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2020 Le Center Hollydaze

Le Center held Hollydaze in 2020 on a smaller scale, but hopes to see the festivities return to their regular form in 2021.

2020 Le Center Hollydaze

Le Center held Hollydaze in 2020 on a smaller scale, but hopes to see the festivities return to their regular form in 2021.

Life Well Lived: Community remembers former Le Center mayor and business leader Robert Brunson

(Above) Robert Brunson is photographed in a 1987 edition of the Le Center Leader taking his first oath of office with re-elected city councilors Bev Kroll and Gary Factor. (Le Center Leader archives)

(Left) Robert Brunson in his Air Force Reserves uniform as a youth. (Photo courtesy of the Brunson family)

A mayor, manufacturing leader, airman, world traveler, cook, grandpa, fisherman and golfer: few have worn as many hats in their life as Robert Clyde Brunson. At the age of 75, the former Le Center mayor and group president of engineered products of Gibraltar Industries died on Oct. 19, 2021, but his legacy in the Le Center community and Le Sueur County region lives on.

From Tampa to Le Center

Brunson’s years of success in the business world were preceded by humble beginnings of his childhood home in Tampa Bay, Florida. He was born on Oct. 10, 1946 to Esther and Walter Brunson in Clearwater, Florida and was the oldest of four siblings. After graduating from Brandon High School in 1964, he joined the Air Force Reserves.

Though he didn’t have enough cash in his pockets to attend college, Brunson’s drive caught the attention of the corporate world. During the first couple years of a 53 year-long marriage, Brunson and his new wife Judy jumped from place to place as he climbed the corporate ladder. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio in his work for an engineering consulting firm before work led them to Syarcuse, Indiana, Nashville, Tennessee and Manchester, Connecticut where their son Travis was born. At just 28 years old, Brunson was named Vice President of Operations at the Amicor Corporation and relocated to their division in Milan, Italy.

“For a guy that didn’t have any college education at all, he got into the business world pretty early and rose pretty fast,” said Travis Brunson, son of Robert Brunson. “People saw his potential and he was getting the job done. That usually doesn’t happen, even back then, without having some skills that are apparent to other people. Motivating, leading people and putting people in the right slot to get the job done was definitely a very good strength of his.”

Brunson leaned into his management skills at AmiCor, where he was frequently placed in charge of newly acquired firms. After working with each firm for a few months, he determined whether the business could be salvaged or should be scrapped. The work brought him to places like Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia before Brunson and his family finally settled in Le Center, Minnesota.

A local leader

In 1977, Amicor assigned Brunson to Winco, which was recently relocated from Sioux City, Iowa to Le Center. A few months later, Brunson flew back to Italy to tackle troubles at the Milan location. When he came back stateside, Brunson grew tired of the nomadic lifestyle and settled down in the Le Center area.

A town as small as Le Center was unlike anywhere the Brunsons lived before, but the family came to appreciate the close-knit community.

“It was an unusual thing for both of us, because before we moved to Le Center, Knoxville was the smallest place we lived and most people have heard of Knoxville, Tennessee,” said Robert’s wife Judy. “So Le Center being 1,900 people was a real different situation for us. We had never been in a situation where everybody knew everybody in town and was related to most people, it was a new experience for us.“

Starting in 1979, Brunson would spend the next 30 years of his career at United Steel Products in Montgomery. He joined the company as vice president of operations and retired as group president of engineered products for the manufacturer’s parent company Gibraltar Industries. As group president, he also oversaw Appleton Supply Company in Wisconsin and Semco Southeastern Metals in Jacksonville, Florida.

Robert Brunson as he appeared in the Le Center Leader during his time as mayor. (Le Center Leader archives)

Lexia Bosch, who worked with Brunson for many years at USP, said he was a supportive manager who helped her focus on the bigger picture in running a business, rather than get tangled in the weeds.

“He was a very no nonsense manager. The people that worked for him, he gave them leeway to do what they needed to do in their jobs.” said Bosch. “He offered advice, he was there for support. He was definitely not a micromanager; he believed in his people and their skills.”

Brunson’s interest in business development and politics eventually led him to serve as mayor of Le Center. He was politically opinionated, said Judy, and spearheaded efforts to bring businesses to Le Center’s industrial park.

“He felt that the only way to get anything done was to start at the grassroots level,” said Judy. “He was well-versed in what was going on politically, as well as business, and wanted to bring businesses into Le Center. When we first moved there, jobs were limited, unless you were a farmer. He was instrumental in bringing that industrial park and many of the businesses that are there.”

