Innovative Foam, based in Hutchinson, started in 2005 making foam stage props. By 2012, its previous owner was ready to move on, and Dean Bertram decided to purchase the company. For support starting out as a small business owner, he came to Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF).
“The foundation helped me with the whole process, from the loan to small business management training,” said Dean, who holds a degree in machining from Ridgewater College and was a machinist for 15 years. “The guidance and training were the two biggest benefits of working with SWIF.”
Whether it’s a company sign or decorations for a kid’s birthday party, Dean and his employees bring visions to life. Innovative Foam has two large CNC machines with computer software to cut foam into 3D shapes with a hot wire. They can produce letters, logos, graphics, signboards, labels for indoor and outdoor ads, decor elements and store props and displays.
They make a lot of 3, 4, 5, even 6-foot-tall letters – like the #OnlyinMN monument for Minnesota’s state tourism marketing, or letters for TEDx talks. Dean expanded the company from himself to five employees, and last year moved operations to a building with more than double the space.
Most orders at Innovative Foam – 75 percent – come from outside Minnesota, with customers as notable as Apple.
“I remember that phone call well,” he said of being phoned by the tech icon for a foam sign. “That one’s fun because it’s a big name.”
Close to home, Innovative Foam created several displays for Hutchinson High School’s TigerPath Academies. This initiative, launched in 2014, allows students to take classes and explore the skills and experiences of careers in engineering, health care, business and public service.
Jacob Albers, a senior at Hutchinson High School, is taking advantage of TigerPath’s internship program. He interns at Innovative Foam as part of his study in the STREAM Academy focusing on science, technology, renewables, engineering, art, agriculture, mathematics and manufacturing.
“Jacob is a fabulous kid, and a great worker. I think it’s very valuable for students to get that work experience. Jacob will step into another job and he’ll be better off with whatever he’s learned here. For me, it’s a good way to give back.” Dean Bertram
Besides interning, Jacob’s hands-on experience through school has included a Tiny House construction project where students built a complete home totaling just 185 square feet. And next trimester, he’ll be working in Tiger Manufacturing, an authentic manufacturing business based in the high school making real products for real customers. He plans to pursue a degree in machining this fall.
“Dean used to be a machinist, so he’s got a lot of knowledge and a real perspective. It’s good information to have,” Jacob said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people doing this internship, and it’s helped me network.”
SWIF is one of 23 partners who contributed a total of $1.2 million to launch TigerPath initiative, which has won a League of Minnesota Cities 2017 City of Excellence Award and a 2018 workforce development award from the Mid-America Economic Development Council. Speaking of awards, Dean was nominated for Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce and Tourism’s 2018 Business Person of the Year for his community involvement and contributions to TigerPath.
“Dean, like so many start-up owners, really enjoys paying it forward,” said SWIF employee Greg Jodzio, who worked with Dean as part of SWIF’s Microenterprise Loan Program. “His hard work has led to great success, and it’s fun to see him share that with the community.”
From supporting entrepreneurs to funding innovations in pathways to careers, SWIF is helping provide opportunities for our kids to reach their full potential.
Check out Grow Our Own to discover how closing the opportunity gap for kids in southwest Minnesota affects economic development.