This article is reprinted from a 1996 story By George Beran that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press
Jake Langer is hardly the best-known manufacturer in Maplewood, but when it comes to inventiveness, he can give headline-grabbing 3M a run for the money.
As the 86-year-old patriarch of Truck Utilities & Manufacturing Co., Langer uses self-taught mechanical skills to design, make and install custom steel equipment on trucks.
Although he never finished eighth grade, Langer knows what it takes to build a $12 million company from scratch.
“I watch things like a hawk,” he said. “Workmanship has got to be done right. You’ve got to have something that stands up and is going to last.” That means no crooked frames, bad welds, sharp edges or inferior paint jobs on the trucks he fixes or customizes for customers such as US West, Ecolab, Northern States Power and United Products.
Langer holds several patents on mechanical devices, equipment and machinery that customers purchase or his company uses in nine buildings on a 10-acre site at English Street in Minnesota.
What’s more, he still works seven days a week, overseeing the business and espousing an optimistic, growth-focused philosophy. “You can’t get smaller because overhead keeps getting out of line,” he said, pointing to product liability and other insurance costs that surpass $400,000 a year.
“It’s fun improving things. If you’re just going to stay in a rut, that doesn’t make sense.” At his 33-year mark in business, Langer’s payroll has grown 28 times to 85 employees, from three at the start. He wishes he could find more skilled help to join Truck Utilities’ two shifts.
“I’ve got wonderful employees and a good profit-sharing plan for them,” Langer said. “I treat them like people should be treated. So many companies don’t realize what good help is.”
Saving time is the goal he pursues when designing overhead cranes or ladder carriers and tooling around the company acreage in his golf cart.
“Things have got to be handy,” he said. “I’m always improving things, saving time.”
Ever since he built gopher traps as a youngster living on a farm near Bald Eagle Lake, Langer has loved to tinker. “My dad had a blacksmith shop on the farm and we built whatever we needed.” As a young man, he made a sidecar for his motorcycle.
While working for the Mahle Truck Body Co. in St. Paul in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Langer substituted steel for wood framing to make what he believes was the first all-steel truck body in Minnesota. He joined Steve Zeece, another Mahle employee, to start L-Z Co. in Roseville in 1953.
Langer designed and built truck bodies until he left the firm to open Truck Utilities in 1963.
A 100-ton press nicknamed Lu Lu Belle was the first piece of equipment he designed and built for his new company. The press bends to form the sheared steel in the manufacturing process.
He believes in back-saving factory equipment and safety on the job. “I don’t want employees hurting themselves lifting. We have six forklifts and build our own cranes.” Langer designed several overhead factory cranes, one with four chains that looks as though it could lift a battleship. He once rebuilt a wrecked 1954 Ford car, transforming it into “Jake’s Missile,” with a rounded front end protected by a curving bumper.
He drove it for 28 years, incurring no front-end damage from fender benders. The car hangs from the ceiling of a company warehouse.
Although he has manufactured hundreds of truck bodies over the years, Langer buys most of what he needs today from suppliers. “With the labor and insurance costs, I can buy a lot of bodies cheaper than I can make them.”
For the same reasons, he buys camper tops and van bodies instead of making them. He wishes taxes and insurance costs would come down to improve the manufacturing climate.
He is an active Chamber of Commerce member. Selling and repairing truck cranes and hoists accounts for a big chunk of his business. But lots of revenue comes from miscellany such as adding lift gates, repairing winches or manufacturing snowplows.
He has patents on a snowplow locking device and sells about 200 plows a year.
“Anything that can be done with a truck I can do,” he said.
When Langer set up shop, his son, Thomas Langer; brother, Jim Langer; and son-in-law, Leo Capeder joined the company. Son Tom died 15 years ago and Jake’s wife, Florence, died last year.
Jim Langer and Capeder still work at Truck Utilities along with three grandsons who will inherit the company. Each year Jake Langer passes more shares of stock along to Jay Langer, Tom’s son; Craig Capeder and Paul Capeder.
Just for the record, Jake is the nickname that Langer picked up as a boy from a White Bear Lake bar owner who knew his dad and didn’t think his given name, Hartford, should stick. It’s been Jake ever since.