Back to school: Entrepreneur turns his former elementary school into his company offices

Elementary school can provide many things: life lessons for adolescents, coming-of-age tales, and happy, cheerful memories of recess, gym, and lunchtime. Typically though, they’re not the setting for business headquarters. 

But for a Wallace company, Advanced Blending Solutions, the classrooms and the gymnasium of a former elementary school provide the perfect backdrop for the plastics company to truly take hold. 

Brent Berquist, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Advanced Blending Solutions, says the company’s history and serendipitous start “is a fun story.”

Owner Mike Rasner graduated from Michigan Technological University more than 20 years ago and started working for a plastics company in Wisconsin’s Green Bay/Fox Valley area. After quickly rising up the corporate ladder, Rasner found himself in need of better equipment with higher accuracy and precision. 

During his spare time from his full-time job, the engineer took to his garage to design and construct his first blender. A friend of his admired the concept and asked Rasner to go into business together.

The duo started a company, educated themselves on blenders on the market, did retrofits, and fixed equipment for customers before launching their own line. A few months after an expansion and new manufacturing space, the economic recession of 2008 put that business to a halt. The failure of that business, however, was not the end for Rasner’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

Brent Berquist“They had enough key customers, and Mike restarted the company within two weeks,” Berquist says. “He moved the business to Wallace because he grew up here. A couple of years later, in 2010, I joined him when (the company) had about 12-14 employees. Since then, we’ve grown the company to what we have today, which is about 130 employees.”

Advanced Blending Solutions (ABS) considers itself a solutions-based company. 

“We really pride ourselves on being the opposite of what most of our competitors look like,” Berquist says. “We are a customized machine manufacturing company. I tell people all the time that we’re an engineering company who just happens to make blending equipment. We really take on the most difficult problems for our customers, the most challenging projects or situations they have, and configure solutions for them.”

Today, the business includes a state-of-the-art fabrication, machining, painting, and panel-building shop. The company designs and builds blenders, vacuum receivers and sequence manifolds, silos, storage bins, pump packages, mezzanines, and more -- on-site in Wallace, located near the Wisconsin border. 

The site itself has a unique story too – it was Rasner’s former elementary school.

Berquist admits he laughed at Rasner’s idea to buy the school and use it for the business headquarters in 2011. “Mike is one of those entrepreneurial people. As a salesperson, I don’t ‘get it,’ but thank God we have them,” he laughs. 

After purchasing the school and 26 acres of land for a “very reasonable amount,” the next phase of ABS was in full gear after moving in 2012.

“The township of Wallace wanted us to move here, for everything that we were doing,” Berquist says. “We ended up remodeling the whole school and that’s where our sales, accounting, aftersales, and engineering are all based. We have over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing that we built and added to in the last couple of years behind the building.”

Despite being shuttered for a few years, the school building did not require any major structural repairs. The state had put on a brand new roof and installed a boiler system. “It had half a million dollars in upgrades right before they shuttered it,” Berquist says. “We just did cosmetic changes.”

The classrooms that were once outfitted with storytime carpets, children’s backpacks hanging on hooks, and student desks now house cellular manufacturing. 

The company's research and development lab was originally housed in the gym.“We remodeled and did a $2.5 million renovation on the school itself for office space, making it welcoming for customers and employees as well,” Berquist says. “We turned that gymnasium into our research and lab department, where we bring in customers’ products, run them on our machines to make sure we can build them appropriate equipment.”

Over the past year, the expansion has continued to include another 10,000-square-foot standalone building housing the research and development department. There are plans to convert the gymnasium into a showroom for demoing products during customer visits. “It’s been an evolution, and it’s been a lot of fun too,” Berquist says of the growth. “Looking back at it, it’s amazing how much we did in a short period of time.”

Although the business has grown, it’s important for the company to remain personable with its employees. “We’re a mom-and-pop company,” he says. “We have 130 people employed here, but we still have one owner. We treat our people as such. It’s not some big 5,000-person company.”

ABS is grateful to be a part of an area with many other large manufacturing and engineering employers, providing a fruitful workforce. “Merritt and the Menominee area are not very big, maybe 20,000 people combined,” Berquist says. “Over the last few years, local employers have had a tremendous amount of welders and skilled laborers coming to the area. We really don’t have a lot of unemployment in this area, and because of that, we have a lot of skilled labor.”

The majority of ABS welders and assembly employees live within a five-mile radius of the company, which is located about 15 miles outside of Menominee’s city limits, Berquist says. “We have a lot of employees that live locally, who like that rural farm lifestyle, and have found a home with us. We’re very lucky for that,” he says. 

The company’s leading work with the fibers market, particularly carpeting made from recycled PET bottles, has also garnered recognition from the recycling industry. The Plastics Industry Association announced its list of 2023 Cleanup Champions, including ABS. Each of the recognized companies shows a dedication to making a difference in their community by working to eliminate plastic material waste. As the company looks toward the next level of expansion, Berquist hopes to take things internationally and add brick-and-mortar locations in Europe over the next few years. 

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at
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