Some individuals can’t sit still — they are always on the move. They want to create, develop, innovate, design and serve — either country or fellow man. This would be a good description of Martin “Ed” Ismert, who in 1957, along with several investors, started Sioux Chief Manufacturing. Today, Sioux Chief is a family-owned American company that designs and manufactures rough plumbing products, parts and accessories for residential, and commercial applications. The company is in its third generation of family leadership, with its newly built headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.
From historical accounts and storytelling, Ismert was an interesting fellow. He was nicknamed Ed to distinguish himself from his father and namesake. Ismert served in World War II as a radio operator on the B-29 bombers and completed more than 22 missions. Upon returning from the war, he met and started dating Katherine Rosemary Hodes (nicknamed Karosie); her family owned a plumbing supply business in the Kansas City area. At the time, Ismert was selling oxygen tanks and had a side job selling popcorn. He was an ambitious man and had the drive to go far.
Karosie Hodes’ father offered Ismert a role in the family business, selling plumbing supplies to plumbing contractors. He took the job, and soon after married Karosie. Life was good, the family was growing, and Ed was looking for additional income to support his family.
In 1953, he and his brother Jerry Ismert took a risk and started their own plumbing supply company and named it Double I. When times got rocky, they looked for a product to sell that would help customers save time and money. They came up with the idea of manufacturing foldable magnesium rods as replacement rods for water heaters. Through hard work, the company and product were a great success.
Wanting to keep the innovation and creativity moving forward, they decided to try their hands at another company that filled a niche in the plumbing industry. The new company would sell products to plumbing wholesalers — different from Ed’s father-in-law who sold directly to contractors.
The brothers understood that many wholesalers were not able to carry a large inventory; they would be the company to help those wholesalers fill their needs. So, in 1957, Ed and several investors started a company out of the third floor of the existing company — and named the new venture Sioux Chief. The name choice held a deep meaning, for it described the Ismert family as well. The Sioux Indian Nation are a proud and resolute people that hold family and The Earth in the highest regard. They represent strength, resourcefulness, respect, determination and a trailblazing spirit.
As stated in a 50th anniversary commemorative book by author Robert R. Morris, who said it best: “Sioux Chief Manufacturing, being named and patterned after such a distinctive people, would put forth an image not easily forgotten.”
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. In 1959, Ted Ismert (Ed’s brother), an electronics engineer, was laid off from his job at a local company. Ted had the creativity to resolve problems and look for solutions in a different manner. Ed brought him onboard to help on a project regarding spooling sandcloth. Using his expertise and creative skills, Ted not only solved the problem but saved time and money in the process. And he didn’t stop there.
The post-war market started a building boom and many municipalities required air chambers on water lines to stop the effect of water hammer (the banging sound when a valve is turned off quickly). As the length and diameter of the chamber would vary from place to place, most plumbers fabricated the chamber on site. This was a costly and labor-intensive component. The brothers realized they had a perfect opportunity to prefabricate a copper nipple with a closed end that would save time and labor.
Ted Ismert took on the challenge of researching how to create a copper tube that was “spun” closed at one end, eliminating the need for a soldered, fitted cap. Having read an article on spinning copper, he started his research and development. In doing so, he developed a revolutionary new process. The new spun-closed stub out was a great success, particularly in Los Angeles and Chicago, and set the course for the company to expand.
With Ted on the creative side and Ed on the selling side, and family members helping in the manufacturing plant, Sioux Chief Manufacturing took off. In 1974, Ed’s sons — Mike Ismert and Joe P. Ismert — purchased the company from their father. “I spent my life savings at that time to purchase the company,” CEO Joe Ismert says. “At the time the company had one machine, about five customers and three manufacturer’s representatives.”
Several years later, the company got into the injection molding business, and true to when Uncle Ted entered the company, another creative inventor came onboard. “In 1978, Frank Julian joined Sioux Chief, and he is still with us today,” Joe Ismert notes. “Frank is behind most of the inventions that we’ve developed over the years.”
Today, Joe P. Ismert runs the company along with his son, Joe N. Ismert, as Sioux Chief’s president. Sioux Chief makes PowerPex systems, water hammer arresters, drainage and support products, and many other innovative rough plumbing items. The company currently employs more than 700 individuals and moved its headquarters to a larger facility in Kansas City, Mo. in 2017.
Inventing to Solve Problems
“Rooted in the Past. Focused in the Present. Invested in the Future.” — Sioux Chief motto
Sioux Chief focuses on solving problems for its customers — be it a tweaking of an existing product, enhancing a product to add value or inventing and manufacturing a new product. One of its first products, the spun-closed copper tube, came about from working with a plumbing company out of Kansas City. The plumber was looking for a product where he did not have to solder on a cap only to cut it off and throw it away. There had to be an easier way.
