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Jon Knutson, Published August 08 2009

ComDel breathes new life into Wahpeton plant

WAHPETON, N.D. - What began as a major blow to this southeastern North Dakota city of 8,600 has become a still-developing success story.

ComDel Innovation is continuing much of the work done at the former Imation Corp. plant here.

Imation, which employed about 375 people to make data-storage products, closed the plant late last year as part of a corporate restructuring first announced in 2007.

But a group of former Imation employees launched ComDel in 2007 to help replace what had been Wahpeton’s second-biggest employer.

ComDel’s initial work force of 60 has grown to 150.

ComDel – think “commit” and “deliver” – handles a wide range of products and services, including product/mold design, materials analysis, tooling fabrication, injection molding, metal assembly and automated assembly.

The company says it handles everything from production conception to manufacturing.

“Things have gone pretty well for us,” said Jim Albrecht, ComDel president and a former employee of Imation and 3M Corp.

The Wahpeton plant was opened in 1977 by 3M, which spun off Imation in 1995.

ComDel is a separate company, not a spinoff of Imation.

But Imation “has been very supportive of what we’re doing,” Albrecht said.

Both Imation and 3M are major customers of ComDel, he said.

Most of the 150 ComDel employees used to work for Imation.

Retaining those employees in Wahpeton was important, said Jane Preibe, the city’s economic development director.

ComDel has “become a crucial part of our industrial community,” she said.

ComDel owns one of three buildings on what had been Imation’s Wahpeton campus.

The Wahpeton Economic Development Corp. owns the other two and is working to find tenants for them, Preibe said.

U.S. economic woes have hampered those efforts, but officials are optimistic of recruiting new tenants eventually, she said.

Albrecht pointed to the work ComDel is doing with Site Saver, a plastic hand apparatus that secures intravenous catheters in place and prevents them from being accidentally pulled out.

The device was invented by Robert Heitkamp of Mantador, N.D.

“We think there are a lot of possibilities working with other companies in our area,” Albrecht said.

Geographical proximity can be a big help when customers need products quickly, he said.

ComDel already prides itself on fast turnaround times.

The company needed only 14 days to supply one customer with a functional prototype developed from what initially was just a napkin sketch, said Art Nelson, ComDel’s production operations manager.

ComDel frequently competes with foreign companies that are very good at holding down costs, Nelson and Albrecht said.

The Wahpeton company strives to hold down its own costs without compromising quality or worker safety, they said.

Though national economic problems have affected ComDel, the company’s financial situation is “sustainable,” Albrecht said.

He doesn’t see ComDel ramping up employment, at least not until the U.S. economy improves.

Nonetheless, “We’re off to a good start,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530