‘Everything just fits together naturally’

A worker in the Lindbäcks plant in Piteå, Sweden, where modular apartment buildings are built from local lumber and sold in the nation's largest city of Stockholm. PHOTO: Maria Fäldt for Lindbäcks.

A worker at the Lindbäcks plant in Piteå, Sweden, where sophisticated modular apartment buildings are built from local lumber and sold in the nation’s largest city of Stockholm and other European cities. PHOTO: Maria Fäldt for Lindbäcks.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When settlers came to Northern Minnesota they found timber so tall and plentiful that they built Chicago with it. When Chicago burned down they built it again. New prospectors found iron ore so rich they could shovel it straight into eastern blast furnaces to make the steel that built a growing nation, supplying two world wars and the emergence of an American age in this world.

These two industries — mining and logging — built the towns of Northern Minnesota, attracted 100,000 people from all over the world, and made a few men very, very wealthy. Today, even though we carry all the world’s knowledge on computers in our pockets, natural resources remain the foremost money-makers in Northern Minnesota’s economy, along with a medical sector bolstered by our aging population.

It’s not much different in Northern Sweden, one of the lands that sent so many people to Northern Minnesota a century ago. The forests, lakes and local economy there today are remarkably similar to ours. But one company in Piteå, Sweden, shows that old industries do not have to die, so long as they innovate the products they sell. Communities don’t have to shrivel on the vine, so long as people remain committed to them.

Stefan Lindbäck’s family has operated a lumber business near Piteå, a port municipality of about 40,000 people, since 1924. Lindbäcks Bygg, now in its fourth generation, has become far more than the sawmill Stefan’s great-grandfather Frans started between world wars. Twenty years ago, during a recession in Sweden, Lindbäcks fell from 100 employees to 25. The lumber and construction trusses they made weren’t selling. They encountered the same problem our wood product and mining industries now face here in Minnesota: lower demand and lower prices.

At the same time, however, Sweden’s entry into the European Union loosened construction regulations in the Nordic nation, allowing taller wooden structures. Sweden, like some European nations, had for many decades banned wooden construction taller than two stories because of the risk of fires in densely populated cities.

“These two things — the threat of bankruptcy and the opportunity to build higher made it possible to develop a new way of building,” said Stefan Lindbäck from his office in Piteå. “As a family company with employees who were devoted, we wanted to survive. They put a lot of effort. It’s the people around us that have made it possible to make this journey over last 20 years.”

Stefan’s father saw the opportunity to create large scale modular construction kits in Northern Sweden that would bring the labor and wealth closer to the point of production. Simply put, they would add value to the wood products they’d been making for decades and keep their factory alive.

They would be the first company in Sweden to do this, but the effort would require massive retraining of all employees. Lindbäck said that the positive relationship between his family and their workers, coupled with a strong research and development relationship with a local university, led to a collaborative approach.

In a transition that took about 15 years, Lindbäcks Bygg would grow to ship entire modular apartment complexes to Sweden’s capital and largest city Stockholm. In two years, the company plans to triple production, and ship its modular homes by sea down Sweden’s eastern coast along the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Bothnia to reduce transportation costs. The company is positioned as an early adopter of affordable, sustainable, environmentally conscious construction.

Scott Hedges works for a company that supplies Lindbäcks. He’s an American who has lived in Sweden and spends time in Northern Minnesota. He’s the one who told me about the company and its comparisons to our region.

He describes the “fidelity of place” that Stefan Lindbäck and his family have, the desire to continue innovating to keep jobs and progress in the community where they’ve lived their whole lives.

“They see this as their town,” said Hedges. “The idea that they’re going to make this work in their town isn’t really negotiable. It’s hard work. You have to be willing to fight for a place.”

