Masters of Metal

9/19/2019

The sound of clunky, steel-toe boot covers shuffling on the cement floor and some rather routine clearing of my fogged-up safety glasses do nothing to mask the instant aroma of a shop — the largest and cleanest I’ve ever experienced — as I begin what is sure to be a stimulating tour.

A sheet of metal clambers onto a long, steel table, and a bead from the welder is carefully uniting the enormous pieces of silver material when we arrive at our first stop in the expansive 1-million-square-foot building. Welcome to Paul Mueller Company, or as I’ve seen it referenced in shiny, metal letters: Mueller.

Although intrigued by Mueller’s wine and beer equipment (only a couple of their many product categories), this company piques my interest for its prominence and reputation in storing and handling another delectable product — milk.

This Springfield, Mo.,-based company’s rich history, tradition and reputation go back to the 1940s. The now global metal manufacturing company began humbly when two young entrepreneurs, Paul Mueller and Gordon Mann, shook hands on their sheet metal endeavor. The partnership was short-lived, as Paul took over the company only a few years later when Gordon fell ill.

In the years and decades following, Paul ventured into a slew of industries, one of which was dairy manufacturing processing equipment in 1946. The entire Paul Mueller Company story could no doubt fill a novel, and I’d surely be in line to pick up my own copy, because Paul’s reputation, like that of the company he left behind, is filled with passion, craftsmanship, hard work and immense pride. I had the opportunity to talk with Rick McClenning, Mueller’s national sales manager, who not only knows the business backward, forward and inside out, but is clearly touched by Paul’s legacy and the sense of pride he instilled in his employees. 

“There are several employees who had a personal relationship with Mr. Mueller and are still working here today,” explains Rick. “The number of employees that have been here 30-plus years is just amazing in today’s society. There’s really a sense of loyalty, a sense of family, a sense of continuation — there are multiple people here who have members of their family who also work here. That’s unusual in today’s world, but it’s a very big, small business and a family-driven operation.”

Even after Paul ended his tenure and turned over his day-to-day control, he remained a familiar face at Mueller until his death at the age of 99 in 2015. Not only was he on the board of directors, but he continued to come in almost every day into his early 90s.

And who better to leave his family business to than his grandson, David Moore.

“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that, and there’s a sense of responsiveness that comes with that as well,” Rick says. “Your name, your heritage is on the building.”

Beyond its headquarters in Springfield, which has about 600 employees, Mueller does a lot of its dairy product manufacturing in Osceola, Iowa, and has another facility in the Netherlands.

This particular tour continues through the Springfield facility as we follow Regional Sales Manager Jordan Blunt along the multitude of steps it takes to craft a milk tank. Although dairy is just one of the industries Mueller has a hand in, it’s one of their larger business units, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the milk cooler market share in North America.

With that large of a presence in the milk tank market, the shiny Mueller logo can be spotted on a good majority of Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) more than 14,500 member farms. 

Before these cylindrical, smooth and somewhat flashy milk coolers — spanning from 300 to 8,000 gallons in capacity — can arrive at a dairy farm, they go through the multi-step process I watched on a walk-through of the colossal facility.

“We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business.”
— Rick McClenning

Follow me on the journey of the making of a milk tank (the condensed edition)

Step 1

It all starts with a pallet of raw sheets of metal, which are brought into the Mueller facility and await their turn through the assembly line. This assembly line isn’t filled with robotic movement and a handful of employees supervising the process. No, this process breaks that stigma. The man-made touch is evident in each step these milk coolers take before they’re loaded on the dock.

Step 2

From the slatted, wood pallets, each sheet of metal is lifted onto a solid, expansive table to be welded together using a food-grade finish. This machine requires a skilled employee’s hands, ensuring precision is achieved. The raised bead from the weld is then flattened and smoothed, leaving behind a seamless finish. The sheet is then wrapped into a single, open-ended cylinder.

Step 3

As you can imagine, a manufacturing facility requires a fair share of welding, leading to an assortment of unique welding helmets hanging in stations to be donned by an eager employee. Once the milk tank makes its way to this step, several employees use lifts to move each end of the cylinder into place before securing them with another set of precise welds.

Step 4

Each tank features two cylindrical layers, allowing space to run piping and wiring into the tank without being exposed to the creamy, white goodness that will eventually fill the inside layer to the brim. Foam insulation is then sprayed into the gap to provide optimal efficiency for cooling the milk. The tank also receives its legs in this step before any rough edges are ground down by a crew sporting matching safety glasses, gloves and neon orange earplugs.

Step 5

From my conversations with Rick and Jordan, I know calibration of each tank is essential at Mueller — it’s part of their brand promise for a quality product. Once each tank has been assembled, it is carefully calibrated by pulling gram and cubic centimeter draws of water repeatedly from the tank. This part of the process ensures each tank is calibrated as accurately as possible, so dairy farmers can know exactly how much milk their tank encases at any given moment.

Step 6

No matter the capacity of a tank, their shiny, silver, stainless steel aesthetic is a signature feature on the dairy farm. So, before the finished milk cooler leaves Mueller, it is thoroughly shined and sanitized. Then, it receives the final seal of approval as a plate featuring block-style Mueller letters is affixed to the front by a pair of steady, callused hands.

Each of these steps culminate into a reputation of quality and customer service, the reason Mueller is a household name on dairy farms.

The pride Mueller employees take in their products, especially their milk coolers, is like that of a farmer’s cow reaching 100 pounds of milk produced in a day — neither of these accomplishments occurs overnight. They take time, dedication, continuous improvement and a family working together toward a shared goal. “We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business. While there are certainly tough times in the dairy economy cycle and there are negatives that go along with it, it’s a real blessing to do business with the dairy farmer end user,” Rick says. “There’s just something a little different about the people who dairy farm. And that’s special and neat, and helps us enjoy coming to work every day to be able to serve that group of people.

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