During his time in Le Center, Brunson made many close friendships. He was a mainstay of the Le Sueur and Montgomery golf clubs, where he played weekly games with Tom Hunt, then owner of House of Insurance Agency and Gary Factor, who previously ran Factor Motors. When Tom Hunt died, his son Darian Hunt said Brunson took him under his wing and invited him to the regular golf outings.

“Robert was a great mentor to myself, even though he wasn’t in the insurance business. He always made sure to check on me and guide me along,” said Darian Hunt. “He was very business savvy, and he had a little bit different view of business than the small town view, but it was always great to get his knowledge.”

A family man

Friends and family described Brunson as reserved, but with a big heart. He wasn’t the life of the party, but his dry sense of humor made him a magnet that people sought out for his opinion, said Travis.

“You would get some snark that was funny,” said Travis. “I remember being terrified of messing up when I was a kid. He was always very nice; he didn’t yell or anything, but man, don’t screw the pooch.”

He had such a penchant for humor that his granddaughters Samantha and Kate Brunson wrote a book as children titled “The World According to Zeke.” It was filled with some of their grandfather’s favorite sayings, like “Adults are well-trained. Children can be trained. Idiots are hopeless.”

“That was the best gift he ever received. I think he really appreciated that,” said Judy. “That was the one thing he would always carry around with him when he would come down [to Florida] and come back up.”

In his later years, Brunson would split time between visiting his family in Florida and spending time at his job and with friends in Minnesota. He spent many days at his Cape Coral pool with his granddaughters, boating with friends and family out by his cabin on Lake Jefferson, fishing for walleye up in Ottawa and cooking meals for his family in the community.

At home, Brunson was renowned for his Spanish Paella recipe — so good that it’s a Christmas tradition in the household. He also learned his fair share of Italian dishes from his time in Milan and regularly brushed up on his skills in the kitchen as an avid watcher of the Food Network.

His famous peanut brittle is a treat still fondly remembered by many in the community. Brunson started making it for his Jody’s business, Le Center Independent Abstract, and even opened up his own side business with Bosch out of the Le Center Sportsman’s Club called “Bob’s Gourmet Brittle” for about three years.

Robert Brunson in his Air Force Reserves uniform as a youth. (Photo courtesy of the Brunson family)

Even as he dealt with congestive heart failure in his last months, Brunson kept channeling his energy into cooking, day trading and walks — right up until his last day.

“He was a great guy. He was a good human being,” said Bosch. “It’s still kind of tough to know that he’s gone.”

Global product shortages hit local grocery stores, farmers
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Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of a series on how the global supply chain has impacted the local economy. Previous stories focused on the manufacturing and retail sectors.

The shelves of local grocery stores aren’t empty — they just don’t seem to have the variety of goods many shoppers have come to accept as normal.

“I have an autistic kiddo. It makes feeding him extremely challenging. He is particular about brands and packaging,” said Becky Bain, of Owatonna with regard to the shortages afflicting local grocery stores. “I end up having to overbuy everything to make sure he has food available.”

In Waseca, where groceries can only be purchased at Walmart or convenience stores, because the city has been without a grocery store since February 2020, residents reported difficulty tracking down soy milk, butterscotch pudding, Ritz crackers and more.

For Waseca residents, who have not had a grocery store in town since Cash Wise announced its departure in February 2020, the narrowing of options at local grocery stores is especially frustrating. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“We need to bring back another grocery store,” said Chloe Barnes.

Sam Alderman, of St. Peter, can’t find certain dairy products, like the yogurt and half-and-half he prefers.

“It’s certainly an inconvenience, but also a reminder that we had taken food supply chains for granted,” he said.

Where are the groceries?

At Just Food Co-op in Northfield, shortages aren’t seen equally across food categories. According to Joanelle Noeller, human resources generalist at Just Food, they seem to crop up when particular materials like glass and aluminum are involved. This includes pasta sauces, peanut butters, canned items, beverages in glass bottles and more.

In other words, it’s not always the food itself, but the materials traditionally used to get that food to consumers.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, one of Just Food’s distributors has even announced that it will be temporarily discontinuing sales of whole cranberries, opting to prioritize sales of jellied cranberry sauce. This is just one example of many distributors recently deciding to ramp up production of their most popular items while temporarily discontinuing less popular products.

Just Food Co-op in Northfield has been unable to acquire certain food items like canned foods, certain peanut butters and others that require materials like glass and aluminum, according to Joanelle Noeller, human resources generalist. (File photo/southernminn.com)

And with demand holding steady while supply chains are strained following COVID-19’s disruption to the global economy, prices have predictably crept up.

“We are definitely seeing price increases with every new invoice, so we have to adjust our prices accordingly,” Noeller said, adding that she’s noticed those increases across food categories.

