Podcast Episode 21

Ellingson Companies: A Passion for Ag Water Management

With Guest:
  • Roger Ellingson of Ellingson Companies

Jamie sits down with Roger Ellingson of Ellingson Companies. Considered a leader in the industry, Roger shares how agricultural water management has changed over his 51 years in business. He also discusses the often complicated dynamics of running a third-generation, family-owned business. Listen to hear how Ellingson Companies has pivoted and adapted to an evolving industry.

Episode 21 | 38:48 min
It's such a misunderstood industry and probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that we bury everything we do."
— Roger Ellingson

Guest Bio

Eldon, Roger’s father, had started Ellingson Drainage in 1970 as many small contractors do – farming a couple hundred acres and contracting on the side. And, like many second-generation business owners, Roger had grown up working weekends and summers, learning the business from the ground up. By 1973 when Roger returned from college, Eldon was no longer farming and Ellingson Drainage had purchased its first laser guided, high-speed trencher; was generating about $150,000 in annual revenue; and had a couple full-time employees. Today, “Ellingson Drainage,” now called Ellingson Companies, is projected to have an annual revenue of $70 million and employs 185 people through its business complexes located in West Concord, MN and the Red River Valley in Harwood, ND.

Jamie Duininck (00:02):
This is the water table.

Kent R. (00:05):
The chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Jamie Duininck (00:09):
A place for people to go find information and education.

Matt H. (00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical in the future.

Jamie Duininck (00:17):
How misunderstood what we do is.

Kent R. (00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds to listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck (00:31):
Welcome to the water table podcast today. I’m with you with Roger Ellingson. Roger Ellingson is the founder owner of Ellingson companies. He’s a friend of mine and really excited to finally get Rog on the water table. We’ve tried to do this before and it hasn’t worked. And so we just want to have a conversation with you about who Roger is, a little bit about their company, about our industry of subsurface water management in agriculture. Roger, welcome to the podcast. Really excited about the opportunity I have to visit with you today.

Roger Ellingson (01:10):
Thanks Jamie. I mean, I really appreciate the invite and sorry, I couldn’t get here a little bit quicker, but no, you got a great podcast here and I enjoy listening and just appreciate you having me on.

Jamie Duininck (01:29):
Yeah, well, like I said, glad to have you. I’ve known you probably close to 25 years. That’s about how long I’ve been in the industry and probably didn’t meet you right away. But even back then a lot has changed with our industry. A lot has changed with Ellingson’s. A lot has changed with Prince Co in that amount of time. But even back then, Roger Ellingson was a guy you wanted to know because you were always on the cutting edge, certainly would probably say you’re much farther advanced today than you were back then. But back then you were on the cutting edge. So tell us a little bit about, let’s start way back, how did you get started in the business and when was that? How did that go?

Roger Ellingson (02:15):
We actually got started in the business in 1970. It was my father that started the business. We were farmers and we had moved up from north central, Iowa into Southeast Minnesota. And as I’ve said, many times before, it didn’t take us very long to figure out, white land was cheap in Southeast Minnesota. I mean, it was wet and we were a little bit shocked by it. It was just tough farming there. Of course, we instantly tried to figure out how to find a contractor and get some tile put in on our farm. And it was tough. There just weren’t many people in the business back in the sixties and ultimately we had a contractor come in and he didn’t have enough help.

Roger Ellingson (03:12):
And so my dad helped him do our project and then he talked him into going to the next project and ultimately my dad went to work for him for a couple of years. And then, like I said, in 1970, bought his own equipment and I was a junior in high school. So, I got a little summer on-the-job training there for a couple of years, went to college for a year and decided, I guess I wanted to dig ditches for a living.

Jamie Duininck (03:40):
And you have, you had some family, your dad and some brothers in the business back then when you started. Correct?

Roger Ellingson (03:48):
It was just my dad and myself and my mom. And then later I had a younger brother that joined the business in, I guess it would have been late seventies, early eighties. And, and then I had another brother that, that also joined into the business in the mid to later eighties.

