Shoestrings, 2nd mortgages and a dream

The pride in Dale Schiferl’s voice comes through clearly as he says, “Tom and I built this company all on our own.”

And why not? Schiferl and his partner, Tom Niska, started Timber Technologies in Colfax, Wis., with little more than an idea and the tools from their own garages.

“We slept in the office for a few weeks until we found someplace to live,” Schiferl continues.

That was five years ago.

Today, Timber Technologies is a successful company, manufacturing Titan Timbers Glue Laminated columns and beams.

But to get to this point, Niska and Schiferl followed different paths on their way to meeting and developing their partnership.

Schiferl, born in March 1970, is the older of the two. He was born and raised in southeastern South Dakota and attended University of South Dakota, where he received a dual degree in communications and psychology. 

However, despite an academic background that might have drawn him in another direction, Schiferl’s first job out of college was selling trusses and wood components.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Schiferl says. “I thought about going to grad school at some point, but at the time, I was tired of being broke.”

Schiferl stayed in the construction industry, working as a sales manager for several post-frame companies. While he was with one company, he developed a good relationship with one of the suppliers he dealt with, Tom Niska.

Niska, born in May 1972 and raised in Alexandria, Minn., attended college at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus, where he got a degree in forest products.

“My degree was the driving force behind my getting into the industry,” Niska explains. He did an internship with Weekes Forest Products. After he graduated, he got a job selling lumber. After a job opportunity in Denver, Niska returned to the Twin Cities area to work for North Star, a division of Weekes.

“I was selling Dale a lot of lumber and we got along pretty well,” Niska says.

Time for a change

As it happened, Niska also felt like he needed a change in his career.

“I was getting restless at North Star,” he explains.  The idea of owning his own business floated in his mind. There are only a handful of companies making glue laminated columns, so he knew his business would fill a niche.

“My dad owned a business, so I had an idea of the work that goes into it. And I figured I knew enough about the lumber side,” he says.

He shared the idea of opening a company with Schiferl, but it took a while for either one to come totally on board.

“It was about 2000, and I was feeling the idea out,” Niska says.  “I went to La Crosse to look at buildings, but I wasn’t generating any interest there. At that point, I kind of dropped the idea.”

Two years later, he was bored with his job again and decided starting his own company was what he wanted to do.  Again he contacted Schiferl, who was no longer working in his former job. This time, Schiferl was in.

There were personal risks involved for both men, as well as the typical risks of starting up a business.

For Niska, it was leaving a well-paying job with all of its security. For Schiferl, it was uprooting his wife and young daughter.

“I said to my wife, ‘We’re taking another mortgage out on the house and moving to Wisconsin,’ and she said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Schiferl recalls.

One of the issues in pulling together the business was finding a good location that would be central to the Midwest companies who would be their clients. Wisconsin turned out to be a good central point, and in Colfax, about an hour east of St. Paul, Minn., they found the facilities they needed.

Both men took out second mortgages on their homes and emptied their garages, “so we wouldn’t have to invest so much in tools,” Niska says. And they slept in the office.

Timber Technologies opened for business in February 2003. Today, nearly 90 percent of what the company produces and sells is post-frame laminated columns, while the other 10 percent is beams and other products.

Timber Technologies works with a network of wholesale lumber distributors and building supplies dealers from Montana to Michigan.

Schiferl and Niska employ nearly 20 workers today, but in those first years, the two men did almost everything: designing, selling, ordering, running the equipment, loading the trucks, etc.

Schiferl is still involved with the sales end, as well as design work, and until recently Niska handled the office work and management of the product floor.  A newly hired general manager will take over many of those responsibilities, allowing Niska more time to focus on the future and, as he says, “steer the ship.”  Both men are involved with strategic planning of the company.

Doing it the hard way

They weren’t successful right off the bat, of course.

Niska remembers the spring of 2003, right after they started the business. It was a slow building time. Money was growing tighter.

“Then on a Saturday I went to get the mail, and there was a check for a semi-load, and we were OK,” he says. “The business has grown ever since.”

While most of Timber Technologies sales are through their distributors and lumberyards, they do occasionally go to a site to size the columns needed.

Schiferl says their products have been used in some interesting building projects, such as an RV condo – parking areas that are bought like condo sites and include a commons area for owners to meet – and an apartment complex especially for artists that includes living quarters on one floor and studio space on another.

Schiferl says that because he and Niska have been in the business long enough and were established before they began their company, age has never played a factor in their dealings with clients.

Both men see an exciting future ahead of them.  There are new products being planned at Timber Technologies, and they both believe that the post- frame industry is only going to continue  to grow.

“Post-frame has a lot of opportunities,” Schiferl says. “More opportunities than most people think.”
Starting their own company from scratch was a risk, but it was a risk that’s paid off.

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