In 1952, at the age of just 24 years old, Fisher established Fisher Sand & Gravel Co. and laid the foundation for what would become one of the largest sand and gravel producers in the United States.
“Dad finished up with his high school education and people said ‘you became very successful without a college education,’” says Tommy Fisher, Gene’s son and the current president of Fisher Industries. “He missed his high school picnic to screen gravel. Dad was always an entrepreneur.”
Gene, who died in 2013, realized that maintaining and repairing equipment was costly. Faced with a business challenge, he did what he was best at: solving problems.
“He saw problems very differently than the average person,” says Florian Friedt, vice president at Fisher Industries. “He didn’t look at them as ‘we have to deal with this,’ but rather as an opportunity. It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. Problem solving was what he lived for, along with helping others.”
In 1967, Gene launched General Steel & Supply Co., the equipment support arm to Fisher Sand & Gravel. This allowed him to be innovative when building custom and top-quality aggregate processing equipment.
“That was always Dad’s greatest move,” Tommy says of General Steel & Supply. “Crushing is an abusive sort of business. When you break rock, it’s hard on equipment. So when you have your own equipment and can build it a little more heavy duty, it makes you that much more successful.”
General Steel & Supply made it possible for Gene to design, fabricate, field-test, demonstrate, assemble and deliver custom equipment not just for Fisher Sand & Gravel, but also for aggregate companies throughout the industry.
“Dad always had a knack on the engineering side to draw designs for screens or how to set up crushers on napkins,” Tommy says.
The establishment of General Steel & Supply not only introduced Gene to new business opportunities, but to his wife, Sheila. Gene and Sheila married in 1969 when the company opened.
“They put everything on the line for the business and made it through,” Tommy says.
Water shortages in the region posed yet another challenge for Gene. Once again, he solved a problem.
Using his ingenuity and problem-solving skills, Gene curtailed water shortages by patenting his own classification system – the Fisher Air Separator. The signature piece of General Steel & Supply, the Fisher Air Separator helps to remove fine particulates from manufactured sand using air instead of water.
This development not only solved water shortages in the region, but it put Fisher Industries on the global map with equipment sales in 14 countries.
“The air separator is so important to us because, as road specifications changed, a lot of areas wanted cleaner material in their hot-mix,” Tommy says. “A lot of places don’t have adequate water that you can use to wash out finer particles. There were classifiers out there, but they didn’t work the way they should, so [Dad] and the staff invented the [Fisher] Air Separator and it’s been a godsend.
“It’s very portable, and it even works if your material has a bit of moisture in it – more than a regular classifier would work,” Tommy says. “It’s inspired us to come up with new ideas for patents.”
Remembering his roots
Even with an established, successful business, a signature product and a name known throughout the industry, Gene maintained his simplistic approach to his work while setting an example for those around him.
“He was relentless with his work ethic and he was very hands-on working right alongside you doing projects – it didn’t matter if it was shoveling, welding, bolting,” says Friedt, who started working at Fisher Industries in 1974. “He never asked you to do something he wouldn’t do himself.
“One day he said, ‘You guys overcomplicate it. We’re taking big rocks and making them little rocks.’ He was always teaching, and he would go into the details of how everything worked or why it didn’t work.”
Even as Fisher Industries expanded beyond domestic and international borders, Gene never forgot where he came from.
“Dad was very proud to be from North Dakota, especially Dickinson,” Tommy says. “He called Dickinson the Sun Belt of North Dakota. If it was minus 30 [degrees] in Grand Forks, it was only minus 10 [degrees] in Dickinson.”
As a kid, Tommy saw firsthand his father’s tireless work ethic and dedication to his business and the industry as a whole. Gene’s passion for his work wasn’t just what he did, but it encompassed who he was.
“Growing up, Dad was always working,” Tommy says. “A lot of people said he was a workaholic, but in the end it was his passion and he was a good dad and supported us. As a young kid, we always had Tonka trucks under the [Christmas] tree. We got to go out in the field with Dad and we ran real Tonka trucks – big loaders and big trucks. I really enjoyed sitting on his lap and running the dozer or loader or excavator and feeling that power.”
As Tommy grew up, he learned the business and worked closely with his father.
The two often attended equipment auctions as Gene taught Tommy the ropes of the aggregate industry.
“I got to know my Dad so much more when we became partners and worked together,” Tommy says. “I think the best memory I ever had is that Dad had faith in me at 25 years old to basically turn the company over. He said, ‘There are going to be things that you sink or swim [with], but I trust you, you’re smart and you have it.’”
Not only did Tommy get to know his father from the standpoint of a business partner, but he watched his father become a grandfather to his own kids.
“I really enjoyed him getting to become a grandfather with the kids; the grandkids really softened him up,” Tommy says. “Today, the third generation of this company has the chance to really make it. Before Dad passed, I said ‘you’re in great hands and have a few grandkids who are even smarter than I was at that age.’ What more can you ask for?”
Gene’s legacy lives on in the aggregate industry and through the foundation he laid at Fisher Industries.
“He lived a great life,” Tommy says. “Coming from nothing and building what he did, it was never about the money. It was always about the equipment, the quality, to be the best. He was the catalyst that started what we are today. I remember his last day and I told him, ‘you left no stone unturned or uncrushed.’ My hope is I end up the same way.”