Swedish company finds a home in Hudson
Martin Bertilsson is brimming with enthusiasm.
Just back from a forestry machine trade show in Escanaba, Mich., he’s proud of all the Scandinavian-made products he saw there -- including the heavy equipment seat accessories that he displayed for his employer, Sittab Inc.
“We really rule the industry,” Bertilsson said, speaking for the Scandinavian equipment manufacturers in general.
He was happy, too, about the response to Sittab’s ergonomically correct armrests and headrests, as well as its other products designed to make work as comfortable as possible for operators of heavy equipment.
“It’s just so cool to stand next to a product that the end customer loves so much,” said Bertilsson, relating how manufacturing reps would walk up and tell him how much they appreciated Sittab’s seat accessories.
Sittab was started in Borlange, Sweden, in 1991 by a trainer of forestry machine operators.
Founder Kjell Anders Eriksson was sitting at the controls of a big tree harvester/processor one day when he noticed that something didn’t feel right. The seat and armrests weren’t comfortable.
Eriksson did some home tinkering, and came up with a seat assembly that loggers in the northern forests of Sweden wanted for their machines.
Then manufacturers of other types of heavy equipment -- mining, construction and agricultural -- wanted Sittab seats and accessories for their machines.
“One man’s vision of doing ergonomics better on forestry machines, from an operator’s standpoint, resulted in a product so good it kind of sold itself,” Bertilsson said.
In September of 2011, Sittab opened an office in Hudson to better serve its North American customers, which include John Deere, Caterpillar, Case New Holland, Tigercat Industries, Grammer, Komatsu and smaller makers of specialty machines.
Now the company is gearing up to start assembling armrests, seats and seat turntables for John Deere at its 4,000-square-foot space in the River Bluffs Business Center. The facility is located on Harvey Street in St. Croix Business Park.
Some assembly work already is done at the facility, but the additional production for John Deere is expected to greatly expand the operation.
Bertilsson said one or two people will be hired to assist current employee Adam Varney with the production, and more could be added later.
“We don’t really know what capacity we will be at because we don’t know the forecast from the big ones (original equipment manufacturers) yet,” he said. “It could be a lot more, but we are starting small and seeing how it works.”
Bertilsson, who has been in the United States for close to 10 years, joined Sittab at the start of 2013 after reading a Star-Observer article about the company opening its Hudson office.
He’s married to Hudson native Karin Holt. They have a 6-month-old son, Nils, and live in North Hudson.
Bertilsson grew up outside of Broby, Sweden, a community of 3,000 people in the southern part of the country, about an hour and a half from Copenhagen, Denmark.
While attending Linnaeus University in Vaxjo, he received a scholarship to study abroad for a semester at any American university, and chose Hamline in St. Paul.
He said his father recommended that he come to Minnesota because relatives had emigrated there years earlier.
Bertilsson did a Google search for the top-ranked university in Minnesota, and Hamline University popped up first.
“I didn’t even click on it. I just called up my advisor and said I’ll pick Hamline,” he recalled.
A business major in Sweden, some questioned his choice of Hamline when he arrived here. The university isn’t known for its business program.
“But I had a great time there,” he said. He worked in the university president’s office and was encouraged to complete his studies for his bachelor’s degree at Hamline.
The free university education he was getting in Sweden was too much to give up, but after graduating from Linnaeus, he returned to Hamline for a master’s degree in international management.
After Hamline, he worked for Borton Volvo in Minneapolis and Golden Valley, managing the program that brings Americans to Sweden to pick up their new cars.
Bertilsson and Holt met at a crayfish dinner at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. He was there with three Danish fellows, she was there with some girlfriends, and they ended up seated next to each other.
“It was fun because Karin speaks fluent Norwegian. I could speak my native tongue and she could practice her Norwegian. That’s how we met,” he said. The two Scandinavian languages are closely enough related that they could understand each other.
The couple was married and settled in North Hudson when he saw the story about Sittab in the Star-Observer.
“It was exactly what I was looking for. I knew that right when I was reading the article,” Bertilsson said. “I was looking to work for a small Swedish company.”
His experience at Borton Volvo was “fantastic,” he said, but he wanted more of a challenge.
He’s the manager of Sittab’s North American sales and operations in his new role.
He typically spends an hour or more on the phone with the Swedish office at the start of his day, which is the end of the business day in Sweden. Being able to communicate in Swedish with Sittab’s engineers is a great advantage, he said.
The Sittab headquarters is now located in Gustafs, a small community outside of Borlange in Dalarna County.
Gustafs is about three hours northwest of Stockholm, in rural and forested country similar to northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is a six-and-a-half hour train ride from where Bertilsson grew up in southern Sweden.
“They kind of look at me like I’m half Danish,” he said of the Sittab officials. They laugh at his accent and he laughs at theirs, but he’s getting along well with his northern countrymen.
Either Bertilsson is a remarkably good salesman or a strong believer in Sittab products -- or some of both.
“Well, I love this product,” he explained when a reporter commented on his enthusiasm. “It comes really natural for me. I want people to see in my eyes that this is good stuff. This is exactly what you need, and it is fairly simple.
“Hopefully, I don’t have to do that much to try to sell it. Just figuring out what the client needs is No. 1. Listening instead of talking.”
You can learn more about Sittab and its products online at www.sittab.com.