Made in Tri-States: Dyersville company’s half-century filled with milestones, pivots

Joe Ertl PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

DYERSVILLE, Iowa — During the course of the past half-century, Joe Ertl has learned a lesson or two about how to survive in life and the business world.

Ertl founded Dyersville Die Cast in 1970, and the company continues to thrive to this day. As the business marks its 50th anniversary, and he reflects on the keys to success, Ertl emphasizes the importance of being flexible.

“You cannot set something in stone,” he said. “You have to be ready to change your plans at any time.”

True to its name, Dyersville Die Cast specializes in creating die-cast products for a variety of customers, including many in the lighting industry. At various points throughout its history, however, the company focused heavily on the creation of toys and collectibles.

Today, the business serves clients throughout the world, with its products making their way to destinations as far away as Mexico and China.

The bulk of customers, however, reside in the Midwest.

And Vice President Jane Ertl — Joe’s daughter — said many of these customers have been tied to Dyersville Die Cast for decades.

“As our customers have grown, we have grown with them,” she said.

TAKING A RISK

Fifty years after the business began, Jane and Joe both remember the point when the family committed to starting it.

“It was a shock,” recalled Jane, who was just a kid back in 1970. “It took some time to realize our life was really changing.”

Prior to starting his business, Joe worked for a previous incarnation of the family enterprise, known as Ertl Co. That business was sold in the 1960s, and Joe agreed to stay on under the new ownership, often logging long hours.

He eventually left that role and veered into a new professional direction, purchasing a dairy farm and pursuing a career in agriculture.

Shortly thereafter, however, Ertl learned of a die-cast business in Milwaukee that had been purchased by a bigger entity. When that sale occurred, many of the original company’s smaller customers were left high and dry, suddenly unable to acquire the parts needed to function.

Ertl traveled to Milwaukee to take a closer look at the business. He decided to take over the operation, purchasing the business and the equipment and transferring both to Dyersville.

“We were off and running rather fast,” he recalled.

Within a couple of years. Ertl realized that he couldn’t stay on top of his dairy and die-cast businesses at the same time. He committed full time to the new family enterprise and, in the process, committed more time to his family.

“That was the big difference,” Jane recalled. “He could make his own hours, and that meant he could be home a lot more often.”

Through the years, Joe found that he had a greater ability to dedicate his time and knowledge to causes he held near and dear.

Decades ago, when Beckman Catholic High School was in danger of closing, Ertl contributed to the efforts to raise funds and keep the school afloat. He also has served on the Western Dubuque Community School Board.

“That is the big advantage to having your own business,” he said. “When I was working for another company, I was restricted from doing other things. When you’re the owner, you are available to use your time and your knowledge to help others.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Dyersville Die Cast has grown into one of the largest employers in the community.

The business employs about 160 people. Jane Ertl said the business likely would hire another 20 people today if it could, but she acknowledged that finding workers has remained a challenge.

Dyersville Die Cast has made up for this by continuing to automate its processes. This approach has ensured that the company employs the latest equipment and technologies.

“We are probably the most sophisticated die-cast and paint shop west of the Mississippi,” Joe Ertl said.

Die-casting is a process that creates metal parts made to specific qualities and dimensions. Dyersville Die Cast adds value for its customers by providing computer numerical control (CNC) machining and powder-coating, a process that applies paint to products.

The company maintains customers in a wide range of industries, creating products that are used to make everything from lighting to escalators.

Throughout its history, the focus of Dyersville Die Cast has shifted back and forth.

Jane Ertl noted that the company long created a line of collectible toys. And in the 1980s and ’90s, the toys served as the dominant part of the business

The company pivoted hard in the other direction around the turn of the century, turning the vast majority of its attention toward die-cast operations. Today, only a tiny fraction of the business comes from the creation and sale of toys.

Looking back, Jane believes the company benefited tremendously from targeting the right markets.

“We strategically stayed away from automotive die-casting,” she said. “In the auto industry, there are a lot of peaks and valleys based on the economy. By avoiding automotive, we’ve created a lot more diversity and stayed away from those ups and downs.”

With 50 years in the rearview, the company is continuing to move forward. But hitting the half-century mark also has given the company’s founder a rare opportunity to reflect on the company’s success.

“It has been very rewarding,” Joe said.