‘You’ll see them everywhere’: Dyersville manufacturer’s products found around the world

DYERSVILLE, Iowa — When Steve Helbing walks into a wedding reception, the first thing that he looks at isn’t what people are wearing or the decorations on the tables. His eyes are immediately drawn to the moveable walls in whatever facility is hosting the festivities.

“Almost every building that’s built today has a moveable wall in it,” said the manufacturing engineer manager for Modernfold in Dyersville. “Once you know what a moveable wall is, you’ll see them everywhere.”

Helbing, a Dubuque native, has spent 23 years working at one of the world’s leading creators of operable walls. The company’s products, which include partitions of many types, are made only in Iowa at the Dyersville factory that employs about 280 people. Orders come in from all over the globe from event centers, offices, schools, churches and homes. Helbing cooperates with union workers in the factory to ensure each unique project is handled well.

“It’s an interesting place to work,” said Helbing. “You don’t have the same thing everyday … It’s built-to-order custom stuff.”

Founded in 1925 in Indiana, Modernfold has had its production headquarters in Dyersville since the 1960s. For decades, the company maintained a steady, yet quiet presence in the community, though its profile rose recently thanks to a major expansion.

The manufacturer opened a third building on March 22 that allowed it to increase manufacturing capacity for some of its most popular products by 30%, according to company representatives.

“In 2021, our largest competitor, Hufcor, tried to move to Mexico and went out of business,” said Jesse Blad, operations director for the Dyersville plant. “All that volume came here. It was volume that we did not have the in-house capability of manufacturing. Our lead times went through the roof … We needed more space to be able to build a new steel production line.”

Modernfold’s leadership turned to Dyersville Economic Development Corporation to help them adapt quickly to the new reality. The nonprofit organization, which strives to improve the economic vitality of the area, spent about $1.3 million to purchase a 26,000-square-foot building that was for sale near Modernfold. The property became available after another business closed.

“We worked out a lease agreement (with Modernfold) and we ended up buying the property,” said Jacque Rahe, DEDC executive director. “Part of our mission is helping our existing businesses expand and grow.”

Aside from engaging in workforce development initiatives, DEDC also operates a local recreation center, manages the National Farm Toy Museum and is involved in an effort establishing the Michael and Jean Knepper Child Care Center.

Some of its funding comes from farm toy sales, according to Rahe.

She believes her organization’s arrangement with Modernfold is strengthening the community as a whole.

“They’ve been a great employer,” said Rahe. “Their retention rate has been phenomenal (and) they’ve kept these jobs here … Their employees are our friends and neighbors. It’s fun to see community pride come out of this. I think the transaction has helped them become more visible.”

After the real estate deal closed in the summer of 2023 and a long-term lease was signed, Modernfold built a driveway from its existing location to the new property. With more storage space for its inventory and other materials, the company upgraded and changed its factory setup.

“Basically overnight, we were asked to build double the amount of panels,” said Helbing.

He said the new production line allows workers to make 160 panels a day versus 120 before the expansion.

Modernfold’s walls can be made of steel, glass or other materials. Panels can be up to 30 feet high, but many are much smaller. One product line, called Acousti-Seal, is resistant to sound. The company continues to make accordion doors, one of its earliest offerings. It also makes fully automated wall systems.

“Our panels are basically a frame with different types of faces,” said Blad. “We call them ‘skin.’ Let’s say you have a convention center and they want to split it up into five different rooms because they have five different conventions going on at the same time … They could split it up into just two or five or six or ten … You can turn one classroom into three.”

The company’s products can be seen in some high-profile locations such as Las Vegas Convention Center and Caesars Forum in Paradise, Nev. Modernfold’s products are also in Marriott Hotels across the nation, according to Blad.

“Some of the most interesting projects involve murals,” he said. “The covering for the panels will come in screen printed and it’ll be pictures. The mural comes together as the panel comes together.”

Modernfold is owned by dormakaba Group. The parent company, based in Switzerland, has about 16,000 employees in 130 countries and reported more than $2 billion in sales in 2022-2023 across its various enterprises, according to the company’s own promotional material.

Despite being part of a large corporation, Blad said Modernfold’s workforce in Dyersville is like a family.

“It’s a very engaged team that takes care of each other,” he said.

Blad first worked at Modernfold from 2017 to 2021. He left and came back in July 2023 in time to play a role in the expansion. Blad enjoys his work because of the opportunity to learn constantly.

“Modernfold is going to teach you more than you teach Modernfold,” he said.