Over the past 70 years, Port Byron-based Sandstrom has manufactured products that assisted the Vietnam War, were used during NASA's Apollo missions and helped Boeing airplanes take flight.
Founded by Robert V. Sandstrom in 1946 as a paint manufacturer, Sandstrom Technical Coatings produces lubricants and coatings for everything from tennis courts to aircraft. And the manufacturing plant, with around 25 employees, continues to diversify, said Technical Director Russell Burt.
"Mostly what's changed over the years is the market we're going after. We used to make a lot of tennis court coatings, but the market has shifted from those more lower tech products to much higher tech products, like aerospace coatings," Burt said. "That's the business we're going after now."
In 1946, founder Sandstrom, a graduate of Augustana College, bought a vacant service station along the riverfront in Port Byron. The 3,200-square foot building was first used to manufacture paints for concrete floors.
Shortly after, the company landed its first major account with Sears Roebuck & Co., making basement and waterproofing paint. By the 1960s, Sandstrom had entered the military manufacturing business, providing dry film lubricant for weapons produced at the Rock Island Arsenal.
Around the same time, NASA began using Sandstrom's products in some of its first human spaceflight programs, including the Gemini and Apollo space flights, and the Sandstrom label traveled to Vietnam in 1967 during the war.
While Sandstrom's products have been used around the world and beyond, the company remains housed in the former gas station in Port Byron. Today, a roughly 46,000-square foot plant and lab sit around the original station.
The Midwest used to be home to several paint manufacturers, Burt said. But now Sandstrom is one of the only companies of its kind to remain a small, family-owned business.
"There were thousands of small paint companies like this, and a lot of them aren't around anymore," he said. "What started out as a family-owned paint manufacturer, Moline Paint, got sold multiple times and now it's part of Sherwin-Williams. A lot of places have went that way, but we've still maintained a family-owned business and kept our head above water."
As the industry has changed, the workforce has dwindled, he said. Similar to other companies struggling to fill jobs in a low unemployment economy, Burt said Sandstrom has a "consistent problem" finding skilled employees.
"The biggest problem is trying to get someone in, and then they just don't stay very long," he said. "Another thing for us is the only company that's even similar is Valspar in Moline and they don't lose a lot of workers. So we don't get too many people with any experience making paint. You have to train everyone."
Despite industry challenges, Burt said Sandstrom is continuing to evolve. The company recently received approval from the Performance Review Institute to add one of its solid film lubricants to the Qualified Product List. He said the approval will help streamline the products used for aerospace.
"The additional ... designation enhances the functionality of the product and eliminates the need for Sandstrom aerospace customers to maintain an inventory of different products for each specification," Sandstrom President Mark Lousberg said. "This will minimize waste, free inventory dollars and improve efficiency. It’s a reflection of the innovation that makes Sandstrom an industry leader."
Burt said some of the products are used on Boeing aircraft, such as to seal the nuts and bolts that keep planes together.
"There are only a few products on the qualified products list, so really it's a captured market," Burt said. "Rather than going out and selling to every individual customer, this makes it a lot easier for us to sell products."
While its focus continues to shift, Burt said Sandstrom remains dedicated to supporting the community of Port Byron and local industries.
"I think we've stuck around because we make good products, and we put a lot of emphasis on customer service. That's helped us out a lot," he said.