From all accounts, the business of skid loader attachments is flourishing in the Alexandria area.
While not as prominent as the area's packaging industry, the three local companies involved in the attachment industry are expanding their product lines and adding to their workforce at a fairly brisk clip.
"We're pretty excited with the growth we see coming," said Todd Olson, owner of Quick Attach, the most established of the three firms.
Quick Attach began in 2002 and now employs close to 200 people between its sales headquarters in Alexandria and its manufacturing plant in northern Minnesota.
"Right now I could add another 20 sales people," Olson said. "I could hire another 30 production workers."
He said the company has started making not just attachments, but machines to put them on. It is planning to release three machines at a trade show next month: a mini skid steer; a ride-on unit; and a walk-behind machine with attachments that he says can be swapped out in a minute.
"This will probably quadruple our company," he said.
Meanwhile, Skid-Pro, started in 2011 by former Quick Attach employees, just moved into a new, 7,200-square foot building on McKay Avenue, doubling its old workspace and adding sales people. Newcomer Prime Attachments of Garfield, a three-year-old company, is also doubling its manufacturing space and looking for new hires.
"It's a very competitive industry," said Sanden, co-owner of Skid-Pro. "There's new competitors that come in daily."
One of the reasons, he said, is that demand for attachments has grown as skid loaders become increasingly capable of handling more tasks.
Skid loaders are compact, agile machines with a variety of tools that attach to their fronts for different tasks. The attachments can clean barn floors, rip up brush, sweep gigantic scales at elevators, level building sites and clear away snow, among hundreds of other uses. Pioneered by Bobcat, at least a dozen large companies now make them.
The main reason companies are buying skid loaders and attachments is to lower the cost of hand labor, Olson said.
Prime Attachments launched in 2015 with Jeff Roquette, with a background in investing, partner Kody Thompson, who had worked for Fastenal, and a foreman. It now has 33 employees.
"Kinda wild," Roquette said. "It's been hot for a long time now. We're all doing well."
Prime Attachments is the only attachment business making its product in Douglas County. Quick Attach bought a plant in Fosston soon after it began in 2002, while Skid-Pro's attachments are made nearly 100 miles northwest in Lake Park.
Roquette credited the Alexandria area for creating a prime manufacturing ground, with the leadership of 3-M, Douglas Machine and Aagard, and training provided by the Alexandria Technical and Community College. His company has accepted interns from the tech school and has also hired from there.
"Alex is a hub for really solid manufacturing," he said.
He also said Prime Attachments cooperates with local competitors, directing customers to them when necessary.
All three do business beyond Minnesota, selling to end users and dealerships throughout the United States. Quick Attach also sells globally.
"When we first started, there were just a handful of us, maybe 10 manufacturers in the United States," Olson said. "Now there are between 50-75 manufacturers in the United States and a bunch of e-tailers."
Most of the growth, he said, has come in the past five to seven years. He compared the industry expansion in the Alexandria area to the growth spurred by Douglas Machine in the packaging industry.
"We're very much in the same situation," Olson said.
If there are any brakes on the industry, it's tariffs on steel from China, which drives up the cost even for American-made steel. As a result, manufacturers have had to raise prices on their attachments. But so far, they said, it hasn't seemed to deter buying.