Helena Lidelöw, the Product Manager for Lindbäcks, says that the value of their line of modular construction is its Nordic design, the idea that all high quality components go together easily and look good afterward. PHOTO: Maria Fäldt, for Lindbäcks

Helena Lidelöw, Product Manager for Lindbäcks, says the value of their line of modular construction is  Nordic design, the idea that high quality components go together easily and look good afterward. PHOTO: Maria Fäldt, for Lindbäcks

Helena Lidelöw, project engineer for Lindbäcks, recently toured North America sharing the company’s philosophy and technology, which is Stefan Lindbäck said is a part of the firm’s long term strategy. Lidelöw told me via e-mail that she foresees Lindbäcks Bygg leading the way to a form of construction in which the completed house and furnishings are considered from the earliest point of design.

“Everything just fits together naturally,” Lidelöw said. She’s talking about the modular construction of Lindbäcks products, but the same could could be said of the company’s organization.

“We are very open to let the people grow in their own way,” said Lindbäck. “We have a meeting once a year to discuss where we are going and where our goals are. What are the challenges for the next six months? We scale down the measurable customer satisfaction goals. We have daily goals and everyone knows if they are achieving those goals.”

Lindbäck said everyone from the CEO down sees their name on a board in the production facility next to a description of their tasks for that day. Each day, people know how much they accomplished. Lindbäck uses the terms “real jobs” to describe those who do the production, and “important jobs” to describe those who do the planning and development, a departure from the idea of employees and management.

And while his company is focused on its meteoric growth in Sweden and Europe, Lindbäck hopes that the environmentally and cost-conscious ideas his company is developing spreads to our corner of the world.

“I would love it, though I can’t promise it, if in a year or two Minnesota will see things we do done by companies in your area,” said Lindbäck. “We have decided to do technology transfer to show other companies to build in our manner. So, maybe, Swedish houses in a couple years.”

Whether or not Lindbäcks Bygg-style buildings appear here remains to be seen, but some Lindbäcks-style reinvention could be most helpful to a Northern Minnesota region that, like Piteå, is unlikely to saved by anyone other than the people who care about it most.

Lindbäck said he has toured Rust Belt cities like Detroit and is aware of the problem of deindustrialization in places like the Iron Range. His advice for the region is clear. Don’t wait.

“It’s not easy at all, but if you wait too long you lose opportunity to invest in [research and development]. I think I would start by asking what options are there? If you want to start a change in culture, you need to know if the people with real jobs, are they open to change? The company owners, do they think there’s a problem? Or does everyone think it’s someone else’s problem? Do they need to change? If people with real jobs don’t see the need for change, or understand their role, it won’t succeed at all.

“The change must be complete if you want it to be permanent,” said Lindbäck.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in July 2015 edition of Business North and was republished in the Scenic Range News Forum.

 

Comments

  1. Let’s loosen some regulations here, push for more logging on Federal land and see if we can replicate some of the success we are reading about!

  2. Gerald S says:

    Ken, the article is specifically about using creativity, ingenuity, and design skill to create a value added economy to replace the failing traditional extraction industries with jobs that pay more and have a future, not about attempting to return to 19th century approaches.

    Sweden, of course, has environmental regulation and conservation policies that make the regulations here seem trivial, as well as taxes that are significantly higher than ours.

  3. Amazing how much more creative you can be with less regulations!!! Hope it doesn’t take near bankruptcy for us to get more “creative” as it did the Sweden. As hard as it is to believe people less Govt regulations allow folks to prosper, don’t repeat that comrades , they like us walking in lock step.

  4. Ah, looking back at the past…the height of creative thinking.

    The world moves ahead, complexity increases, demanding more creative, intelligent solutions. Not everyone prospers; fortunes are made…and lost. Each new generation spawns its heroes and villains (as well as villeins) and life goes on. No sense crying over spilled milk; rather look for opportunity to create…a new way to clean it up, or a new way to store it.

    The beauty if Scandinavian resource extraction is that the Scandinavians have learned how much their forests can produce, and manage them as intensively as the asian truck farmer manages his fields. Its an organic thing, with every stakeholder involved in the success of the endeavor.

    In America some demand the Givernment (Purposely mis-pelled) do the forestry, so that industry can profit…and then complain about their tax bill.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.