Jamie Duininck (04:10):
Okay. And then now, today you have the next generation in the business and running the business with you and a couple of your sons. And talk a little bit about that.

Roger Ellingson (04:24):
Obviously, since back in the early years, we’ve diversified into a number of other things that, directional drilling and utility work. And, but our still Ag and drainage is a huge part of what we do. And I have a couple sons in step-sons that are involved in this business. And Jeremy, my oldest son is at our main office in west Concord, Minnesota. Derek is in Fargo. And then my two step sons, Chris and Cole, both work in the main office down in Southeast Minnesota.

Jamie Duininck (05:13):
Talk a little bit about, as time went on throughout your career and your 50 years, I mean, you said 1970. 2020 was a big celebration year for you guys. So congratulations on that, but talk a little bit about some stepping stones. What were times in your business history, in which you would say, there was some major things that changed for you probably from things like new equipment that made things easier or getting into different, diversifying into different businesses.

Roger Ellingson (05:51):
Probably one of the first big decisions or moves we made as a company was back in 1971, predominantly all the tile being installed was either concrete or clay tile. And we’d made a decision to buy this new German high-speed trencher with lasers, had just come out with laser control. And, but they really only worked well with installing plastic tile. And as a company we just decided, well, we’re just going to transition. We think this is the future. And we just quit installing any clay or concrete. And we lost a few customers, but all in all, in the end, it was the right. It was the right decision.

Jamie Duininck (06:48):
Yeah. When you look back at it, it absolutely was the right decision from what, but how, not something I wasn’t really planning on asking, but how long did you fight any of that, where you would have customers calling, saying, or even new potential customers are saying, would you install concrete or clay pipe and you guys are saying, no. Did that last couple of years, or was that longer? Was that five, 10 years?

Roger Ellingson (07:15):
I think that really almost drug on clear through the, most of the seventies. By the end of the seventies, I think the clay concrete thing had really dissipated. The plows had come out in the mid seventies and a lot of contractors had switched from trenching tile into plowing tile in. And then of course, with the plow you absolutely weren’t going to be putting in concrete or clay tile. So, but I’d say by 1980 that was a kind of a thing of the past.

Jamie Duininck (07:57):
You know, as you’re saying that I’m thinking about, I don’t obviously don’t remember any of that. I wasn’t around in business. But what I do remember is when the Red River Valley started to, things started to happen up there from a subsurface drainage perspective and people like the Ellingson’s, Prince Co, with Kent Rodelius running around up there, Todd Stanley were on the forefront of that as far as really being out, selling the concept. I mean, it’s almost funny to say that today that people in the Red River Valley really didn’t have a good understanding of what we do. And so I remember that because I was part of that in my earlier years, but tell me a little bit about what you think were some of the reasons why people latched on and decided to spend the money and trust in somebody like Eliingson’s to do projects in the Red River Valley, when that was a pretty tough sell at the very beginning.

Roger Ellingson (09:02):
A lot of farmers in general are very, they’re willing to take risk and they’re always trying to improve how they do things and to get better yields and more consistent yields. Subsurface screening really took a bad bounce in the Red River Valley. It must’ve been sometime in the sixties or early seventies when the old FCS and had done some pilot work up there and just said, well this soil, this clay’s too tight. It won’t work. It’s too flat. And there are multiple reasons why that was the decision that was made. And I think that really stuck with a lot of people for a long time. And we kind of had to get in there and get some projects in the ground. And this started with, we did some analysis up there and we just couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t more drainage, subsurface drainage. There was all kinds of surface drainage, but no subsurface drainage to speak of. And we got some projects going and guys could see the tremendous results and it just kind of grew from there.

Jamie Duininck (10:36):
Yep. It’s a fun story to tell. And being part of that, and part of that from the beginning, there’s a lot of things that you and I remember and others too, about how that started and how fun it was to really get people interested and then see the results of that, knowing that we were going to share some information with them that was going to work, but you can’t, until you get the results, they couldn’t see it. So exciting stuff. Talk about your, who, maybe is there somebody that was a major influence in your life as you started and grew your business that you would consult with or confide in?

