Growing up in rural Price County, Leo Heikkinen was always working with his hands and thinking of ways to make things better. It was that innovative thinking that helped change the logging industry throughout the world with equipment that continues to make an impact more than 70 years after its inception.
Dale Heikkinen, Leo’s son, said his dad grew up on a farm near Tripoli, where he learned at an early age how to fix things. In those days, when equipment broke down, farmers were usually the ones who were trying to get it going. It was those early experiences that got Leo interested in manufacturing.
During World War II, Leo moved to Milwaukee to work in a machining shop. His skills continued to develop and in 1945, his brothers urged him to bring his experience back to Prentice. At the time, his brothers owned Heikkinen Brothers Construction and Logging and having someone that could work with their equipment and fix it as needed was important. Leo returned to Prentice and started Heikkinen Machine Shop. It didn’t take long for Leo to observe ways that the logging industry could become more efficient.
“In those days, people would hand unload log by log from the trucks onto a railroad cart,” Dale said. Leo began working on a mechanical jammer that would be able to unload the logs more easily and efficiently.
“Once he started perfecting a mechanical jammer, people started coming to him,” Dale said. Leo worked to perfect the jammer, eventually putting a hydraulic grapple hook that simulated the movement of a hand.
“He was able to grab a bundle of wood off a truck and swing it on a gondola cart. It didn’t take him long to figure out that this was a lot easier. Pretty soon he sold one and then a competitor saw that this other guy was moving more wood and pretty soon they bought one and then it spread. Before long it was across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and just kept growing from there,” Dale said.
The mechanical jammer and hydraulic grapple hook would eventually become the Prentice Loader and become standard in much of the logging industry.
Over the next 20 years, Leo Heikkinen’s business would continue to grow and develop, creating custom equipment for customers beyond the logging industry as well. His products were known for being well-built and found uses in construction and the food industry. They were even used on the ships responsible for pulling the returned space shuttles from the ocean. The loaders emulated a human arm, bending at an elbow and having a “wrist” and “hand” with a wide range of motion, making it conducive to a variety of tasks.
By 1967, Heikkinen’s company had annual sales of $9 million and around 340 employees. At this point, Heikkinen realized that in order for the company to continue to grow and remain a leader in hydraulic loaders, he would have to sell. Having built the business from the ground up, Heikkinen knew he wouldn’t sell to just anyone.
“He had people like John Deere looking to purchase the company but none of them would guarantee it was going to stay here,” Dale said. Leo eventually entered into an agreement with Omark Industries, which created Prentice Research and Development Corp. Leo continued to work for the company for five years after he sold it.
“He never really liked working for anybody else. He always kind of liked being his own boss and doing things his own way so after five years, he left,” Dale said. It was around this time that the firewood industry was starting to take off and Leo saw an opportunity to make a difference in how firewood processing was done.
“There was no processing machine for taking tree-length logs and cutting them into firewood lengths. He ended up designing and patenting a machine that took tree-length logs and cut them into blocks and then split them two, four, six and eight ways,” Dale said.
Multitek became a family business, with Dale and his brothers getting involved and continuing with it after their father’s retirement.
“We actually designed and patented a 16-way splitter. A lot of companies, like Red Lobster, use a lot of two-by-two split wood with their firewood kilns,” Dale said. The business continued to grow and build a reputation across the world, just like Leo Heikkinen’s previous business.
“My dad always built stuff heavy-duty so it would last. He didn’t want people to have to worry about problems and things like that,” Dale said.
In addition to the employment opportunities Leo’s innovations brought to Prentice, he was always trying to find ways to help the community, building a pond in the village and donating lights to the high school football field.
“He built the first airport grass runway because he wanted to fly,” Dale said. “People started using it for a driving range and pretty soon he said that he would like to learn how to golf too so he ended up building a nine-hole golf course. Right in the middle, there was a runway so the golfers would have to get out off the runway when an airplane would land and then they could go back to golfing.”
That arrangement didn’t sit well with the FAA, which eventually came in and built a separate all-weather runway in the village.
Leo Heikkinen also maintained his residency in Wisconsin after selling to Omark industries so his tax dollars would return to the village. Dale said his dad told the village that he would only stay under one condition: The tax money be used to blacktop and curb and gutter all the village streets. He maintained his residency and the city was able to make the improvements to their streets.
“He was very community-oriented. There was a young kid that got lost during hunting season one year. He told his employees that anyone who wanted to go out and look for the hunter, he would pay them to go and look for the kid. They took off and he paid them and they did find the kid OK,” Dale said.
Dale said his dad was always thinking, and even in his retirement during his winters in Florida would constantly be dreaming of how to make something better.
“People say I’m gifted,” Leo Heikkinen said in an interview many years ago. “I don’t know if that is true, I’m just always working to make something better. With an inventive mind, you’re never satisfied until you see your idea becoming a reality.”
“My dad probably forgot more than I have ever known. He was a very genius type,” Dale said.
Their father’s work ethic, values and innovative mind all seem to have found a place in each of his sons, evident in the business they worked together in for many years. Dale continues to give back to the community just as his dad did for many years. He is a part of the fire department as well as the president of the Industrial Development Council and vice president of the Price County Economic Development Association. He is also the Price County representative on the Visions Northwest board.
Leo’s legacy continues to live on with both Prentice Loaders and Multitek Firewood Processing Systems still being built in Prentice today. In 2015, he was honored posthumously with the Price County Economic Development Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the community.