W.M. Sprinkman rides craft beer boom

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W.M. Sprinkman Corp.
404 Pilot Court, Waukesha
Industry: Food and beverage processing
Employees: 117

With new craft breweries opening on a seemingly weekly basis, it is no surprise business is good for tank maker W.M. Sprinkman Corp.

But in reality, the growth of more established breweries is what’s driving increased sales for the now-Waukesha-based company.

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Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.
Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.

“You look at the larger ones and they’re becoming beverage plants as opposed to small craft breweries,” said Brian Sprinkman, president and chief executive officer. “I mean they’re really starting to follow the safety, the policies, the procedures of an FDA-regulated facility.”

Quality is becoming increasingly important to the industry. Just in the past year, Goose Island Beer Co., Revolution Brewing and Left Hand Brewing Co. are among those who have recalled beers for quality, not safety, issues.

W.M. Sprinkman’s products, including pasteurizers and cleaning systems, can help with quality and its design work also can make systems more efficient.

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It is work the company did for years with dairies and other food and beverage companies, helping them improve their processes through the design and installation of fluid systems. It wasn’t until the 2000 acquisition of Elroy, Wisconsin-based Winchell Welding that the company began manufacturing its own tanks.

The Elroy facility has expanded three times since the acquisition. W.M. Sprinkman also contemplated another addition at its Elroy or Franksville facilities as the craft beer boom has driven demand. In 2010, the brewing industry accounted for about 15 percent of sales. By 2015, that figure was up to 45 percent.

Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.
Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.

“If we lose business, it’s because we can’t get it done fast enough,” Sprinkman said. The company needed a larger facility.

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But a new building would have taken too long, the Elroy facility is landlocked and finding skilled labor was a challenge both in Elroy and in Franksville, where its headquarters was previously located, he said.

The company began the search for an existing building for its headquarters and eventually found a 52,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by Oberlin Filter Co. in Waukesha. It provides more room and came with overhead cranes to improve workflow and an expanded overhead door that makes shipping easier.

The building was a good fit, but Sprinkman said the efforts to develop skilled labor, particularly in welding, by Waukesha County Technical College and others resulted in the move some 30 miles to the northwest.

“That’s what kind of pushed us over the top,” he said.

Making the move came with the risk of losing the skilled labor the company already had, something Sprinkman was “very nervous about.” Before making the decision, the company studied which employees would be impacted the most, held one-on-one meetings and put together a compensation package to ensure retention. The company also offered some flexible hours and continues to monitor how employees are handling the change. Less than five have left as a result and employment is up overall.

Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.
Crews at W.M. Sprinkman work on a pasteurization system for a large brewer.

Any industry that has seen so many new entrants is likely to also see an influx of new suppliers, and brewing is no different.

“We go to these trade shows and we are amazed at the amount of tank builders that appear out of nowhere,” Sprinkman said.

There’s a difference, though, between building a tank and building an entire system or integrating a solution in one problem area to improve efficiency. While a smaller brewery might run cleaning products through its tanks and then dump them down the drain, Sprinkman has built clean-in-place systems for several larger breweries that allow the chemicals to be filtered and reused.

Sprinkman’s product is custom-designed, highly engineered and technical. It is also high-end and quality is important, especially in a craft beer industry that is close knit, so a reputation can easily be damaged.

“We want to grow and we’ve got an opportunity to do so, but we’re going to do it at a pace that allows it to keep our quality at or better than it is today,” Sprinkman said.

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