Roger Ellingson (11:25):
That’s a good question. I remember way back, I was at an L I C E meeting in the early years of my career and I heard a motivational speaker speak. He was the sales manager with Jostens at the time. And he talked about whatever you did, whether you’re the biggest fish or the littlest fish in the ocean, just be the best. And, if anything stuck with me, it’s that it doesn’t matter where you’re at, but the passion and being the best is what’s really important, regardless of what you’re doing. And I really tried to apply that to the water management businesses. How can we do it better, quicker, faster, cheaper? And I guess that kind of evolved into where we’re at today.

Jamie Duininck (12:26):
Yeah. It’s interesting you say that because I have not heard you tell that story ever. But I do know that you are a very, your passion for our industry is very clear. You get excited about which is, which really does bring other people excitement. I’m not calling you old Rog, but you’ve been around a long time. Yeah. You’ve been around a long time. And for you to still get excited about opportunities to improve land, to help people, to help farms, build wealth on the farm for generations to come because of what you can provide. It’s clear that you have that passion. And maybe I just answered part of the question, but the question becomes, why? Why do you have passion for this, for subsurface, water management?

Roger Ellingson (13:15):
It’s such a misunderstood industry, and probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that we bury everything we do. It isn’t like you can drive by this big, shiny new building and say, wow, see what I did or see how great this is. You can drive by a field. I do and a lot of people that work with us talk about this is, they like to drive by some field that was just crappy and now it’s got beautiful crops on it. That’s a real sense of accomplishment. But, for the average person, they don’t even know there’s tile in that field.

Jamie Duininck (14:03):
Right.

Roger Ellingson (14:04):
So, that gets back to that where everything is buried and it’s hard to understand what does this really do? And is it good for the environment, bad for the environment? Those are things that I think get debated quite a bit, but at the end of the day, it does a lot of really good things for the environment and erosion control. And, it’s just a fantastic product and I know I’m biased, but it truly is.

Jamie Duininck (14:37):
And how do you think, you and I have had a lot of conversations about this, what we’re talking about now, the debate of, what we’re doing, how do we tell our story? That’s something we talk about a lot. How do we tell our story more because you can’t see it? It’s under the ground. It’s misunderstood, all those things. What are you thinking about when you think of that now compared to maybe 10 years ago, because things have changed with how people think too. How do we continue to tell our story? What are you concerned about and what gives you a lot of excitement around telling our story?

Roger Ellingson (15:14):
Well, first and foremost, I think we do have a great story to tell and a lot of positives. We just got to, as an industry, we just, we got to work. We got to put a little more effort into, getting that story out there and, the whole social media thing. I think we have to put a little more effort into making sure that our stories getting told and I don’t think that’s always been the case in the past. We’ve probably been way too reserved about it and not talked about it.

Jamie Duininck (16:00):
You know, I think one of the things, maybe just a little plug here for, for your company, but often times we think that somebody, whether it’s a sports team or whatever, the kid on the high school team that gets picked to be the captain is the best player. And in some ways you certainly can say, Ellingson’s are the biggest, they’re the best, but for me, I see your leadership position in our industry because you’re willing to put your own money and your own resources toward the greater good of the industry. And one way is you have hired now for going on close to 10 years a government affairs person, and you’re doing a lot of good. Sure, like you said, it is selfish to a certain extent cause it’s good for you, but it’s good for the industry too, on some of the things going on. So, just applaud you for that and your company for having the foresight to spend those resources and to know that this is good beyond just for your company.

Roger Ellingson (17:09):
I appreciate that, Jamie. It, yeah, sometimes, especially when your company’s a lot smaller to look at and justify expenditures like that. But again, I think as contractors and as an industry in whole we just have to. We have to tell that story. And if that costs us a little time and money, we have to make those expenditures.

