STEEN, Minn. – Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) is celebrating its 1,000th loan since the community foundation formed in 1986. FBT Sawmill in Steen received the landmark loan, helping finance a custom-made vacuum kiln for the family-owned business operating in Rock County since 2000.
“SWIF has been supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs with direct financing since the beginning of our organization, which is unique for a community foundation,” said Amy Woitalewicz, SWIF’s Business Finance Director.
Loan programs have always been a key function of SWIF in its support of communities and businesses throughout southwest Minnesota. The original program offered large loans for businesses. In 2001, SWIF’s Microenterprise Loan Program was added to support small business owners and entrepreneurs by providing market-rate loans. SWIF partners with banks and credit unions, economic development organizations, nonprofit lenders and private investors to offer creative financing.
In its last fiscal year, SWIF made 31 loans totaling more than $1.1 million. Since 1986, its loans total more than $44.2 million, helping start or expand more than 700 businesses, which have created or retained more than 8,600 jobs.
“Today we see our loan program as a critical tool not only for the business sector, but also for our kids and families: We’re working to close the opportunity gap for children living in poverty, and part of that is ensuring there are great employers, great jobs and a strong economy for the next generation,” said Woitalewicz, referencing SWIF’s Grow Our Own initiative.
Business is heating up
At FBT Sawmill, SWIF’s 1,000th loan has heated up business. Before founding the sawmill, owner Erwin Bonestroo had worked two jobs most of his life, things like catering and livestock farming. But he wanted to take a chance on what he felt called to do.
“I learned a lot from my grandpa who was in woodworking. Things go better once you get the proper equipment, and that’s what I was born to do — work with wood,” Bonestroo said.
Working with machines didn’t come as naturally to Bonestroo, but he forged ahead anyway after months of researching sawmills. Having never set eyes on one in person, he bought a used sawmill and started his tree-based business on the prairie, of all places. His partners have changed through the years, but Bonestroo has stayed.
Owning a sawmill hasn’t been easy. One Sunday in 2008, Bonestroo exited church services to see his workshop aflame across the section, the sky black with smoke. Then the economy collapsed, another fire, more setbacks. But there was always help when he needed it, not to mention Bonestroo’s determination to hang on to his dream.
“I decided I was going to give it 110 percent no matter what happened,” he said after the devastating fire.
In the early years, FBT sold things like wooden shims and pallet parts made of cottonwood just to “pay the bills and keep everything rolling.” A few years ago, the group finally hit its stride — furniture, mantles, slabs for striking bar tops and tables. Demand took off, but FBT’s two dehumidification kilns weren’t keeping up: Fresh cut wood must be dried to guard against cracking and warping, and the process can take weeks.
Facing customers disappointed with delays, a custom-made vacuum kiln seemed like the solution. But it was a major purchase with a big price tag. When Bonestroo knew he needed financing in addition to what the bank could offer, he dug up a letter he’d received when he reached out for help after the fire in 2008: The letter was from SWIF.
“When I knew I needed to spend this kind of money, it scared me big time. I called Amy at SWIF, and she told me, ‘This is what we need,’” Bonestroo said. “Buying the kiln is a heck of a chance, but I don’t see anything but good coming out of this thing.”
A big slab of wood that took 60 days or more to dry in a dehumidification kiln can be done in about 15 days with the vacuum kiln.
“Easy water comes out quick by air dry. Water that’s bound inside, that comes out slow and that comes out hard. With the vacuum kiln, that just evaporates it slick as a whistle,” he said. “It’s amazing how it works.”
Just as business is heating up, Erwin is slowing down. He’s started transitioning FBT Sawmill to two long-time employees — his son, Mitch Bonestroo, and Justin Kerkhove-Brandt who started working at FBT when he was 18 years old.
“Part of my job is promoting now and keeping everything going. I’m almost 70, so I don’t have all the spunk I used to have,” Bonestroo said.
FBT Sawmill has three other employees, and room for one more who can build good furniture, something Bonestroo thinks a person is born to: “That’s something you’ve got to have in your blood.”
For more information about loans through SWIF, call 800-594-9480, 320-587-4848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Southwest Initiative Foundation
Southwest Initiative Foundation is an independent community foundation supported by individuals, families, businesses and organizations who want to strengthen southwest Minnesota. Since its founding in 1986, SWIF has contributed more than $75 million through its grant and loan programs. Its business finance programs have helped start or expand more than 700 businesses, which have created or retained more than 8,600 jobs. SWIF has also established 26 community affiliates and more than 100 school, donor-advised and other funds, as well as 16 Early Childhood Initiative coalitions to support young children. SWIF has received 1,730 acres of farmland through our Keep It Growing℠ farmland giving program. In 2016, SWIF launched the Grow Our Own Initiative to align its work and ensure all southwest Minnesota kids have the best start to life. The Southwest Initiative Foundation is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To learn more, visit www.swifoundation.org.
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