Andy Wells: “My greatest reward is the good we can do for other people.”

man with glasses looking at camera

Happy Manufacturing Month 2023 everybody.  I wanted to take a moment and talk to you about the Red Road.  As a Sicangu Lakota, we do our best to walk the Red Road, and I know other Nations try to walk it too.  Walking the Red Road means you move through life with the intention of being a good human being.  You try to do what’s right for your family, your community, and the generations to come.  It also means doing what’s right for your business.  But often doing what’s right for one’s community can feel like it runs counter to doing what’s right for one’s business.  However, this is not always so.

man in glasses wearing suit and beaded necktie looking at camera
Andy Wells, Founder of Wells Technology in Bemidji, MN

Andy Wells walks the Red Road.  He is committed to the best for his family, his business, his community, and the future.  While humble almost to a fault, Andy recognizes that he is positioned to make an impact on his community and his neighbors.  And that doing good and doing good business are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, Andy and his business, Wells Technology, show that you can walk the Red Road while driving profitability and market share, and supporting organizational sustainability.

Andy grew up in a one-room farmhouse on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.  He was always an inventor and an innovator.   He scrounged for discarded parts in junkyards and in neighbors’ trash to build those things he couldn’t afford.  He built go-carts and scooters, metal rockets that would travel for a mile, and had an FCC license by the age of 13 because of a short-wave radio he built.  Andy always took time to really understand how something worked, and then made it better. 

Today, Andy has hundreds of inventions under his belt, and over a dozen patents.  For example, he designed the first air-driven shears (AirSnip) and knife (AirBlade), both tools are now standards in poultry processing.  He designed the first fiberglass front-engine snowmobile, called the Lil’ Andy, for Polaris.  And recently, he designed a rotating solar panel system which powers 70% of the Wells Technology Manufacturing Facility. 

Andy followed his passion for technology and science by earning a master’s degree in physics.  He served as a professor for a time and served as a consultant for a time.  After realizing his knack for innovation and precision machining, he founded Wells Technology in 1989, at the age of 45.  Today, Wells Technology manufactures tools and fasteners for clients such as Boeing, NASA, and the Department of Defense.  While Andy is proud of his company’s average annual 12% growth, what really gives him purpose is giving back to his community and the Indian people who helped and supported him throughout his life.  This support came in spite of the fact that as Indian people, they likely didn’t have much to give.

The four poorest counties in Minnesota are on Indian land.  And Native-identifying people are some of the poorest in our state.  In Beltrami County, where Wells Technology is located, the average annual wage for a white-identifying individual is $52,302.  For American Indians it’s $46,434.  It’s clear how organizations can provide an improved quality of life simply by offering somebody a job at the same wage as everybody else.  Obstacles such as transportation, housing and childcare are less impactful when an individual has consistent cash flow.  This increase of life quality in turn impacts the local economy and community. This is especially true when it comes to community- and family- oriented Native culture.  Andy understands this, and it drives him to do more, and to offer opportunities to those who might be considered a risky hire.

When I first visited Wells Technology, Andy told the story of turning down an interview because the applicant didn’t have a particular skillset and had a criminal record.  With the strong labor force at the time, Andy understood that there would be more qualified and less risky applicants applying for the position.  But as he watched the young man return to the parking lot, he noticed the applicant’s wife and children were waiting for him patiently in the car. Andy immediately recognized what an opportunity for a career would mean for that family.  He ran to the parking lot before the man could leave and told him that he could come back on the next business day for an interview.  That person was the first of many that Wells Technology hired that others likely wouldn’t.  Like those discarded bits and bobs he made into a working ham radio, Andy saw potential and opportunity.  Regardless of where they came from, or how they got there, Andy believes that through support and commitment people will start to recognize their own worth and value, and their perspective on the future will change.  And when perspectives change, lives change.

While Andy may not have been aware of it when he offered that man a job interview, building a bridge between marginalized people and a meaningful career made good business sense.  American Indian-identifying individuals make up over 19% of Beltrami County’s population and have seen a growth in population by 6.2% from 2011 to 2021.  With a 2021 unemployment rate of 18% and a workforce participation rate of 61.2%, this is a population that could turn an organization’s workforce challenges around if the organization is willing to do the work to build a bridge and culture inclusive to Indigenous-identifying talent.

Lisa operating a machine at Wells Technology Inc in Bemidji
Lisa operating high-tech manufacturing equipment at Wells Technology

In 2009, Andy started Wells Academy, a non-profit training school to develop the talents of those who do not have the same opportunities or support as other job applicants. The initiative has a 93% success rate in providing skills to make these individuals completive in the job market.  Today, Wells Academy sees anywhere from 20 to 30 applicants per year and is a state-recognized apprenticeship program.  After graduation, the Academy provides students with assistance finding a career in their preferred industry, including but not limited to a career at Wells Technology.

In 2021, Wells Academy opened a new branch in the Oshkiimaajitahdah Center to provide apprenticeship training on Red Lake Nation, and to continue to pay back the people who supported him throughout his life.  The apprenticeship training and upskilling offered by Wells Academy and Oshkiimaajitahdah is crucial to career success, especially when you consider that 48% of Native people have a high school education or less, compared just 28.3% of white-identifying people.  This disparity makes clear the importance of what Oshkiimaajitahdah and Wells Academy are doing.

Wells Academy provides a path to a better way of life, regardless of mistakes that might have been made or consequences that come from poverty.  Andy and his team have high expectations for new team members and academy graduates. In exchange for diligence, trainees receive steady and sustainable income, a skillset that can never be taken away, and pride that they are an integral and valuable part of a team.  Because they start to recognize their value, the students recognize their time has value too.  This sense of self-value and self-respect leads to greater pride and higher expectations for oneself.

Andy Wells, a man in a vest, and Alex, a man in a stocking cap wearing gloves, at Wells Technology in Bemidji
Andy and Alex at Wells Technology

This culture of caring seen in Wells Technology and Wells Academy starts with Andy.  He feels especially strongly about his commitment to his community and his people.  He has a term for how he thoughtfully engages with students and his teams.  He calls it strategic giving: “helping people help themselves and showing them how to build and follow a constructive vision for their future.”  Wells Technology prioritizes character, vision, strategy, and action as life skills along with training on manufacturing processes and technical certification. 

Andy Wells shows that a culture of support and personal development is not a one-way street.  He shows again and again, through countless business contracts and innovation accomplishments, and dozens of awards, that you can do good business while still doing good.  While in Washington DC to be awarded the Small Business Award by the Minnesota SBA in 2009, Andy was quoted as saying “Imagine if we each gave back even a fraction of what has been given to us.  What if we measured success by how many lives we have impacted and not how much profit we have made.  Imagine a world like that.” 

Andy Wells shows us that walking the Red Road also means doing good business.  This Manufacturing Month, please think about what the Red Road means for you, and how it’s defined by those people who support and celebrate you.  Happy Manufacturing Month everybody.