Jamie Duininck (17:41):
What’s the, getting back to, and kind of switching gears a little bit, you’ve been in business 51 years now, and I know you have a great excitement for the business going forward with having family in your business and continuing onto the next generation of your business. So what would you say, you talked about plastic pipe versus clay or concrete being a pretty big game changer. What were some of the other game changers in the 51 years you’ve been in business in the water management industry. And then let’s answer that first and we’re going to go to, what do you see for the future?

Roger Ellingson (18:23):
The laser was a big deal originally. Now it’s GPS, which too has been a big game changer. The advent of the tile plow and all the improvements and critiquing that’s been done with that piece of equipment has really made it able for us to keep our prices a lot lower. It’s almost like electronics, when the first TV or the first calculator came out, it was pretty expensive, but now they’re pretty, inexpensive and tile has been the same way. If we were still trenching in concrete tile, it would probably triple or quadruple what it costs to install a drainage, a pattern drainage system on a piece of ground. So, I think that’s been big help and a big positive.

Jamie Duininck (19:37):
Yep. I couldn’t agree more with all those things. And even things like how plows are set up, like you say, and the little tweaks that have happened to a plow that’s been around for now decades are making a difference on your ability to be efficient. How about, where do you see things going? You talk about, 50 years, so what about the next 50? What do you see happening in our industry?

Roger Ellingson (20:06):
Well, and this is something that, I should’ve mentioned before, we’re now able to, with LIDAR and the topography that’s available, we engineer most everything in the office. We can transfer that information to the field and we can virtually title a field with no flags, which again, it’s just, speeding things up and more efficiency. And I think, as far as the future goes, for sure the water management industry is going to become more and more important every day. The future of our world here, water as a commodity is going to become more and more valuable. And I think people and companies that can manage it, whether it’s managing the excess or the lack of are going to be very sought after.

Jamie Duininck (21:24):
Yep. Yep. And just the fact that water as a precious resource, how are we going to, how are we going to drain what we need to drain out, but keep what we need to keep on the landscape and maybe route water reuse. I know you guys are doing a lot of different things now, starting to scratch at some of the things that are pretty technical today that I think we both assume as technology advances, they won’t be so technical 20 years from now.

Roger Ellingson (21:55):
Exactly. No, that’s very true. Jamie.

Jamie Duininck (21:58):
So, kind of on that theme of the 50 years, it’s not, there isn’t a lot of businesses when you look at, and we both have done that, the lifecycle of family businesses that every year that goes by after 20, 30 years is, you’re one year longer than the majority, not a small feat. But, what advice would you have as, a lot of the listeners to the water table podcasts are family businesses like mine and yours, and maybe they’re there in their first-generation. Maybe they didn’t start 50 years ago. So yeah, as a guy that’s got a little gray hair and been around a while, what advice would you have for other family businesses that want to continue that legacy?

Roger Ellingson (22:50):
Well, I do get asked that question, it seems like fairly regularly, how do you create this success? First and foremost, just be honest. Do what you say you were going to do and deliver that to the customer. And that sounds overly simplistic, but you can’t believe how much success that will bring you, giving the customer what they feel like they were going to get. And just being totally honest about it will create that relationship that will last for years and years and years.

Jamie Duininck (23:43):
Sometimes simple as good, and it’s people want to be treated a certain way. They want to be treated well. And they remember that.

Roger Ellingson (23:52):
For sure. And, as far as the family business, I think, business has to be treated and conducted as business and family needs to be treated and taken care of as family. It’s really difficult or complicated sometimes if you try to mix those two. So, that next generation, you need to hand off the responsibility, but also give them that training and mentorship that they need to learn, how to properly run and operate the business. But, probably the most important thing is that handoff that ethical, important piece of being honest and how you treat people and how you treat people that report to you or work with you or coworkers, it’s just that it’s just critical.

