HIBBING — The employees at Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI) are a close-knit team.

“I really like the people I work with,” said Angel Anacker, a line lead in training who’s been with MDI Hibbing for about 3 years. “The job itself can at times get repetitive, but the people are what make it enjoyable to come here everyday.”

The Hibbing team works well together, encourages each other and does well at fulfilling its duties — even when they feel a bit crammed.

“Before we felt sardine-ish, all squished together, but now the lines are nice and spread out,” said Anacker. “It was tight in the old building.”

MDI recently moved to its new Hibbing facility — a 36,000 square foot building located at 11270 Hwy 37. Operations got underway there earlier this month.

A plastics manufacturer, production services provider and social enterprise, MDI provides an inclusive, supportive environment to employees with and without disabilities.

Having outgrown its downtown Hibbing space, MDI decided to build as it needed room to diversify and expand business, improve working conditions and increase job opportunities. The new property is also large enough for onsite future expansion.

“This place is amazing,” Anacker exclaimed. “There is so much space, a ton of room everywhere. We used to have to fight for space with pallets, and maneuvering a forklift in that space was hard. We have so much room now we could have races.”

She chuckled.

“It’s also a lot easier to see what we’re doing when we’re working,” said Anacker referring to the building’s windows and natural light. “Your eyes don’t hurt as bad.”

There are no negatives to the new place — from her nor her co-workers.

“All has been positive,” said Anacker. “… And I think we’re more productive because of it.”

•••

This marks the first time that MDI has built a new building in its 50-plus years in existence, according to CEO Peter McDermott. Up until now, the nonprofit had always purchased existing buildings and retrofitted them to their needs.

McDermott said they had looked into renovating an existing facility in Hibbing, but that proved nearly as costly as building new. He added that they’ve always been and remain committed to Hibbing, and at no point considered moving out of the community.

MDI broke ground on the $4.7 million project in June. Hawk Construction led the project and they worked with Mobility Mania Accessibility to go a step above simply being ADA-compliant.

“And I’m proud to say the building was completed on time and on budget,” McDermott declared.

The building was primarily financed through MDI’s cash flow, but also received support. That included a $1 million forgivable loan based on MDI creating 100 jobs over the next 10 years and a $350,000 infrastructure grant from the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a $53,000 infrastructure grant from the St. Louis County Board, funds from Cleveland-Cliffs and Blandin Foundation, a $10,000 in-kind contribution from FabCom, and numerous local donors, among others.

“It’s nice,” said Doris Day of the new facility.

Day, who’s been an MDI employee since it began in 1992 at 1937 Fourth Ave. E. in Hibbing, said she especially likes the new sign, the lights and the parking lot. All are a stark contrast from the now 100-year-old former location downtown.

“I like to work hard,” Day added.

•••

The ribbon cutting held earlier this month for the new facility was a special day for MDI board member Phil Bakken.

“I never thought I’d put on another tie, and I wasn’t sure anymore how to tie it, but it’s on today to celebrate this beautiful building,” he explained.

He had vowed 15 years ago when he left the IRRRB that he’d never wear one again.

“It’s a very happy day for me,” he added.

Bakken spoke about John DuRand and how he helped MDI get its start in Hibbing in 1992. When he was asked to rejoin the MDI board a few years back, he did so with an agenda.

“I knew then I was going to work hard to get a new building here,” said Bakken. “There were many sleepless nights and impassioned speeches. I call it lobbying, the board called it nagging.”

Bakken, who flew back from his winter home in Lake Havasu for the event, thanked the board for “putting up” with him and thanked all involved in bringing his vision to fruition.

Hibbing Chamber President Lory Fedo thanked MDI for choosing to stay in Hibbing.

“I know that you will continue to prosper and continue your valuable mission for the community,” she said. “… We bring you a hearty congrats and say ‘job well done.’”

Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, also provided encouraging words. The event highlighted doors opening to a new building, as well as symbolized new doors opening for people to find quality job opportunities, she said.

Sandstede went on to recognize MDI’s work of teaching leadership skills to its employees and persons with disabilities — an effort she described as unparalleled in this region.

“And anytime a business expands or relocates in the community, it is worth celebrating,” she added. “But MDI stands out because of its unique mission to improve lives. I hope other organizations take note of MDI’s inclusive environment.”

***

The transition from downtown to the outskirt of Hibbing went well, according to Hibbing Operations Manager Andy Tracy. So did the overall construction process.

“It had its high points and low points, but overall I’d say it went really well,” he said. “Working with Hawk was great. I could talk to them just as easy as talking to my wife.”

He pointed out the major differences between the former location and the new digs — better lighting, higher ceiling, ample space, actual windows and more.

“This is almost surreal,” said Tracy while standing in the 30,000 square feet of warehouse space. About 6,000 square feet is offices.

“Just think, seven or eight months ago we were standing here in a field of grass and mud,” he continued. “Then it started and within a month we had a building – walls but nothing inside.”

In late January, MDI Hibbing ceased operations for a week. That’s when they — employees too – moved everything to the new facility.

