This week began for me in Winona, Minnesota, right after a cold snap that had given at least one location in the state a new record low of 40 below zero. Yes, I did question the sanity of scheduling several days in Minnesota in February. But Winona is a poster child for one of my favorite rants -- that the media are far too focused on what goes on at Google and Microsoft and what happens in New York, Seattle, and on Sand Hill Road. For my money, the truly great stories of American business and business people can be found in places like Winona.
This is a town of 28,000 people that, from a business standpoint, is amazingly vibrant. Of those 28,000 people, 10,000 of them are students at Winona State University -- and yet this little town is home to 140 manufacturing plants and some amazing nationally recognized businesses like Wincraft, Benchmark, and one of my favorites -- Fastenal.
When I spoke to the Winona Rotary Club this week, we had a sell-out crowd -- with about a quarter of the audience having to watch my speech on closed-circuit television. Remember, this is in a town with a non-student population of 18,000. Not that the students aren't an important part of the vibrancy of the place. When I spoke at Winona State University at 7:00 p.m. that evening, several hundred students and faculty showed up for the presentation. Max and Joe, the two students who picked me up at the Minneapolis airport and drove me the five-hour round trip to Winona were two of the brightest kids I have met in a long time. Both are working part time as product managers at Fastenal while they complete their bachelor's degrees. One gets up at 5 a.m. every morning so he can get in a full day of work before his classes begin. Both could run circles around most of the young people I meet who have been out of college and in the workforce for several years.
What kind of stuff gets made in Winona? You name it. Plastic injected-molded parts (stuff you weren't supposed to be able to make in the U.S. any more), advertising specialty products, nuts and bolts, electronic components—a wide variety of stuff. It doesn't seem to matter what the products are, the folks in Winona seem to be good at finding a niche, filling it, and then building the business.
Come on U.S. media, get some reporters out of their offices and into rental cars headed for small town America. You'll discover the people who really make our economy go. What these companies are making might not be as sexy as the latest social networking fad -- but it will be around long after most of that stuff is gone.
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