That might be because while not all food products require materials like glass and aluminum; many require significant labor, like farming, packaging and shipping. The workforce shortage, cropping up during the pandemic and not waning months after vaccines have become widely available, makes those products similarly difficult for grocery stores to get on their shelves.

It might also have something to do with the amount farmers are spending on their own operations. According to Mark Wehe, a business management instructor with South Central College who works directly with farmers on their financial statements, product shortages have caused fertilizers to increase in price by 170% since this time last year. Herbicide expenses have gone up 130%.

And for livestock production — a “365-day event,” as Wehe put it, requiring enormous amounts of full-time hired labor every step of the way — the situation is even worse, as the workforce shortage collides with product shortages in a particularly corrosive way.

According to Wehe, while consumers are bearing some of the increased cost by paying more at the butcher shop and grocery store, they’re not paying the whole thing. Part of the cost is calling on farmers alone.

“What we’re dealing with on the producer side is, yes, they’re getting more for their product, but their profitability margins are getting significantly impacted,” he said, adding, “meat margins are getting crushed in this market.”

Fortunately for Noeller, many of the shortages seen at Just Food are largely limited to a narrowing of local consumers’ traditionally wide breadth of choices — not a significant shortage in entire food categories.

“We might not have one brand of something, but we always have a different brand of the same item,” she said. “We’ll always have a type of cracker available or a pasta sauce.”

So, where are the materials?

The fact that the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, a primary manufacturing hub in China — the manufacturing capital of the world — is a useful metaphor for the pandemic’s impact on the global supply chain.

When the Chinese government shut down factories to stop the spread of COVID-19, economists at the time predicted that, while the supply of goods would subsequently decrease, the temporary closure of stores and malls around the world would similarly lower demand.

That didn’t happen. While supply became depressed and stayed that way, demand didn’t stay low for long. For food, of course, low demand wasn’t really a possibility. And for other products, former President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March 2020 — followed by President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill a year later — helped keep demand strong.

But with all those factories shut down for so long, and demand having piled up in the meantime, acute bottlenecks — including for products requiring glass, metal and other materials — started causing massive delays as manufacturing groaned back to life. Warehouses began to fill with products as companies found themselves unable to take in all the product they’d ordered, a problem exacerbated by the recent shortage of truck drivers who would normally transport inventory from warehouses to local stores. This caused massive traffic jams at sea as shipping ports were unable to transport their inventory to warehouses, and thus could not take in more containers.

Joe Smillie, store manager at Hy-Vee in Faribault, reported similar shortages to those seen at Just Food. In addition to an inability to secure whole cranberries, Smillie said Hy-Vee is also having trouble getting a hold of many brands of macaroni and cheese. Purchase orders from Hy-Vee’s Iowa warehouses also aren’t coming in on time, causing delays in shipping to its local grocery stores. He said this has been an issue for nearly a year, though it’s worsened during the summer.

Randy Pitkl, assistant manager of store operations at Hy-Vee in Owatonna, said empty spots on shelves around the grocery store often indicated items the store can’t get a hold of, such as french fried onions. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“We get a lot of questions like, ‘How come you’re always out of stuff?’ … We get blamed, and then the suppliers get blamed,” Smillie said, though he added, “I think most people are pretty understanding right now of what we’re going through.”

Tina Pothoff, senior vice president of communications at Hy-Vee — whose nearly 300 locations include St. Peter, Mankato, Owatonna, Faribault and New Ulm — said most Hy-Vee locations are experiencing roughly the same thing with regard to shortages, though she said she hasn’t seen its worse effects take hold at the chain.

“Are you going to get that 8-ounce can of your specific brand of corn or cranberries?” Pothoff asked. “We’ll still have all those supplies, but it might be that the packages might be smaller or larger.”

One way Hy-Vee has avoided some of the worst effects of the product shortage, she added, is by transitioning somewhat away from what economists call “just-in-time” management strategies, which is businesses’ preference for ordering just enough product at just the right time to satisfy customers without buying anything that won’t be sold, or that will have to be stored. The global supply chain disruption forced some businesses to adopt more of a “just-in-case” mindset.

At Hy-Vee, that means planning a year out by ordering further ahead of time and substantially increasing the inventory at their central warehouses, a luxury many smaller grocers do not enjoy.

“That’s been a big strategy of ours: order ahead of time, order more, in case we do have problems with supply chains,” Pothoff said. “That strategy has actually paid off for us, especially as we head into the holidays.”

