The company, 103 W. Main, will celebrate its 40th year Monday as company officials and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., will conduct a short program in the Gazebo Park on the west end of Main Street starting at 11 a.m. Refreshments and tours will be available throughout the day.
Gene Hemmer moved Solomon Corporation to the community in 1971 with three employees. The original name of the company was Solomon Electric. Today the company employs 480 people at four locations around the country. Solomon Corporation rebuilds, repairs and recycles electrical distribution equipment for utility companies and industry nationwide. Annual sales this year are expected to top $120 million. Today the company is owned and operated by the second generation of the Hemmer family.
Today Gene Hemmer’s five children are active in company – Katie Platten, vice president of human resources; Tom Hemmer, vice president of sales; Matt Hemmer, secretary; Phil Hemmer, president; and Joe Hemmer, treasurer. Matt first joined the company in 1980; Joe and Phil arrived next, followed by Katie and Tom. In November 2000 the siblings purchased the company. The company continues to be identified by its Red Diamond logo.
Katie and Tom sat down for a recent interview about the company, what it has meant to them and the community.
Gene Hemmer was a farmer and rancher in Colman, S.D., when a harsh winter killed most of his cattle herd. Tom Hemmer remembered his father saying he lost about half of his equity and quipped. “For him it was a hard way to make a living.”
His father began a new career in the electric transformer business first working with Roger Larson in eastern South Dakota. Larson was working with another transformer company at the time and left to be part of the start-up firm. The two men added a third business partner with Loren Engle.
After several years the company owners looked southward.
“Dad moved here in 1971,” Tom said. “They were looking for a site north of Interstate 70 and east of U.S. 81 and they found a hardware store (in Solomon) with high enough ceilings. Dennis Riordan’s dad (at Solomon State Bank) was instrumental in helping dad.”
The banker helped Gene Hemmer not only with finding a Solomon site but also with financing.
Tom said the reason his dad wanted to move was to be closer to customers in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
“Those states had a lot of municipalities so it made business sense to move,” Tom said.
Hemmer and his two business partners moved to Solomon. Engle eventually went on to success at Abilene Machine and Larson followed his passion of automobile racing.
Gene Hemmer was involved in all aspects of the operation, Tom said, and the early years were marked with steady growth and employees were added.
Katie said over the years her father had several other business partners in the 1970s and 1980s.
The younger Hemmers said the company was able to develop a niche when the federal government changed regulations regarding Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in about 1980.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until their manufacture was banned in 1979. They have a range of toxicity and vary in consistency from thin, light-colored liquids to yellow or black waxy solids. Due to their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point, and electrical insulating properties, PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications including electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products; in pigments, dyes, and carbonless copy paper; and many other industrial applications.
Although no longer commercially produced in the United States, PCBs may be present in products and materials produced before the 1979 PCB ban, according to the EPA. Products that may contain PCBs include transformers and capacitors.
In 1991, the company built a reclamation facility, Tom said, to handle old transformer equipment.
“That’s an important part of our business,” he said.
Planting the seeds for the future
All of the siblings were back in Solomon in 1996 to help the company celebrate its 25th anniversary of being in the community. Tom and Katie both said at that time of their lives they were not ready to be owners. In 1990 Gene Hemmer had hired a professional management firm to help plan future growth, but that philosophy was different than the founder had envisioned.
In the late 1990s as Gene Hemmer approached the age of 70, he decided to put the company up for sale. By then the five children decided to become buyers and won it on a competitive basis. His father did not want to see the business given to the children. He wanted them to earn it. Tom Hemmer said Sunflower Bank, Salina, provided the financing.
“He was excited. He could not afford the time it took to expand,” Tom said. “We had to be competitive.”
“He also was dependent on it being a success,” Katie said. “A lot of us were nervous at the time. He really wanted us to be successful but to do it on our own. I don’t think there was anyone so proud. In fact, my dad often would say he wished he was younger.”
Gene died in September 2008. The younger Hemmers also credit their mother, Carol Williams, for their success. Gene and Carol had divorced years ago.
Tom said the last eight years of Gene’s life were some of the greatest years because he watched his children learn and grow with the business.
The Solomon Corporation owners have challenges with the turbulence of metal markets, but like anything else have learned to maneuver through market volatility, Katie said.
“The biggest thing we have done well is hire and promote the right people,” Tom said. “We have been blessed by the quality of the work force.”
The company has 350 employees based in Solomon. Sixty-five are in a plant in Tennessee, 50 in Texas and 15 in Colorado.
Gene Hemmer would have enjoyed taking part in the 40th celebration, Tom said. Gene understood the importance of having good employees who put customer needs first. Katie said her father also knew and advised her and her brothers about the need to be able to make changes when needed and at the same time respect continuity.
Solomon Corporation enjoys longevity in an industry that has experienced consolidation. The business model has shifted from “mom and pop” operations into more of a corporate model, which Solomon Corporation has done still while maintaining a family feel.
“In our industry 40 years is a big achievement,” she said.
The younger Hemmers are happy they do not carry any long-term debt, which allows them flexibility as they consider future growth plans.
One thing they do know is that Solomon has been a great fit for the family and they plan to keep it that way.
”Solomon is a good community and we have a good work force. With our company we need a lot of people with mechanical skills and a good work ethic,”Tom said. “Our customer base is primarily rural electric cooperatives and the culture of their businesses and workforce are the same.”
A recent commitment made to employees was involved in starting a clinic working in partnership with Memorial Health System and Patterson Healthcare Pharmacy, both of Abilene. Employees on the health plan, as well as participating families on the company health plan, can go to a downtown clinic.
“We use it to promote good health,” Tom said. “We are self-insured.’
With the nearest clinic about 15 miles away in Salina or Abilene, it provides a community service for employees ranging from health screenings to the routine. Pattersons can deliver medicine.
The commitment to the clinic is good for employees as well as the company. The clinic is available several days week and has a practitioner from Memorial Health System to assist.
Solomon Corporation is Solomon’s largest employer and one of the largest employers in Dickinson County.
Katie said community leaders, from bank executive Dennis Riordan at Solomon State Bank to locally elected leaders, city government and businesses have embraced Solomon Corporation.
“They have been so good to us,” Katie said. “We want to be a good corporate citizen.”
In a community like Solomon, she said it is important to give back.
The company will explore growth opportunities, Tom said.
Katie agreed, adding that acquisitions are always a possibility as a way to continue to serve customers.
Monday will be about celebrating 40 years of success, Tom said, adding he was pleased that Sen. Moran has agreed to take time from his busy schedule to help celebrate.