It’s lunch time in the city of Morton.
Over at the Step Saver Inc. main office members of the Steffl family are beginning to gather in the kitchen area where a Honduran meal of meat and vegetables has just been freshly grilled on the stove top.
For Step Saver founder and owner Charles “Chuck” Steffl III the sort of the interaction provided by this setting means everything.
“It’s hard to put into words what it means to be able to work with your family and get along with your family,” said Steffl. “It’s very rewarding.”
The opening of the new Step Saver office in Morton earlier this year served as the last phase of the relocation of the 22-year-old business’s operations from Redwood Falls to Morton.
It was a process that began with the purchase of a Morton rail site originally obtained in 2004, continued through the acquisition of the Morton High School gym building in 2015 and, finally, the completion of the newly constructed main office this summer.
“My wife tells me I’ve got to quit spending for a while, but the wheels are always spinning,” said Steffl, who resides with his wife Jolene in Belview. “I’ve got this theory that you’re either growing or you’re dying. “You cannot settle on the same. You can’t go out and hit a home run and then go out and kick back.”
As of today, Step Saver, realizes nearly $4 million in yearly sales as a residential and commercial salt distributor and supplier.
Annually, the company delivers some 19,000 tons of salt for use in water softeners and as an ice deterrent for clientele located from as far as western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities all the way to eastern South Dakota and Iowa.
Additionally, Step Saver offers top of the line water softener and manufacturer’s trucks that carry its patented salt delivery system to buyers in several states.
The light bulb It was back in 1995 that an idea emerged in the mind of Wood Lake Equity Elevator Manager Roger Hansen that would serve as the basis for everything Step Saver has grown into today.
At the time, Steffl was working at the elevator in feed sales, and when Hanson conveyed the idea he was not only quick to see the system’s value but driven to bring it into reality.
Prior to the Step Saver system, when salt needed to be added into a water softener, the product came via large pallets that required an individual to physically dump each bag of salt into the system.
The new patented pneumatic pump system delivery removed this “step,” allowing the salt to be directly pumped in or reclaimed with air pressure, hence the companies name.
“With our system they don’t have to inventory the bags of salt.They don’t have to get rid of the bags, they don’t have pallets to get rid of or any of the workman’s comp issues,” Steffl said. “We take care of everything for them.”
In order to develop the patent, Steffl found investors and launched Step Saver with the backing of 400 shareholders. From there he installed a single patented pneumatic storage tank in the back of a pickup truck and began to build the business that stands today.
The process of developing the system involved myriad trials and errors as Steffl has progressed to overcome unexpected problems, both human and mechanical, to refine and retain ownership of his new system.
Trial and error
In the beginning it seemed for every success Steffl experienced, a new issue would arise. Take for instance the pneumatic pumping system. Once devised, it became apparent Steffl would need a special scale that worked on uneven ground.
Then he realized it had to be certified through the National Type Evaluation Pro-gram (NTEP). Then once deliveries began, Steffl had to figure out a reclamation system to overcome salt hardening with the delivery system.
However, for every problem, there came a solution.
With regard to the water softener systems themselves, Steffl said he developed bigger and better brine tanks, which, with exterior air checks and other upgrades, could now be serviced more efficiently and less frequently.
Over time, everything about the business, Steffl says, has grown in size. There are more salt, tankers and clients. There are larger receptacles, coverage areas and possibilities.
“When I started Step Saver in ’95 we had one tank in the back of a pickup. Then we went to two tanks, three tanks, four tanks, five tanks and now six tankers,” said Steffl. “I compare our business to farming, where guys today are doing what it took three guys to do 10 years ago just through the evolution of our delivery units and our routing of the deliveries.”
Raised on a farm by his mother and father JoAnn and Charles II, Steffl knows firsthand the similarities between his business and farming, including some of those he’d like to forget.
Charles Steffl II was a farmer, and Charles Steffl III says he, too, would have been a farmer – had it not been for circumstances outside of his control.
Handicapped by a tornado that ripped through the farm in 1981, Steffl said the family would lose everything during the farm crisis of the 80s.
Said Steffl, “It was just a combination of a lot of things, and it just took him down.”
Over a six-year period, Steffl too would undergo the painful experience of losing a degree of control of the business he helped to cultivate when a majority of Step Saver shareholders agreed to a stock purchase by Bixby Energy, a manufacturer of corn and pellet burning stoves.
With the sale, Step Saver’s patented delivery system now fell under the Bixby business umbrella and was renamed Bixby Delivery Solutions.
“I wasn’t real happy about that,” Steffl said.
The opportunity to reacquire Step Saver arrived in 2009, a few years after the Bixby’s acquisition.
A rise in corn prices caused the stove market to plummet, Steffl explained, and, as a result, Bixby interest looked to part ways with a portion of its business, including Step Saver.
“They wanted to divest part of their business, so my wife and I bought in,” said Steffl. “The CEO Bob Walker…He’s in a crowbar hotel for running a ponzi scheme…At this point I’ve washed my hands of it and called it experience.”
The importance of rail After the Bixby acquisition, the Step Saver operation was relocated from Wood Lake to Redwood Falls.
There, Steffl stayed on as manager of Bixby Energy Solutions up until the 2009 acquisition. The relocation to Redwood Falls spurred the company’s purchase of a rail site in Morton in 2004.
Located along the Minnesota Prairie Line operated by Twin Cities and Western, Steffl says the investment has been essential to the companies success, allowing for roughly 3,000 tons of storage of Utah salt that enables him to meet the business’s growing demand.
Said Steffl, “When we came here in 2004 this was an abandoned lot full of junk and iron and rubble.”
That year Step Saver refurbished the rail site and installed overhead bins and two storage bins with a rail car facility.
Then in 2007 a facility to mix its ice melting product (“Ice Kut”) was added along with another two tanks along the railroad, followed by an additional expansion in 2011 and then yet another this year.
“We’re always fighting to make sure we have enough product,” said Steffl. “We’re a big advocate for the railroad. If it wasn’t here we wouldn’t be here.”
The Morton move
Given the rail site’s importance, it was natural for Steffl to look to Morton to remedy growing space constraints in Redwood Falls.
The last school year at the Morton School building occurred in the mid-80s, but thanks to Steffl there is new life in the reclaimed space, which is used as a storage, maintenance and manufacturing space for Step Saver trucks and equipment.
Steffl said he dropped the ceiling, tore up the original wood floor, rebuilt the mezzanine, spray foamed the walls, added electricity, put up steel and added a cooling system.
At the site of the main office, construction originally began a couple years ago and then picked up in earnest this past November in time for the crew to move into the space this past May.
All told, Steffl says he invested about $900,000 in the three projects, which were supported by 10-year tax abatements on the three properties by the City of Morton.
“We outgrew the Redwood Falls facility. We didn’t have room to park trucks, didn’t have room for manufacturing and the office was about half this size,” Steffl said. “This gives us the opportunity to expand comfortably.”
As for what’s in store for the future of Step Saver and its 11 employees (six of whom are blood), Steffl says one never knows, but he gets the sense it will be both bigger and brighter.
“Every time we have done an expansion it’s created more opportunity for us,” he said. “We made a thousand mistakes in between, but a lot of this we’ve done creates more opportunity for us.”
At the front and center of all his success has been the unending support of his wife and family.
“Behind every successful man is a great wife,” he said, “and I’ve got some great, hard working kids too.”
Scott Tedrick is the editor of the Renville County Register in Olivia