“We did it all in one week, and on day one, we were operational by noon,” boasted Tracy. “The employees did a great job. I can’t give them enough credit. From loading trucks to packing and unpacking, helping sort — they did it all.”

Now in action in the new space, the energy has remained high and employees seem happier.

“I’ve heard nothing but positive,” he added. “We all love it here.”

Tracy was promoted to manager last July when Gary Flesland, who had been with MDI for 44 years, retired.

That means the Hibbing team experienced two major changes in less than a year.

“I was a bit nervous when Gary retired,” admitted Anacker. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or how Andy would be. But now I love Andy to pieces and really enjoy working for him.”

She described “the boss” as laid back with a wonderful sense of humor.

“He is amazing with employees with special needs, and they enjoy working for Andy,” said Anacker. “He takes the stress level down at this place about 15 to 20 notches. It’s really great. He makes us want to come to work more.”

A conference room at the new facility is named in Flesland’s honor.

•••

MDI currently employs 328 people at its four locations, which include Grand Rapids, Cohasset and headquarters in Minneapolis. The ratio of employees with a disability currently stands around 50 percent.

The U.S. Postal Service has been the largest customer of MDI. Over the past 25 years, more than 100 million totes have been manufactured.

Through the IRRRB loan, MDI will be expected to add 100 jobs over the next 10 years. CEO McDermott said they will do that by growing the commercial end of the business.

In addition to postal totes, the Hibbing operation is currently making a plastic parcel for Frito-Lay.

McDermott joined MDI about 10 years ago, having come from the arena of economic development.

“I anticipated that working with people with disabilities would be more of a challenge, but it’s turned out to be much more of a joy,” he said. “People with disabilities love their work, apply themselves and take their jobs seriously.”

Nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population lives with a disability, but people with disabilities are employed at just half the rate of those without.

MDI’s employees with disabilities are held to similar standards as their colleagues without disabilities. Everyone works to their own capabilities with accommodations and makes important contributions to the organization.

“People with disabilities can do productive work if given the opportunity,” said McDermott. “Rather than be defined by their disability, our employees with disabilities are the sum of their many life roles, including working in a job they love. I encourage Minnesota businesses to hire more people with disabilities and create more inclusive work environments.”

Employing people with disabilities increases their self-sufficiency and reduces dependence on community services — benefiting the employee, colleagues, businesses and the community at-large.

Jeanne Eglinton, MDI’s director of Employment Services, said they still encounter the misconceptions and biases that people with disabilities can’t fulfill steady employment and be productive.

“Executives and hiring managers should take a closer look at what people with disabilities are already accomplishing in their communities, and consider hiring practices that will allow their organizations to share in the same success,” she said. “Like they would with any potential employees, organizations should challenge people with disabilities to find out what they can do.”

Individuals with disabilities are also helping businesses grow amid workforce shortages. As businesses across industries look to fill jobs left by retiring baby boomers, people with disabilities are an underutilized resource.

“It is important for people with disabilities to have a job, so they are able to gain the empowerment of employment,” said Mike Blaisdell, an extrusion process technician at MDI. “I like being part of a team as an individual and feeling good about being part of that team.”

And that good feeling is evident as one walks through any of MDI’s operations.

“When I’d tour the plant, employees would always have smiles on their faces and did the little extra when we asked them,” said Bakken during the groundbreaking of the new Hibbing facility before turning his attention to the employees. “This building is for you, and you deserve it.”

McDermott concurred.

“They are superstars,” he said. “They are hardworking, eager to learn and proud of their accomplishments. They deserved first-class working conditions.”

MDI is a unique non-profit, in that it operates a sustainable social enterprise at higher levels of productivity. Everyone is paid at least minimum wage and employees received full benefits.

“This new building will give MDI employees and the city of Hibbing a real shot in the arm,” said McDermott.

About MDI:

Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI) fast facts as of January 2018:

TWIN CITIES FACILITY — 49,000 square feet located in Minneapolis

Activities:

Sales and Customer Service for Commercial Services

USPS Stamp Packaging

Custom Manufacturing and Packaging

Limited USPS Plastic Conversion

Employees: 78 with 25 persons with disabilities

GRAND RAPIDS FACILITY — 83,000 square feet

Activities:

PE Extrusion; Supplies all Facilities

Die Cutting

Printing

Northern Operations Purchasing

Employees: 64 with 6 persons with disabilities

HIBBING FACILITY — 36,000 square feet

Activities:

USPS Plastic Conversion

Wire Frame Manufacturing; Feeds Commercial Plastics Cohasset

Limited Commercial Plastics Conversion

Employees: 49 with 9 persons with disabilities

COHASSET FACILITY — 110,000 square feet

Activities:

Pickup and Processing of Residential Recyclables and Commercial Cardboard Recyclables

Commercial Plastics Conversion

Limited USPS Plastic Conversion

Design Engineering / Samples and Prototype

Customer Service Offices for Plastics

Northern Operations Scheduling

Employees: 147 with 87 persons with disabilities

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