SMALL BUSINESS – Pulaski to Pole

Posted on Aug 1, 2012 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Its logo is the shape of the state of Wisconsin and its name incorporates the word “dairy.” But the modest family-owned Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment in Pulaski is a global entity catering to much more than just the dairy industry.

In fact, the 20-year-old company has shipped product overseas to China and South Africa and, most recently, it shipped two stainless steel tanks to Antarctica to aid with hydrological research. It now has about 800 customers around the world.

“(Our business) is not just farmers,” says company founder/president Fran Ullmer. “It’s any industry that could use a mix tank.”

Milk, cheese and more

Agriculture has always been a part of Ullmer’s life. His family owned the former Krakow Cheese company in nearby Krakow, but after the factory closed, Ullmer had equipment to sell, so he started Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment. And though the company specializes in cheese-making equipment, Ullmer soon learned that its reach far extended that niche.

The company buys and sells used dairy processing equipment, such as cheese vats and tables, pasteurizers, bulk tanks, pumps and other farm equipment. Today, the company sells and ships to wineries, honey producers, breweries, universities, maple syrup companies, bakeries and oil companies, in addition to dairies. Ullmer also appraises equipment and entire factories.

Many of the company’s 10 employees are part of Ullmer’s large family – he and his wife have 15 children. He takes pride in following in his father’s footsteps of Midwest hospitality and treating the customers well.

“My dad set the example of honesty,” Ullmer says. “What means most to me being in business is the way my dad did business. I’d rather make (a customer) happy.”

Two of Ullmer’s sons own trucking companies, also in Pulaski, which help ship the company’s equipment. “It’s a really good family feeling,” says Ullmer.

Ullmer’s daughter, Rebecca Anderson – who also works for (and lives adjacent to) the company, adds, “He trusts each of his employees. He trusts your judgment.”

In 2008, the company, which had been operating first out of Ullmer’s home and then out of a trailer, built a dedicated building on site – with about 8½ exterior acres that house much of the company’s inventory. But another development would really put Ullmer’s on the map, so to speak.

When the company launched its website in 2008, Ullmer said it saw a “huge” increase in global inquiries. The site now gets about 400 hits per week and has expanded the company’s reach and recognition.

To Antarctica … and beyond

So just how did two gleaming stainless steel tanks from Pulaski (population 3,500) make it to the South Pole? Ullmer may know nothing about subglacial lakes and hydrological research – but he does know his equipment. He has sold to the University of Wisconsin-Madison when it came looking for holding tanks. Dennis Duling, drill manager for the University of Nebraska, had contacts at UW-Madison, so when he was searching for tanks for an upcoming grant-funded project, he knew exactly where to look. Drilling will begin in early 2013 on the WISSARD project – an integrated study of “Marine Ice Sheet Stability and Subglacial Life Habitats in West Antarctica.”

Duling says his team is the first American group to drill into the region’s subglacial lake to determine if there is life below the surface.

Ullmer’s sold the university a 500-gallon open-top dairy tank, used to melt snow to produce water, as well as a 3,800-gallon insulated tank, which will hold the main water supply for the hot-water drill. Earlier this year, the tanks were trucked from Pulaski to the West Coast, where they were placed on a cargo ship, shipped to New Zealand and loaded onto a military cargo plane on course to Antarctica.

Duling will leave later this year for Antarctica (Average temperature in the region? Ten degrees Fahrenheit) to get the equipment ready for the project. He says this purchase has definitely inspired future dealings with Ullmer’s.

“We’re already looking at some smaller tanks,” he says.

While thinking globally, Ullmer has made it a priority to maintain his Midwestern hospitality, strong familial warmth, devout faith and military respect (the former U.S. Marine served in the Vietnam War). He feels that those strong attributes really come through in his business.

“We’re not here to get rich,” he says. “We’re here to help people.

“If we can be of service to somebody, we will. It’s our customers who make us a living.”