Innovative auto mechanic ends up building international business
It’s a classic entrepreneurial story: Identify a problem, create a solution, build a business.
Dillon Moffatt wasn’t thinking about founding a company back in 1954. The self-taught auto mechanic from Minnesota was just trying to see better under the hood of a car.
So he built a flexible arm from stock components and attached it to a radiator cap with quick-disconnect fittings from his air hoses. Instead of hanging from a traditional trouble light “hook,” it could be aimed down the engine so it didn’t shine in his eyes.
“It was quite revolutionary at the time,” said his son, Dave. “I think he made the first ones for his own use and then thought, ‘Why not sell these?’ ”
A small business was born. Moffatt Products sold one light at a time to some of Dillon Moffatt’s service station customers and then started to customize them and sold them as task lights to the companies that made the machines in his service station based on their specific needs.
“In those days, task lights were standard products picked out of a catalog, and Dad took the Burger King approach of ‘have it your way’ right from the beginning,” Dave said.
Dillon’s wife, Doris, handled the bookkeeping. Over the next 20 years, selling to original equipment manufacturers of all kinds of machine tools, Moffatt Products “was able to take business away from some very large lighting players by tailoring and customizing and making a really innovative product,” Dave said.
That’s what the company continues to do today, as it has expanded its products and is entering its third generation of family leadership.
“Dad did what he could with his simple resources to give the OEM customers what they wanted, and we’re still doing that today,” Dave said.
Dillon Moffatt’s insurance agent called him one morning in the mid-1980s with a bold suggestion.
Dillon had moved the company from the Minneapolis area to northern Minnesota, closer to his boyhood small-town roots.
The insurance agent said he had moved the wrong direction.
“He called my dad one morning after a breakfast club meeting where he’d heard the president of Twin City Fan raving about their new plant in Brookings,” Dave said. “We were aware of all the companies relocating from Minnesota to South Dakota. It caught my dad’s attention.”
While Dave initially fought the idea, he got on board after exploring South Dakota for himself.
Moffatt Products moved to Watertown in 1986.
“We were blown away by the quality of the people and decided to make the move,” he said.
“It’s gone very, very well. Finding quality people has gone from my No. 1 challenge to not even on my challenge list. We’re really pleased with the community and the overall business climate. It’s been wonderful for our business.”
The company has grown to 20 employees. While Moffatt Products still sells task lights, flex arms by themselves have driven recent growth.
“We began offering them back in the ’70s for use with the original bag cellphones mounted with a flex arm on the dash or floor,” Dave said. “It went very well but only lasted a short time because phones got so small. Then we began to say yes to other flex-arm products, industrial and eventually medical.”
Today, Moffatt Products’ elegant, well-made flex arms are used in a wide range of medical applications, supporting medical devices during surgery, holding bags on anesthesia machines, mounting bar code scanners in hospitals, and designed into accessories for exam tables and hospital beds.
The internet has made international growth possible, putting less emphasis on trade shows and catalogs, and opening up accessibility to customers.
“Our arms are all over the world,” Dave said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
A few years ago, Dave’s son, Mark, had just graduated with a master’s degree in athletic training and started working for a Utah surgeon. Then came a phone call.
“My dad called me on the recommendation of a friend that he ask his kids point-blank if they’d have any interest in working in the company full time.’ The timing could not have been worse,” Mark said. “But my wife and I had also just had our first child, and my older sisters were both having their first that summer, and we immediately felt pulled closer to family, since my wife (Jenna Comes) is also from Watertown.”
The family decided the job opportunity combined with the chance to raise their kids in Watertown “was a no-brainer,” Mark said. “We moved home in May of 2014. I came back with no expectations of a cookie-cutter job but expecting to do what was needed and chip in where I could.”
Mark’s role as production manager introduced him to multiple challenges. A longtime supplier was going out of business, and the Moffatt facility needed to expand to accommodate more inventory.
“So I got to take a crash course in five or six areas of the business,” he said. “But I love it. It’s exceeded our expectations. We knew it would be challenging, possibly, working with family, but I give credit to the Prairie Family Business Association for helping us embrace working together as a family instead of fighting or begrudging it. Things have been going better than expected.”
Moffatt Products was an original sponsor of the Prairie Family Business Association when it was founded with seed money in the 1980s.
“There was a vision for a family organization, and we were looking for something to give back to because we’re so grateful to be in South Dakota,” Dave said.
But as he helped both his parents through battles with cancer, Dave’s time didn’t allow him to be too involved with the association.
“We returned when Mark showed interest and discovered the organization had grown into exactly what it was envisioned to be: a broad-based, low-cost organization with lots of good resources.”
Those also came into play when his other son, Jeff, showed interest in joining the business last year.
When he learned that Mark was returning in 2014, Jeff decided to prepared himself to join his brother and jumped into mechanical engineering technology in Sioux Falls, earning his certification in 3-D drafting.
“I developed the skills to implement at Moffatt Products to help them update their drawing library,” he said, adding he is taking the library from 2-D to 3-D drawings.
“He landed right in the middle of a project where we really needed the skills, and so he was able to hit the ground running,” Dave said. “We then realized he had a natural bent toward sales, so now he plays a supporting role for both the sales and engineering departments. We’re glad we took the time to define his position and create a brand-new role for him.”
The family has worked closely with Prairie Family Business in planning for its future. Dave and Mark each have a peer group.
“We’re all in the same boat and still learning our companies from our parents,” Mark said of his group. “We face the same set of identity issues, growing into the family legacy and company vision. You get to bounce ideas off and test them with a group of peers, and sometimes they have better ideas than anyone else.”
The Moffatts also experienced the association’s annual family business retreat last year and rave about it.
“It was beyond our expectations,” Dave said. “It’s like pressing fast-forward.”
They estimate it would have taken them 18 months to accomplish as much transition planning as they did in one weekend.
“It just opened up things we hadn’t dived into quite yet,” Dave said. “Having a facilitator work directly with us, we made more progress than we thought we could. There’s a lot of power in getting away for the weekend and dedicating time to the business.”
The Moffatts’ experience is exactly what the association strives for, said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director.
“It’s so rewarding to hear about how the Moffatts are taking advantage of the resources we offer and using the association to help strengthen a business that’s already so impressive,” she said. “We’re grateful to have them as members and can’t wait to see what their future holds.”