Ojibway Enclosure Systems finds new avenue for growth

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Jim Leute
Monday, April 22, 2013

— With his sheet metal fabricating business struggling, Rich Pember faced a difficult decision.

Close the shop, sell it to someone else or find a new product and a new direction?

Pember and a handful of employees chose the latter in 2009—not a particularly great time to start a new business—and haven't looked back since.

Incorporating some of the strengths of the old business, the new business, Ojibway Enclosure Systems, does laser cutting, welding and forming of a variety of products.

Its new and growing niche, however, is in the design and manufacture of enclosures for power generation systems.

Ojibway's massive enclosures protect diesel generators that back up some of the largest computer server farms in the world. One of its customers operates a Las Vegas digital storage center that's the size of seven football fields and stores the data of companies such as Google, TurboTax and Morgan Stanley.

Ojibway recently shipped three of the enclosures from its assembly facility on Whitney Street. The enclosures were 12 feet wide, 13 feet tall and nearly 42 feet long.

Together with their diesel engines and tanks, the weatherproof, sound-attenuated enclosures required nine flatbed semis that were escorted to Nevada. A 10th truck with parts followed.

The company had done some enclosure work for another designer, but that ended badly.

“His design was crappy, and then he went out of business and left it in our lap,” said Pember, a 1988 Craig graduate. “We came up with our own design, knew we could do it and learned how to do it right.

“That was our $50,000 tuition into the enclosure business. Now, customers love our design.”

Ojibway, which has 16 employees spread between two Janesville operations, is nothing without teamwork, Pember said.

The company started with five employees: Pember, chief engineer Steve Vinz, plant manager Wanden Zittlow and his assistant Duane Church. Debbie Schilling started with the company with the responsibility of answering the phone. Now she handles the company's growing sales.

Pember's brother, Patrick, also was involved in the early days.

Ojibway launched with two years of 100 percent growth. Then came a flat year, which Pember said was OK because industry overall was way down. The company is now back on track with growth of 50 percent.

“We want to manage our growth carefully,” he said. “That's if we can keep Debbie from outselling us.”

The nature of the company's business requires a high degree of flexibility and teamwork. Diesel engines rarely arrive in Janesville with the specifications Ojibway was expecting.

Pember credits Vinz and the others for being able to adjust quickly and come up with final products that exceed customer expectations.

Vinz, who also teaches computer-aided design at Blackhawk Technical College, said everyone is cross-trained in what is a family work environment.

“We cover for each other, and we take care of each other,” he said. “There's a saying that the little things in life have a way of getting in the way of a regularly scheduled day, and we deal with that quite well.”

The company has potential for work in Australia, Mexico and other countries, but its enclosures also are used at wastewater treatment plants in Janesville, Beloit and Rockford, Ill.

Its metal fabrication work can be seen on airport escalators and baggage claims, or as close as O'Riley & Conway's Irish Pub in Janesville, where the Celtic knots came from Ojibway.

“We've got such a perfect environment right now,” Pember said. “The quality of our people and their knowledge is incredible. They all take a great amount of pride in what they do.”

Last updated: 10:23 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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