especially China. And we have some of those companies. Like in composites. Engineering a blue coffee cup, that's done by chemists at Fiberite, and that is a real science.”
What's unique about Winona that makes it conducive for entrepreneurship and innovation?
“I wink and answer that it is something in the water. I don't know what it is. I will say I have some ideas.
“In my time as a really small-time entrepreneur, I have found that some of the more successful entrepreneurs that own the big businesses, they are approachable. If you ask them for advice, they will sit down with coffee and will talk to you. So there is some mentoring being done from the older entrepreneurs to the younger start-up guys. These guys can just give you incredibly good advice.
“I think another part of it is our location. It has not made us a spot where a lot of manufacturers want to come. We are not in a major metro area, not near a big interstate. It has probably inhibited others from coming in. But it's good in a way. We build our own and make our own industries. And it happens every day in this town.”
Why did you get into start-ups and investing in area companies?
“I came here in the fall of 1975. I was making like $9,600 a year with a Ph.D. in economics. That was a fair wage in those days, but you are not going to get rich on a professor's salary.
“And I remember within five or six months of starting here, I was 26 years old, a young guy, and I remember one time over Christmas break I was lying in the bathtub looking over the sink. And this Peggy Lee song came into my head: “Is That All There Is?”
“I had gotten the Ph.D. because I like to teach. I liked it and I enjoyed it, but I also realized that this wouldn't be enough money for me and my family. We just wanted more. So I started to take some risks, and I found a couple of bright people who had good products and we started some companies. Comfortex and Winona Pattern and Mold are the two big guys.”
How did those come about?
“In the case of Comfortex, it did kind of fall in my lap. A guy by the name of Mike Murphy was right out of high school and he invented this mattress. One day after church, he took me over to the upholstery shop where he was having a prototype made and it really made sense. I talked to some nurses in La Crosse and they told me it was really great, it was a really good idea.
“So Mike and I started Comfortex. He didn't have two nickels to rub together and I didn't have much, but I went out and borrowed some money and we started the company. Five, six years later, the company bought me out.
“As for Winona Pattern and Mold, a guy named Steve Czaplewski, was a tool and die maker. He worked at Peerless Chain. Then he went to work at a pattern shop where they make patterns and molds.
“At some point, he decided he wanted to start his own shop. We rented a pole barn and we had one guy in there and that was him. And that's how it got started back in 1992.”
Can you tell me about Canible?
“Canible. Yeah, that was fun. That was one of my failures.
“This guy came to me. He was an inventor, and he'd invented something that looked like a garbage can with a tube coming out of the top and you drop a can down in it. It would activate a switch and the can would be crushed up and spit out into the garbage can. It was cool, and we called it the Canible because it would eat cans. But it was very complex. The dimensions of the rollers that would crush the can had to be perfect, and it had to grab a can a certain way.
“I paid the guy for the invention, and I paid him cash. Then it was my property. That was my biggest mistake. I had put a hundred cans through it and they all came out perfect. After I bought it off him, I took it down to Schniepp's Bar. A day and a half later, the owner calls me and tells me the thing jammed up.
“We never did get the damn thing to be reliable. So I just had to fold it up and walk away with my tail between my own legs.”
How do you pick what companies or products to get behind?
“The first thing I do is look at the product they are presumably going to make. And I search high and low to find out if there is any competition. And if there is, what is the nature of that competition. That is very important.
“The next thing is the markup. If the markups are low, you don't want to go into it. You are going to beat yourself up and never make any money.
“Last, I look for the background and integrity of my partner. I see if that passes muster. And you do the best you can. I've been fortunate with that part of it.”
What does the future look like for innovation and entrepreneurship in Winona?
“There are always brilliant people out there that will come up with ideas. And there are still all kinds of opportunities out there.
“This is a great town. This is Entrepreneur Town, USA. I don't know of any town that has got so many homegrown businesses as this one does. And they spin off of each other. It is pretty neat.”