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Humble roots to world leader
Back in 1961 Joe Shuster, a chemical engineer in Chisholm, MN, was talking with his father-in-law Wally Miller, who operated Minnesota Valley Breeders Association in New Prague. According to Shuster, his fatherin- law wanted his opinion on frozen semen containers that his company was considering using.
It was the first time Shuster had heard the word “cryogenics.”
That meeting and a few other discussions led to a visit by Shuster and Miller to a company in Colorado that manufactured larger, more efficient containers than what MVBA was using. While driving back to Minnesota they were talking, and Miller worked on some figures and decided that these new, larger containers, were still too small for the program he wanted to run.
“Wally said to me, ‘You’re an engineer. Can you design a frozen semen container with the capacity I need.’”
“I figured if I could design a big chemical plant, I surely could design a small tank.”
Shuster said he was naive. “We didn’t understand the low temperature physics that were involved and the heat transfer issues.”
He designed a tank and his brother-in-law Bill Miller worked with Anderson Machine and Tool in Chaska to manufacture them. Initially they were a success and MVBA ordered a large number of the tanks for themselves and other co-ops.
However after six to nine months, the tanks began to fail. According to a history Shuster put together for MVE/Chart’s 50th anniversary, his father-in-law decided to refund the money to those who bought the tanks. “That would have bankrupted him and the family,” Shuster said.
He felt responsible for the problems, and told his father-in-law that a better use for that money would be to start their own company and fix the problems.
On January 1, 1963, Minnesota Valley Engineering opened the doors to a 5,000 square foot building in New Prague.
MVE learned how to use super insulation—paper-thin layers of glass and aluminum.
“Bill Miller designed a wrapping machine to more efficiently apply this insulation, which was very density sensitive. We figured out how to optimally apply this wonderful insulation and eventually became the best in the world at doing this.”
There were a lot of lessons learned, and many setbacks in the process. Shuster was asked if he ever thought about just giving up on the project.
“No. It never crossed my mind,” he said. “It took some time, but we were intent on building a superior cryogenic container and we did it,” Shuster said.
The “We” he was referring to were some of the early employees, himself and his brothers-in-law, Bill and Mike Miller, Jim Eaton, Jack Pint, Ernie Shuster, Lawrence Scheffler, and others.
“We had quite a talented staff and we developed a competitive product,” he said.
But profits weren’t always there in the early going. “On several occasions some of the staff agreed to wait a few weeks before they were paid.”
Over the next eight years MVE grew rapidly. “We built a new building, or an addition, every year for eight years straight—we were growing like crazy, but we didn’t have enough cash to support this rapid growth. Andy Sirek at the State Bank of New Prague, helped us out.”
He said there was an “esprit de corps” unlike anything he’d experienced.
“I loved every job I’ve ever had, but here, everyone liked each other, everyone contributed. We were very fortunate.”
One of the reasons Shuster and the Millers decided to start MVE was that the industry leader at the time, Union Carbide, wasn’t addressing the needs of the breeding industry. “We got a bunch of guys together that appeared to be underqualified and kicked Union Carbide’s butt,” Shuster said. “Every time we did something better, we rejoiced.” He said Union Carbide was so big, that the cryogenic division was “just a job” to them. “For us it was the future for our families.”
Family was key to the success of MVE. Shuster tabbed Curt Swenson, who was married to his wife’s sister, to be in charge of sales. “He was just the right guy for the job.” Shuster’s brother Ernie also played a factor in the success of the business. “He could run every machine in the plant,” he said.
MVE eventually moved beyond the artificial insemination (AI) market, moving into the medical market, large commercial tanks and more.
“The AI market was quite small. That made these other markets much more attractive, particularly the industrial market.”
After seven years of working with little or no capital and continuing to grow,MVE was sold to Beatrice Foods. The business continued to grow, and in 1978 there were 415 employees, not just in New Prague, but in Indiana and other plants as well. Shuster said MVE’s New Prague roots helped guide the company to success.
“You can’t imagine how wonderful all the employees were and how important they were. They were more than just employees... they were smart people with a great work ethic who were quality conscious. Just think about it. We came to dominate an industry.”
“We hired a lot of very promotable employees, We had a lot of local talent that rose to top positions in the company.”
n 1965 MVE opened up a division in France to help it compete in the European market.
“Union Carbide had committed to producing in England a year earlier, so we decided to go to France, where we already had a major share of the business.”
The business had a lot of early success, but within a few years it began to get bogged down in French regulations and politics. “We basically gave the plant to its French managers— along with $1 million,” noting that it would have cost us more if we had simply closed the plant because of the buildup of indemnity to our employees under French law. The company is still in business today.
After selling MVE to Beatrice Foods, Shuster managed the company for another eight years. He then went on to other endeavors, including Teltech and other business ventures, but said nothing beats the experience he had with MVE.
Shuster and his wife Patsy still live in New Prague. Though retired, he remains active. In 2009 he wrote a book, “Beyond Fossil Fools,” about the need for changes in the country’s energy policy. He still speaks to colleges, civic organizations and corporations on the topic.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of places, and there’s not a big city I’ve been to where I haven’t seen an MVE Tank,” concluded Shuster.