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Mid-State Tank Co. Inc.

Although it didn’t appear so at the time, leaving Progress Industries – a tank manufacturer then located in Arthur, Ill. – has worked out all right for Gery Conlin, president and owner of Mid-State Tank Co. Inc. “In 1986, I had a disagreement with the managers, left the company and started Mid-State,” Conlin recounts. “As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Conlin says he grew up with Progress Industries in his little hometown of Arthur, Ill., and starting working for the company during summers while he was still in high school. “I was just a grunt guy out in the plant – a welder – working on tanks,” he recalls. “When I got out of college in 1965, I started working in the office in 1966. I majored in accounting, so I went into the financial end of the business. Then I got into general management in the mid-1970s and was named president in 1980.”

Later, the owners of Progress Industries decided to sell the company to Thomas Monahan Co. “I thought it was a mistake, so I chose to resign,” Conlin remembers. “When they went through with the sale, that’s when the chief engineer of Progress, Robert Lowder, and I decided to start Mid-State.”

 Since then, the present owner, Walker Holdings, has moved the Progress Industries plant from Arthur, Ill., to Wisconsin, and Lowder has retired. This left Conlin the majority owner of Mid-State Tank along with four minority shareholders, two of whom have been with Mid-State since its founding. Another generation of Conlin’s family – his son Kevin – is getting involved with the business as Mid-State’s production manager.

Fracking Is Growing

Mid-State Tank Co. specializes in manufacturing stainless applicator tanks, nurse tanks and bulk chemical storage tanks for the agricultural, aviation, fire services and industrial markets. In May 2005, the company expanded its product line to include aluminum tanks. Its products are sold through distributors to major chemical manufacturers.

“Our primary overall philosophy is we don’t compete with our customers,” Conlin emphasizes. “A lot of companies have made the mistake of thinking, ‘I can put the pumps and meters on it, buy the chassis and sell the complete unit.’ It might be a short-term gain but long-term a bad decision. So our philosophy has been that we don’t compete with our customers. Our customer buys tanks from us and in turn sells to end-users. So we do not sell to the end-user.”

Mid-State’s specialty is thin-wall tanks. “Basically, we have set ourselves up so we can manufacture tanks for any industry that just requires a thin-wall tank in 10- to 12- to 14-gauge steel that’s mounted on a truck chassis,” Conlin stresses. “So we make tanks for several different industries.

“We may just make one kind of a tank this year, and next year, we might make 15 of them,” he adds. “It depends on what the customer wants and the industry.”

For example, last year, Mid-State Tank had received a large contract for 100 tanks for a fire department in the African nation of Ghana. This year, it had only manufactured five or six of those tanks. Mid-State keeps no inventory of stock tanks because each tank design is unique to its customer. Mid-State’s staff of six engineers design each custom job.

In the agricultural market, many of Mid-State’s tanks are used to store fertilizers and other chemicals. Tank capacities range from 1,000 to 10,000 gallons. In aviation, the company’s tanks contain airport deicer used on runways. Other tanks haul diesel emissions fluids.

In the energy market, the tanks hold fluids used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas wells, which is a market that is growing rapidly. “They could take as many tanks as we could get out the door,” Conlin remarks. He estimates the company manufactures approximately 4,000 tanks annually.

Hands-on Production

Manufacturing thin-wall tanks involves taking raw coiled steel and forming it into a shell or tube. Then the ends are welded onto it and heads formed, baffles fabricated and the heads and the shells welded together to form a tank and a cylinder. The shells are automatic welds, but installing the heads and baffles in the tank is all hand-welding.

 “If we made heavier tanks, it probably could be automated, but we’re dealing with 10- and 12-gauge material, which is classified as thin-wall material,” Conlin explains. “So you’ve got a fair amount of springback, and automatic welders basically cannot react to the variances that you have with that. The human eye can react to it, but not an automatic welder or a robot.”

Some of the shell production uses an automatic welder that travels the length of the shell – up to approximately 9 feet – on a track making spot welds. Installing the fittings, the undercarriage and the fills on the tanks also is hand-welding. Over the last two years, Mid-State Tank Co. has added approximately 25,000 square feet to total 66,500 square feet of tank manufacturing space. This has enabled the company to keep up with a nearly 25 percent annual growth rate over the last two years.

“That’s going to slow down in 2013,” Conlin predicts. “We won’t have that kind of growth – that is above average. It’s been unprecedented. We never got that kind of growth before, but a lot of that has to do with the agricultural economy having been so strong. The agricultural economy is going to stay strong, but it’s not going to increase that much over and above what we’ve seen in the last two years. So we will not have that kind of growth in the coming years.”

Among mentors, Conlin cites Everett Fitzjarrald, the president of Progress Industries whom he succeeded in 1980 when Fitzjarrald was 77. “I followed his example in terms of people and the business philosophy,” Conlin attests.

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