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Minnesota Chemical Company celebrates 100 years in Midway

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

The company is now owned by the third generation of Bakers—and the fourth generation is also involved


MN Chemical 4It’s been 100 years since Irish immigrant R.P. Baker began the Minnesota Chemical Company (MCC) in the Midway area, and today his grandchildren are running the family business.

Photo right: The Minnesota Chemical Company has been located in the same area for 100 years. Originally located at 2207 Wycliff Ave. in St. Paul, it moved one block over to Hampden Ave. in 1937 to be closer to a rail line and to gain warehouse space.

“We have changed with the times,” remarked President Mike Baker. “We have taken good care of customers and provided a good living for our employees.”

Mike and cousins Steve and Dan own Minnesota Chemical Company. They took over in 1985 from R.P.’s sons (Robert, Dan and John Baker) when the “Baker Boys” retired together. They led the company for 40 years through recessions, competition, inflation, and a host of other challenges.

MN Chemical 3Photo left: R.P. Baker’s three sons, (left to right) Bob, Dan, and John, left their management roles at Minnesota Chemical Company to serve in the military during World War II. The Baker Boys retired together in 1985 and passed the company down to the third generation of Bakers.

The Baker Boys had taken over after their father’s death in October 1943 during World War II.

The three boys had left their management positions at MCC when war broke out; Dan and John joined the Army Air Corps, and Bob joined the Army. All three served as officers based on their experience as cadets at Saint Thomas Military Academy.

According to a history compiled by MCC, the trio hit the ground running when they came back from World War II. When they rejoined the company, a primary focus was manufacturing soap for the laundry and dairy industries, and the only location was in St. Paul.

Within a decade, the “Baker Boys” moved the company away from manufacturing of soap. They refocused the company on distributing a full range of supplies, and eventually equipment, for commercial and institutional laundries and dry cleaners throughout the Midwest.

In 1952, a Milwaukee sales office/warehouse was also established. In 1962, an equipment sales and service office was added in Waverly, Iowa.

‘I felt my place was here’
Robert’s son Steve started working at MCC as a kid, cutting the grass and cleaning the bathrooms on Saturdays. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a liberal arts degree in 1975, he started working full-time at Minnesota Chemical.

He never considered another career path. “I always felt my place was here,” stated Steve. “I never had the pull to do anything else.”

Five years later his cousin Mike also started working at MCC.

It was Mike’s dad, John Baker, who discussed retirement with his two brothers, and the “Baker Boys” retired on the same day in 1985. MCC passed into the hands of Steve and Mike, and Dan joined as owner a few years later.

MN Chemical 1Photo left: Brothers Steve (left) and Dan, along with cousin Mike (right) own Minnesota Chemical Company today. They strive to follow in their grandfather’s footsteps and treat their customers ethically.

“It was a very orderly and peaceful transition,” recalled Steve. “They never looked back.”
Robert passed away in 1998, Dan in 2006, and John in 2010.

Steve has seen many changes in the industry during his tenure with Minnesota Chemical. “The stuff we sell today is very different than what we sold when I first came into the business,” he remarked.

The chemicals are more earth-friendly than they were, and the equipment is much more efficient, he added.

They currently serve Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and parts of South and North Dakota. Customers come from a variety of industries, from healthcare, athletic clubs, hotels, and motels, dry cleaning, and coin operated laundries. Many of their customers are also family-owned businesses that they have served for decades.

Dan has been in Wisconsin for much of his career and has switched from selling supplies to equipment, and from laundries to coin-operated laundromats. Those shifts have kept him engaged in his work.

As distributors, much of their success comes from getting good lines of products to sell, he pointed out. “You’re only as good as the lines that you carry,” said Dan. Their suppliers include Milnor, ECOLAB, and Pariser, among others.

Mike also credits a shifting industry as the reason he has continued to enjoy his job. “Customers have different needs, and they come to us with problems looking for solutions,” he observed. “Since I concentrate on equipment, mainly large washing machines and dryers, sometimes it is a matter of helping customers making better use of machines they own. Other times we can help customer staff be more efficient with newer, more productive equipment.”

An ethical company
Steve thinks that the main reason that MCC has been in business for 100 years is that they’re an ethical company.

“Ethics matter today,” observed Steve. “You have to be fair and consistent with all your customers. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. You have to warranty stuff.”

Steve has been a Rotarian for 30 years and is a founding member of the St. Paul Sunrise Rotary Club. Recently, while reciting the Rotary Four Way Test, he was struck by how accurately the document describes the Minnesota Chemical Company’s way of doing business.

Steve isn’t sure if R.P. ever saw a copy of the Four Way Test, but “its core ideas influences everything we do at MCC – being truthful, being fair, building good will, building friendships, and being mutually beneficial to us and our customers,” he said. Steve’s father and his uncle John were also Rotarians.

Steve Baker never knew R.P. as he died young. “I’m sure he’d be proud and probably a little amazed it was still going,” commented Steve.

Immigrant success story
MN Chemical 2His grandfather was an immigrant success story. He journeyed from Ireland to America as a teenager, and first worked in upstate New York selling woolen goods.

When R.P. moved to Minnesota, he discovered that most soaps were being transported to the state from the east coast. “He realized there was an opportunity there,” said Steve.

Photo right: Irish immigrant R.P. Baker founded Minnesota Chemical Company in 1915 in the Midway area of St. Paul. His three sons took over after his death and the end of World War II, and ran it successfully for 45 years before passing the reins to the third generation of Bakers. Today, R.P.’s great-grandson James works at Minnesota Chemical.

R.P. and several other Irish immigrants began manufacturing soaps and cleaning compounds.

MCC founders were originally attracted to the Midway area in St. Paul for two reasons—proximity to the Minnesota Transfer Railroad’s hub and the presence of meat processing plants in the area. The plants provided a critical component in soap manufacturing: beef tallow.

R.P.’s handwritten ledger from September 1915 lists cash in the drawer at $10. Cash paid out ranged from sponges at 15 cents to stamps for 10 cents–and “car fare” for a dime (i.e. a taxi cab fare).

Salt was one of the biggest company expenses that month: $2.67 for hundreds of pounds.
Among the cleaning products that were being produced in the early years was the product Nokomis Bubbles. The hand-written recipe lists salt, tallow, grease, and borax.

The company’s soap and cleaning compounds were so popular that Minnesota Chemical Company expanded into an eight-state area in the Midwest within a decade.

The company was first located in a small building at 2207 Wycliff St. Then it moved to a 50,000-foot-space on Hampden Ave. in 1937 because of frontage on a spur rail line and lots of ground-floor warehouse space. It had once been a mammoth 300,000-plus-square-foot three-story building that took up a whole city block. But, eventually, most of the building was torn down, and a portion remaining on its eastern edge was purchased by MCC.

Today, the building is too large for MCC and is up for sale. They no longer need space for manufacturing, explained Steve.

They currently have 27 employees spread out among their locations.

What they’ve always appreciated about the Midway area is how central the location is.

Laundry is as basic as it gets
Dan is very proud of the fact that MCC is a fourth-generation, family-owned business. “Not many people can say that,” he observed. “We’ve been able to prosper in the good times and bad times.”
Although the industry continues to evolve and change, Steve is confident there will always be a place for MCC. “Laundry is about as basic as it gets,” said Steve. “It’s got to get done somehow.”

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