Father and son duo work together to evolve family fab shop
July 10, 2013
Juhl Hartberg and his son Paul are working side by side to expand their business, originally built on agricultural repair work, into one that provides custom design and fabrication.
One of the most infamous, explosive, and wildly entertaining reality television of the past several years was Discovery Channel’s American Chopper.” The show followed Orange County Choppers, a custom motorcycle business run by Paul Teutul Sr. and his son Paul Teutul Jr. Paul Jr. habitually towed the line, which typically caused his father to fly off the handle. While ideologies may at times differ between the father/son duo that comprise Hartberg Engineering, Lake Heron, Minn., it’s the simple concepts that keep Juhl and son Paul essentially on the same page—their affinity for metalworking, engineering, and art.
Father Juhl Hartberg started what was then considered a side business in Lake Heron nearly 40 years ago: to repair equipment for local farmers. Juhl himself was a full-time farmer but gave that up in 1985 to focus on fabricating and repair work full-time. Metal fabrication was in his blood, but, coincidentally, so was art—he studied art in college, in fact.
As a result of his father’s side fabrication and repair business, Paul grew up welding, cutting, and forming metal. “Working with steel came pretty naturally to me,” he said.
He, too, had an affinity for art. But before Paul joined his father in the business, he set out on his own, first as an electrician and then as a fabricator at a local ethanol plant, but neither seemed like the right fit.
“I had finally had enough of that. I’m not much for doing the same thing every day, so I came back to work for my dad and do what I really like to do.”
When Paul joined his dad full-time two years ago, they mostly fabricated custom handrails and performed repair work. But with agriculture booming in the area, explained Juhl, local farmers no longer needed him to build custom tools or perform major repairs because they had the means to buy brand-new equipment instead. With the foundation of what was originally the backbone of his business now gone, Juhl and Paul needed to evolve the business, and fast.
Paul had a solution in mind that would allow both men to incorporate more artistic design into their fabrication work and possibly drum up new business—branch out beyond standard repair work into the world of decorative custom fabricating. The first step was purchasing a CNC plasma table, which they did. Paul converted it to a three-axis servomotor, updated the software, and began converting his drawings into cut parts. The more time he spent designing pieces and cutting out parts, the more sure he was that this was a great direction to take the business.
The second step was getting the word out that Hartberg Engineering intended to be more than just handrails and agriculture equipment repair.
“It was hard to make money with the table because there weren’t really a lot of production-type jobs coming through. I started making a few phone calls and sending out e-mails, trying to promote the things I was making,” Paul said
And then lightning struck.
Last summer the Hartbergs heard back from the head of the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum of Natural History in Sioux Falls, S.D., who was looking for a contractor to fabricate a new entrance gate—something that resembled an African savannah landscape. Paul met with the project architects, who gave him an artist’s rendering of how they wanted the new entrance gates to look.
Paul started by drawing a basic design, loading it into AutoCAD®. He used ¼-in. pickled and oiled steel sheets in 5 by 10 sheets to cut trees, foliage, letters, and animals with the newly revamped CNC plasma cutter. It was a big project that Paul said resulted in countless sleepless nights and some anxiety for Juhl.
“I don’t think he wanted to get into anything as big as the zoo project,” Paul explained, “but I twisted his arm and it ended up working out.”
With the success of the Great Plains Zoo now behind them, father and son hope to take on more original and decorative fabrication projects.
“The zoo project was a good job that gave us exposure in a place where we’d never had it before. Now the business has kind of evolved into doing quite a bit of architectural stuff, like stainless steel railings, stairs, and things like that,” said Juhl.
Plus, father and son are enjoying working side by side. Said Paul, “We have a good time. We both think alike, but at the same time we both have our own ways of doing things. Truth is, neither of us could probably ever work with anyone else.”