The owner approached Sioux Chief, and the part was made. “Listening to plumbers and developing a product that saves them time and money is how we got our start,” Joe P. Ismert states. The company currently holds more than 40 patents for products. “The key to our success is that we develop new products,” states Rex Baer, executive vice president.
Another big key to success is Sioux Chief’s independence. “Much like a product we develop, we also create the manufacturing equipment,” he states. “If we had to go to outside engineering firms, the time would be tremendous, and the expense would be quite great.”
Joe N. Ismert adds: “This helps us to develop a better part, too. We can make modifications immediately to the part as well as the equipment to make sure that it’s manufacturable.”
The group takes product quality and efficiency very seriously. “As a manufacturer, we have direct access to our products and our processes,” states Chris Ismert, products group director. “If we notice a problem, we can get it corrected immediately, without having to go through a third-party. This sets us apart from some of our competitors. When it comes to quality, we try to remember that the final inspector is the installing contractor.”
Quality personnel are actively monitoring every department on every shift, adds Joe N. Ismert. “We are firm believers in ‘safety first, quality second, and then efficiency.’ That’s something we preach every day.”
Growth and Expansion
The company is in a growth mode. In 2015, Sioux Chief acquired a manufacturing company in Mexico and true to its motto of “Making It in America,” it relocated the machinery to America’s Heartland for production. Before the acquisition, the company had two buildings on a campus in Peculiar; but adding to the existing footprint wasn’t the right choice. A decision was made to build a larger facility that would expand its manufacturing space and become the new company headquarters.
The new location would be just North of Peculiar, in Kansas City. The new building, finished in 2017, is more than 600,000 sq. ft. and sits on 70 acres. It allows the company to stick to what it does best — service the customer with the best product delivered in a timely fashion.
“Operationally, logistically and quality-wise, having all the facilities under one roof allows for efficiency and control,” Joe N. Ismert notes. And having the manufacturing process in the heartland means that shipping domestically allows for its product to reach its destination in a minimal amount of time.
Word of Mouth
To recruit the best talent to fit into its culture, Sioux Chief reaches out to the local community via job fairs and job boards. However, the talent pool is filled mostly with people who heard about the company via word of mouth from family and friends. The day of our interview, Joe N. Ismert had stopped at a local establishment for a cup of coffee, wearing a company polo shirt. An individual approached him and asked, “How do I get a job there? I have a friend who works there. “
With the talent comes longevity. Many employees have more than 20 or 30 years invested with the company.
When Frank Julian was hired back in ’78, his background as a mechanic came in handy. On his first day, he fixed a bender that was driving the team crazy. “The bender didn’t have the right shape to it and was driving me crazy. Frank looked at it, made a few adjustments and said, ‘How does this look?” It was perfect! I told everyone — this guy’s a keeper,” Joe P. Ismert recalls. Julian has been with the company now for more than 40 years — inventing, improving and making products more efficient.
By always inventing, the company is reinventing itself all the time and the company is not limited by looking outside itself for creative development purposes. “Sioux Chief has a lot of opportunities for people to grow,” says Baer. “When an opportunity presents itself, we ask ’Who do we have to take that on?’ Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of creative people.”
The company always looks from within first for promoting — and it keeps the employees engaged and energized.
Listening to Feedback
Feedback from the customer is essential to Sioux Chief. The company regularly brings in groups of plumbers, contractors, engineers and inspectors to tour the facility and facilitate feedback.
“We ask them what products they use and why they like them. We then ask how we can make our products better,” Baer says. “The conversations that follow are always interesting. They share their thoughts, ideas and challenges, and we can help provide a solution for them. If we don’t have a product that they are describing, we will create one.”
Listening to that feedback is also part of what sets Sioux Chief apart from its competition. “We manufacture a lot of different products and it comes down to adding a feature or benefit that may not be required but is a benefit in installation,” Baer states. “We think and act like a plumber. Our ability to understand the little things that make the difference on installing it right the first time versus the third time is what separates Sioux Chief from the competition, and our customers appreciate that.”
At times an individual from the company will go to a jobsite to monitor the installation of a product. “For some of our supply systems or our connections, we want to be on site to train the installer beforehand,” he adds. “We want to make sure that they understand exactly what to look for, exactly how it works, how to adjust the tools, how to do all these things to have a good installation right off the bat.”
Being family owned and operated, with a family name behind the products and the order, there are people you can call and identify with — tying the family name to the product. Joe N. Ismert says it best: “We have built our reputation on quality and reliability. When a customer receives a box with the Sioux Chief logo, even before they open it, they know it contains the products and the quality they’ve come to expect from us.”