Jamie Duininck (25:06):
Doing the right thing. They’re probably a little a sneak peek here for listeners, but you know, one of the things that I’m thinking about as the future of the Water Table Podcast is doing a little series on a family business. And just talking about so many of our listeners, like I said, including the two of us are involved in family businesses and there’s some great, the highest of the highs, happen when things go well with family and probably the lowest of the lows when it’s family. And so you get, you can be in business without family and you can have some great success and fun, but it’s probably not quite as sweet as if it was with family and vice versa. You can have some real lows, but when it’s conflict and things like that can really be challenging.

Jamie Duininck (26:02):
And we’re not going to go there today, but I just wanted to share that as something I think I want to try to do a series on and may even ask that you join us again at some point. And we’ll talk about, how, because this is an area where we absolutely all can learn from each other because there’s some real sensitive things around. How did you handle this? Or, do you have an idea of conflict management or compensation for family, or, whatever it might be. There’s so many different topics you can go into. And just, again, I applaud your family and you, what you’ve been able to do so far, not without bumps, I’m sure, but been able to do so far with getting family involved.

Roger Ellingson (26:53):
I appreciate that, Jamie. And I think that would be a very highly listened to a series if he’d do it, because I rarely bump into anyone that is in small business that doesn’t have all those questions.

Jamie Duininck (27:12):
Right, right. And like I said, from my perspective, every time you get into those conversations and most of the time when you get into them, people aren’t necessarily willing to be vulnerable. But if they are to say, Hey, this is what we’re dealing with. It seems like you can always learn something from that, they hired this consultant or they tried this method and it may not work in your situation, but it allows you to think of things differently because I think because there’s so much emotion in those things, usually we don’t open our minds up to how to think about it. So, a little bit off topic, but something I wanted to share with you. Safety at Ellingson’s is something that I’ve seen, that you seem to be, take that very seriously. And also, I think your safety programs are very robust for, if you look at the average safety program in our industry. And so tell me a little bit about that. How did you build your safety culture and what was the key to that?

Roger Ellingson (28:27):
I have to say, safety’s, it’s always been a hugely important thing at Ellington’s. But, it was never what I’d say, professionally managed or run. We just, try to convey to all our people how important it is to make good decisions and not conduct yourself in a risky manner in the field. Because, it’s like I’ve told many young managers and foremen over the years, my biggest nightmare would be to have to take that phone call that somebody got killed on a job site. And I just, I never ever want to have to deal with that. But as we got involved, we diversified. And when we got in the oil and gas direction, drilling business, the whole safety thing became so critical. Cause you can’t even get on the bidders list of a lot of projects without having this, almost meticulously meticulous safety record.

Roger Ellingson (29:37):
And we went out and hired a good safety director and he came in and I have to give him a lot of the, most of the credit for, putting our program together as it is today. And it, you have to get the buy-in, this is the key. You’ve got to get the buy-in from your people on. And once you get the buy-in and it almost becomes self-policing where your people and your employees are policing each other, that everybody’s being safe and making good decisions. And that’s what it really takes to have a good safety program.

Jamie Duininck (30:26):
What in that, did you see this kind of curious some of your leaders and more long-term employees that because of their buy-in they could get other people to come alongside of them, or were there challenges with some of those that, where you didn’t get that buy in from some key people which also then created issues behind that? Or did it go pretty smoothly?

Roger Ellingson (30:52):
Yeah, no, absolutely. I know that initially, you always got a few of the old line supervisor type people that are going well, we never done this before. But it took a little bit, but, if you stay the course, even all those people bought in and today everyone, we’re pro facet. It’s the best thing we ever did.

Jamie Duininck (31:26):
Yeah. Yep. Great, great. And I, like I say, I see it, I know it, you can recognize it very quickly when you come on an Ellingson job site or into your shop office area and for sure. In Fargo, which I’ve been more often. But how about, were there any unintended benefits or consequences that you would say along with really putting together a professional safety program?

