VIRGINIA — Tom Seitz had virtually no desire many years ago to follow in the big footsteps made by his dad at Northern Engine & Supply Inc.
Gordon “Gordy” Seitz had started the company in 1953 in his native Duluth as a little engine repair shop. During the early days he sold parts out of a trailer.
The business would grow to have a second store in Virginia — eventually several other locations — and become the successful company it is today.
But when a young Tom Seitz — then a student at a small college in Michigan — decided to go to work for his dad’s company during the summer of 1981, something happened that would change his path forever.
A customer came in looking for a Caterpillar part one day, recalled Seitz, who then searched the surplus inventory and “I found it for him. … The part was worth 500 bucks.”
It was one simple transaction. But it was a rewarding moment for Seitz, who reconsidered his future with the company.
“I sort of fell into it,” he said on a recent day.
And now — despite the long hours of work — the businessman can’t imagine doing much else.
“Meeting people and talking with people is rewarding,” said Seitz, president of Northern Engine & Supply Inc.
“We are in the mines every day,” he noted of the multifaceted store in Virginia, that predominantly serves the mining industry.
“It’s about 85 percent mining, 10 percent construction and 5 percent miscellaneous and logging.”
With such a big chunk of the business related to mining, the company has weathered all the ups and downs of the local industry through the years. But even in the down times, Northern Engine has survived.
In fact, “we have never laid anyone off in the history of the company,” nor has the business ever received a loan from the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, Seitz said. “We take pride in that.”
Northern Engine & Supply Co., has a wide range of products. It offers contractor and mining supplies, hydraulic pumps and equipment, engine and power units, truck parts, off highway and mining equipment, drivelines and fabrication and much more.
The Virginia location is mainly a parts and supply store, but it includes a repair shop and equipment rental.
Its sizable warehouse and shop on Hoover Road is filled parts — big and small.
“Key to the business,” Seitz said, is its OEM (original equipment manufacture) products — from-the-dealer parts sold at a competitive price.
For instance, Northern Engine has a full line of Parker hydraulic valves, pumps and cylinders, and hydraulic hoses and fittings.
It is one of the bigger distributors in the country of Pewag protective chains for big loaders.
And it is the largest distributor in the United States of ISRI Isringhausen driver seats.
The business also sells Carlisle breaks and GKN Rockford driveline components, among many other products.
If the business doesn’t have a part, it can probably be ordered. “We fulfill requests,” Seitz said. And the company is “big on customer service. We will deliver a part at midnight. … We will deliver a $10 part as much as a $1,000 part.”
Northern Engine is a distributor, as well, of Elliot Machine Works lube, fuel and water trucks. “We’ve sold over 20 trucks in the last 10 years,” Seitz said.
The Virginia location does all sorts of repairs — on hydraulic cylinders, pumps and valves, differentials, disc, drum and wet breaks, break shoe relining, to name a few.
It also rents such equipment such as bulldozers, loaders, mini excavators and skid-steers.
Additionally, the Virginia store buys back equipment, such as big mining trucks, to “part it out,” Seitz said. Construction equipment is likewise bought back and sold, rented or parted out. It’s another way of adding value, Seitz said.
The company also does some out-of-state sales and exporting to other countries.
Ultimately, Northern Engine & Supply is a business that is “on the ground floor” in the mines — and one that offers everything “from flashlights to engines to something big,” Seitz said.
And it all stems from starting out small.
Seitz said his dad, now 89, who essentially left the business a couple years ago but will never “really retire,” began his work career selling used cars at age 18.
That led to opening the small engine repair shop which became Northern Engine & Supply company.
In the late 1950s, Gordy headed east, towing a trailer full of parts to sell. He landed a job with the construction of the Niagara Power Plant. The work involved taking water from the Niagara River above the famous falls and carrying it about five miles through the city of Niagara before discharging it into the lower gorge.
The project involved one of the largest aggregate crushing plants in the country at the time, with crushed rock of various sizes needed for concrete and other uses.
Euclid earth moves were called upon to feed the plant, and the haul from the quarry to the crusher was a hefty pull over grades as steep as 12 percent, with loads sometimes exceeding 70 tons per vehicle.
The trucks were fitted with special transmissions and the engines swapped out to accomplish the work. The engine conversion was handled by Gordy and few employees from Northern Engine, which set up a shop at the job site to handle repairs and overhauls.
The power plant opened in 1961, and Tom Seitz, one of six siblings and his parent’s second son, was born while the family was in New York.
After returning to Minnesota, Gordy opened the Virginia store around 1963-64, originally located on Second Avenue. The founder traveled back and forth between the Iron Range and Duluth stores for a while.
Eventually, another store was opened in Fargo, N.D.
Then came the summer of 1981. Seitz had planned to work for his father only that season. He mostly did maintenance work around the shop. “But then I sold one used part …”
… And the rest is history. Seitz was hooked.
One of the salesmen took him into the mines, and Seitz was soon selling parts.
Seitz and older brother, Bob, then began traveling west with a pickup truck full of parts, selling them to the coal mines in Wyoming and Montana.
The brothers would take turns on the treks. “He would go out there one month, then I’d go out for month,” Seitz recalled.
They stated selling out of parts, and Bob decided to open a store in Gillette, Wyo.
The Wyoming location is essentially a twin of the Virginia store, aside from serving two types of mining.
The company’s Fargo location is the Midwest’s largest distributor of Wisconsin Engines products.
Northern Engine & Supply also has a Proctor location that specializes in heavy equipment.
There are about 50 employees among the five stores, Seitz said.
The Virginia shop’s full-time employees include two outside salesmen, Mark Andrews, who also works in purchasing, and Scott Grabau, “our hydraulics man,” mechanics Joel Mealey and Mark Rewertz, and secretary Rachel Pratt.
“We are very fortunate to have this group here. They are a great group of employees,” said Seitz, who admits his own hours are long. He starts at 7 a.m. and is often working night and weekend hours.
But in the end it’s all worthwhile, especially the interactions with customers, Seitz said. “Getting out and meeting people, developing friendships — it’s rewarding.”
Seitz credits his wife, Luona, a Spanish teacher, for “keeping everything together” on the home front.
Business with the mines “has been phenomenal the last year and a half,” Seitz said. It’s a great feeling, he said, because as everyone on the Range knows, there have been a lot of lows. During downturns in the industry, “you hope construction and rentals will pick up,” he said.
While Northern Engine also works with a number of the area’s construction companies, mining remains the bulk of the business, and “we have a great relationship with all the mines,” Seitz said. “Hopefully, we will be working with PolyMet one day,” too, he said of the decade-long copper/nickel/strategic metals project now in the final permitting stages.
Seitz said he’s not sure if he will follow in his dad’s footsteps of working a whopping 71 years, although he assuredly has no plans of retirement anytime soon.
And whether or not any of his children — sons Blair, 23, Jake, 17, and daughters, Brylee, 21, and Anna, 16 — will be part of the business is yet to be determined.
But Seitz does know for certain that his role with Northern Engine & Supply Inc. — one that he “grew into” — is a vocation that “now I love.”