By: Vicki Gerdes

Sen. Amy Klobuchar shared a laugh with employees at SJE Rhombus Monday afternoon (above). The senator toured the manufacturing facility as part of a 14-city Innovation Tour making stops throughout Greater Minnesota.
  On Monday afternoon, there was a buzz in the air at the Detroit Lakes offices of SJE Rhombus.

The reason? A U.S. senator was on the premises.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., toured the Detroit Lakes manufacturing plant as part of a 14-city “Innovation Tour” that included stops in Moorhead, Park Rapids, Fergus Falls and Ada, among others.

As she walked through the facility, Klobuchar stopped to chat and shake hands with employees, posed for pictures, and asked questions about various aspects of the operation.

When asked by some of the employees if she felt any trepidation making such public appearances, in the wake of the assassination attempt on U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., last week, Klobuchar scoffed at the notion.

Later, however, in response to a reporter’s question, she acknowledged that security is something that is evaluated on a “case by case basis” by her staff and local law enforcement.

In the case of her visit to Detroit Lakes, however, Klobuchar said she did not feel in any danger.

“In Minnesota there are threats from time to time, but we haven’t seen the kind of vitriolic language (that officials in other parts of the country have been subjected to),” she said.

Klobuchar also spoke warmly of the fact that Minnesota citizens are “really engaged” in the political process, and expect their legislators to be out there and accessible to the public.

She noted that she has made it a point each year to make at least one visit to each of Minnesota’s 87 counties since she was elected, and has no plans to discontinue that practice.

Besides, she added, “You can’t learn about businesses like this one if you’re sitting behind a desk in Washington.”

SJE Rhombus CEO Laurie Lewandowski noted that she and her staff welcomed the chance to visit one-on-one with Klobuchar about their concerns.

“We really appreciate having the opportunity to share our thoughts and concerns with her directly, and of course it’s always nice to get a little flavor of their (legislators’) personalities,” she said.

One of the things that was noted several times during Klobuchar’s visit was the fact that SJE Rhombus is 100 percent employee owned, through an Employee Stock Ownership Trust (ESOT).

“The fact that the employees own the company stock means they have a vested interest in doing their part to make sure the company succeeds,” Lewandowski noted after the tour. “This gives SJE-Rhombus a competitive advantage; each employee-owner is a working partner …  (they) take great pride in doing their best to provide quality products and service and each employee is rewarded by the steady increase in the value of SJE-Rhombus stock in their retirement account.”

At one point, when Klobuchar asked Lewandowski how long she had been the head of the company, Lewandowski responded, “I’m not in charge, they are,” referring to the employees.

Later, Klobuchar said that she was “very impressed” by the employee ownership aspect of the business.

During her visit, Klobuchar also spoke briefly about the purpose of the “Innovation Tour” across northern Minnesota.

She said she wanted to visit “strong companies like this one” and learn more about how they stay globally competitive.

The information she gathers through her visits to these businesses, as well as meetings with local officials along the way, will be used to help develop what she has termed a “National Innovation Agenda,” a comprehensive package of legislation aimed at “strengthening America’s ability to innovate and compete for long-term economic growth and job creation.”

That package will be unveiled next Tuesday, Jan. 18, at an Economic Innovation Summit to be held at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis.