Revived Waterloo horse carriage firm harnessing growth

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — A Minnesota couple is breathing new life into a 118-year-old horse carriage company in the Cedar Valley. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier ( http://bit.ly/2c3QADo ) reports that Erik and Shelli Lee acquired Jerald Sulky Co. just north of West Airline Highway and have...

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — A Minnesota couple is breathing new life into a 118-year-old horse carriage company in the Cedar Valley.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/2c3QADo ) reports that Erik and Shelli Lee acquired Jerald Sulky Co. just north of West Airline Highway and have improved the facilities. In just seven months they have drummed up new national and international business, finding a niche in highly crafted, stylized "show carts" for horse shows. They also hope to re-enter the harness-racing sulky business the company built its reputation on through several generations.

One day last week workers — rehired by the Lees — put the final touches on a show cart headed for a national horse competition in Louisville, Kentucky. The cart, along with the animal pulling it, is part of the presentation and judging at the competition.

"This one's worth spreading the word, you know?" Erik Lee said, showing off his staff's work. "There's no test run for this one. Certainly having the best equipment's in your favor."

And the Lees believe their equipment is the best.

"You're standing in the last commercial manufacturing facility for horse-drawn show vehicles on the planet," Erik Lee said. "For us we bought Rolls-Royce from the Maserati of the horse business. It's simply the best. And it's about all that's left. So we're just so jazzed about it."

The Lees, who have a horse farm east of the Twin Cities, saw a need and a market for the company's products when it fell on hard times and ceased production.

"For those of us in the horse business, for which this is important, it was like it took away air. Jerald Sulky was part of the deal," he said.

The Lees needed a cart. They ended up buying the company Samuel Jerald founded in Osage. He brought it to Waterloo in 1898 to be near rail transit and operated here through several generations. It's been at the Wagner Road site since 1962.

"February of last year, we had a pony we needed a pleasure cart for, and we called down here to order it and nobody was home. We found it very recently closed. We bought the place. We still haven't built our own pony cart. But it's literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Erik Lee said.

The cart and its components are virtually all locally manufactured.

The Lees are entrepreneurs, mainly in technology. Erik holds a degree from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also has been involved with show horses for about two decades.

"We have a very established life in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. We turned our world on its head to do this. This is a huge deal for us," Erik said. "This is our commitment here."

The emphasis is on show carts. "People who are consumers of this kind of product are always capable of consuming this product. So there is a limited but constant demand for it, which I think will be here permanently. And if we run the company well, we can grow it," Erik Lee said.

"It's our employees who have made this happen too," Shelli Lee said. "Because we couldn't have done this without the craftsman we have. They went and got other jobs, but they still were devoted to the Jerald Sulky Co. Plenty of them came back."

"Our ability to resuscitate this company was 100 percent dependent on our ability to bring back the employees," said Erik Lee. The staff of about nine has a combined 200-plus years of experience."

There's a possibility for re-entering the racing sulky market, with training and practice carts for horses. "We still have the best work and conditioning carts anywhere," Erik said, and are working on technical innovations. "There's a lot of brand loyalty with the company."

They hope to re-enlist technical help from the Center for Industrial Research and Service at Iowa State University, which helped the company previously with testing.

The company's dealers report customers are excited. "Our dealer left here last week with our single order of the year. His trailer's just buried in carts on the top. People just run him down to tell him how excited they are."

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart toured the plant last week.

"The Jerald Sulky Co. is an unsung hero locally in Waterloo," Hart said. "I was very impressed by the craftsmanship, their professionalism and their creativity that they brought into the carriages. We thank Erik and Shelli Lee for all they've done to carry on this company."

Waterloo Community Planning and Development Director Noel Anderson said the city is working on an possible incentive package for the company.

"This is a tremendous success story," Anderson said. "And this is a world-leading company in its industry. This is the type of company that prides itself on a well-developed and sculpted product, as well as bringing recognition for the Waterloo, Iowa, name to Australia, Africa, Europe and other countries across the globe," Anderson said.

And the Lees said company is here to stay.

"It's a great site, it's a great facility, and we couldn't pick a better town," Erik Lee said. "If we need anything industrial, it's in this town."

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Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com

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