Roger Ellingson (31:57):
I think and I probably can’t totally quantify this, but I think there becomes a real sense of, boy these, this company wants to take care of me. They want to protect me. And this is a good place to work. So I think maybe one of the biggest side benefits possibly is just when you have people that are working at the company, telling their friends the good things that are going on and why they like working there. I think that whole being able to attract good people is totally enhanced.

Jamie Duininck (32:46):
For sure. For sure. So I thought maybe you were going to say there that one of the unintended consequences is you had to quit texting when you were driving down the road. But I know that was a challenge for me at times, is to be alert and paying attention and knowing that, Hey, we’ve put this, we’ve kind of drawn a line in the sand when it comes to how we’re going to do things. So we all have to follow that. So a little bit of a joke, but so Rog thanks for the conversation, really fun to, I think for our listeners too, very well-respected guy in our industry, one of the leaders, for sure. And I’m super grateful that you were willing to come on the Water Table. And one of the things we do here at the Water Table is kind of give you the last word. We call it the Water Table takeaway. What in all your wisdom would you like to leave with our listeners?

Roger Ellingson (33:53):
Boy, that’s a tough one. Again, it all kind of how I started out, whatever you’re doing, have fun. Be passionate. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing the right thing. And life here on Earth is way too short to not do something you enjoy. So I think a huge part of success is just doing something that you like to do. And, I know I’ve had a lot of fun over the years and garnered a lot of good friends like yourself, Jamie. When you talk about business people helping business people, your family has been tremendous in giving some of that advice that a younger company, has an experience and they don’t don’t know what to do so very much appreciated. Very much appreciated.

Jamie Duininck (35:07):
Well, thank you for that. Going back to your thing about being passionate and liking in what you do, we often hear so many different places in so many different times that, if you really like what you’re doing, you’re not really going to work. It’s what you want to be doing. And that’s evident in you Rog. I think part of it is because you are passionate about what our industry does, but also because you really like people. And so when you can connect with employees, with suppliers, vendors, bankers, whatever it might be that has, that touches our industry, it’s a pretty full rewarding day for you. And I think I could say the same thing about myself. I probably would say, I’m not passionate about manufacturing pipe, but I am passionate about what I get to do and how I can connect with people and hopefully for a greater good and make people’s lives better, whether it’s somebody buying our product through a contractor like yourself and that they can, it is incredibly exciting to be able to say, you spend this money with us and it’s going to pay you back not next year and the next year, but for generations, because of we’re going to do it right.

Jamie Duininck (36:35):
We’re going to manufacture it, right. You’re going to install it, right. And it’s going to be there a long time.

Roger Ellingson (36:43):
Absolutely. That is so very true

Jamie Duininck (36:45):
Opportunity that we have to do what we do and the rewards that we can see that are such long-term benefits for our customers. I always use the analogy, we’re not building a toy that a kid’s going to get at Christmas and it’s going to be broken by February. We’re doing something that, yeah, it costs money, but it’s an investment that’s going to pay back for generations. And that’s really, really exciting.

Roger Ellingson (37:12):
Now that’s all true. You know, I’ve, I’ve told this a multitude of times, that probably the greatest thing about this business is, I don’t know if I can think of one time in the 51 years that anyone’s ever came back and said, I wished I wouldn’t have done that. It’s always, I should’ve done that 10 years sooner. I should have done the whole farm. There’s never anybody that’s disappointed and that’s really fun. And, I, talking about the enjoying what you do and, I think part of that too is just, it’s just fun to learn something every day. And even at my age, I still feel that way. There’s not a day that goes by that doesn’t feel like I learned a little something.

Jamie Duininck (38:08):
Yep. And that’s, I think it’s important in life to be a continuous learner. And if you can be, you’re more interesting to other people too, because you can have something to provide. So Roger, Thanks so much for being part of the water table today, and hopefully we can continue this in future episodes.

Roger Ellingson (38:28):
Thank you, Jamie.

Jamie Duininck (38:32):
If you enjoy what you’re listening to, you can find us on your favorite podcast platform. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook and you can also find us at watertablepodcast.com. Thanks for listening.