Director Sharon Traxler arranges donations at the Le Center Food Shelf. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Local businesses react as vaccine mandates hit pause
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Cambria offered vaccines at its locations in Le Sueur, Belle Plaine and Eden Prairie earlier this month. CEO Marty Davis indicated the company would follow any vaccine policies set by the government, but at this time, employees are free to accept or decline vaccinations. (Photo courtesy of Cambria)

Earlier this month, businesses with 100 or more employees were directed by the White House to fully vaccinate their workforces by Jan. 4, 2022 in line with new vaccine requirements by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But enforcement of the new rules covering 84 million American workers was recently suspended by the Biden administration amid a federal appeals court order.

Days after the mandates were announced, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of the requirement that workers unvaccinated by Jan. 4 submit to weekly COVID testing and wear a facemask.

The order was prompted by lawsuits from more than two dozen states, as well as businesses and industry groups contending the federal government has overstepped its authority.

With the mandate on pause, many major employers, like Le Sueur Incorporated, are quietly drafting vaccination plans in the event the federal mandates are revived. But those plans would not go into effect if the OSHA rule is overturned or remains suspended.

“We do believe the vaccine is one of the most effective means to keep employees healthy and safe. And we encourage every employee at LSI and their family members to seriously consider vaccination,” said John Depree, director of human resources for Le Sueur Incorporated.

“With this said, we are committed to the ideal that our employees’ health is their personal responsibility and choice.”

Depree further stated that employees of the aluminum casting and plastic injection molding manufacturer have effectively kept the coronavirus transmission at the workplace to a minimum.

“Our employees have done an incredible job keeping COVID out of LSI and they continue to do so,” said Depree.“That doesn’t mean we haven’t had employees with COVID, but the potential for workplace transmission has been minimized by their good choices in the workplace. I’m really proud of our workforce.”

Cambria is walking a similar path. The company currently offers vaccines to employees, but does not require them. CEO Marty Davis said the company will wait and see what the rules are and will follow the vaccine mandate if the OSHA guidelines go into effect.

“We’ve had vaccination offerings at all of our facilities. It’s always at our employees’ option, but we certainly provide them the option, and we let them make their choices,” said Davis. “But if there is a mandate, we’ll just follow the rules.”

Cambria recently launched on-site booster dose clinics for employees at its locations in Le Sueur, Belle Plaine and Eden Prairie on Nov. 15, 16 and 17 respectively, through a partnership with Hy-Vee pharmacy. The company’s Pfizer vaccine offerings came on the heels of recent on-site flu shot clinics.

“We greatly appreciate the diligent efforts of our employees to continue to do their jobs safely and to protect themselves and others during these challenging times,” said Cambria Executive Vice President of Operations Brian Scoggin. “We hope that these on-site booster shot opportunities offer a comfortable and convenient option for employees and their family members who would like to receive a COVID-19 booster.”

After the rules were announced, Le Center confectionery manufacturer Maud Borup sent messages to unvaccinated employees, notifying them of the requirements and timing to receive new vaccinations and asking them whether they would choose to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

“There’s a lot to consider and new processes to put in place, like how to check employee’s test results at the beginning of each shift, then how to handle the impact on manufacturing if we have to turn away employees who may not have the proper documentation,” said Karen Edwards, a public relations official at Maud Borup.

Maud Borup already goes beyond OSHA requirements by requiring masks for all employees at the manufacturing facility. Edwards said the company provides each employee with two cloth masks and has disposable masks available if needed.

As of Nov. 7, some two-thirds of the Maud Borup workforce was vaccinated, said Edwards.

Vaccine requirements could pose a challenge to Maud Borup, as the company faces the daunting task of hiring 100 new workers to support a record expansion to the Le Center facility. Amid a rapid growth in demand, the manufacturer has raised hourly rates by 36%, $50 gift cards and meals to employees that work on Saturdays and referral bonuses to existing employees in hopes of recruiting a legion of assemblers, line leads, quality assurance, shipping, warehousing, maintenance, and sanitation workers to allow for a 130,000-square-foot add-on.

But hiring new employees over the past 18 months has been increasingly difficult, said Edwards, and the mandates could disincentive workers from taking a job with the company at a time when a bevy of industries are experiencing labor shortages.

“We’ve lost some employees, yet need a lot more to keep up with demand to grow our business,” said Edwards. “The new requirements are likely to make it even more difficult to recruit employees by putting up another barrier, and may force some existing employees to leave their current job and seek employment at companies that are not affected by these directives, further exacerbating an already difficult employee shortage.”

In St. Peter, local electronics manufacturer Creation Technologies has already instituted a vaccine mandate for new employees, and while it’s made hiring that much harder, leadership still backs the plan.

“Creation, across all 15 locations, we have a vaccination requirement [or new hires],” said general manager John Makela. “That’s been a challenge; other than government agencies and health care, there are only a few companies out there that have that requirement. But we want to protect our employees.”