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Dick Ellis Blog:
5/8/2019
Now it starts.  Too much to keep up with in Wisconsin, and that is one nice problem for an outdoorsman. OWO Columnist Wayne Morgenthaler and his son Neal spelled double trouble for two Richland County gobblers after four days of not filling tags. We put the May-June issue of On Wisconsin Outdoors to bed last week with 100,000 copies being distributed statewide. Look for your copy at any Kwik Trip statewide…that’s 400 stores ...
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St Germain’s Pier of d’ Nort

World’s Greatest Pier award-winner answers consumer needs

Dick Ellis

Like anyone who owns or maintains a pier, Carl Surges faced problems when putting in and taking out his parents’ pier in St. Germain twice each year. Damaged framing and deteriorating decking, rusted hardware from outdoor storage, and the time-consuming transportation of pier sections and pier parts, and next day sore body parts, were all too familiar companions twice each year. In Wisconsin, ice often magnifies the aggravations or flat out wreaks havoc on permanent structures. 

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. When professional skills and personal passion include product design and development, perhaps Mother calls a bit louder and with a bit more urgency. From the roots of his own calling as a sculptor and designer, Surges’ very nature inspires him to improve on the already-established, or to design and create what may never have been thought of before.

On Wisconsin Outdoors On Wisconsin Outdoors

Inventor/owner Carl Surges demonstrates the one-man ease of putting in a Pier of d” Nort pier. At right, Surges is shown at work in his St. Germain plant.

Raised in northern Wisconsin, Surges was sculpting his entire life and turned professional in 1976. Partnering with a friend, his career took off in California from 1979 through 1989, including a focus on sculptural work for numerous movie projects, gift and toy companies, and for a number of  California-based amusement parks, including Knott’s Berry Farm Six Flags and Universal Studio Tours.

Back in Wisconsin, by 2000 Surges said his idea of developing a better pier design was already in its infancy.  In the summer of 2002 he took a break from sculpting and started experimenting with the flexibility of brass tubing and coupling mechanisms to determine how each could be used in pier design. His design in part needed to have uncompromising strength, require no bolts or other hardware to fasten, guarantee one-person installation and removal, and offer easy storage virtually immune to the elements.

“After putting in and taking out my parent’s pier for years and watching people with their own piers, I thought there had to be a way to carry the sections upside down from a position in the middle of the frame like a nicely balanced pair of water buckets,” he said.  “The legs would be folded next to the frame when carrying.  It’s all just logical.”

Each section, in his inventor’s vision, would be tilted down by the installer with swiveling hooks meeting and coupling with the previous section already in the water, then simply flipped over to take its place in line. He also wanted to develop a way to drag each section from the water that would ultimately prove even easier than installation and to make “T’ or “L” extensions to the pier as easy as the rest for the purchaser.

“I had questions during the design process,” he said. “Had these things been tried? Could I ask the opinion of anyone? I was investing time not knowing if any of these ideas could be or already were patented. I remember asking a pier expert about dragging out each section on tilted pier pads that would work like skis rather than pulling the sections up. He said it wouldn’t work. The expert was simply wrong. Taking the pier out for one person is even easier than putting it in.”

The fundamental design was completed and incorporated in a miniature working model by the summer of 2002. Surges used the model to try to find investors among friends. About that time, he presented the model to an intellectual property firm specializing in patents, Kinney & Lang in Minnesota, which embarked on an exhaustive patent search. 

While awaiting for the report that would tell Surges whether his design was already patented or not, he wrote a business plan, learned a computer drafting program to refine his designs, and began to introduce the product to the public. He introduced the pier at the Milwaukee Boat Show in a 10 by 10-foot booth, the smallest booth he could rent.

“The response was good,” he said. “One guy wanted to invest in the pier and ultimately did. The prototype was tack-welded and not meant to be walked on. The investor walked out on it and it collapsed.”

“The patent report came back free and clear,” said Surges. “Everything in our design is so logical. Why wasn’t it done before? There was some give and take with the patent office. They said we had to break our design down into five or six different patents. I was flattered but concerned because of the multiple costs. We argued that they should have brought that up earlier, and they ultimately issued one patent that gave us everything we wanted.

Pier of d’ Nort was officially born. Surges launched his company in a garage in Conover in the summer of 2003, and by the winter of 2004 his first design was completed as a working prototype. “The original design was what the patent was based on and worked fine, but we had to modify the design,” he said. “It has not significantly changed since then.”

The pier offers standard welded aluminum frame sections with dual-braced folding legs on one end and swiveling hooks on the other. There is no bolting or unbolting between seasons. Each frame is topped with two or three easy to manage separately installed deck panels of optional color and material. Simple one person installation and removal is guaranteed.

Height adjustment is also simple and reliable. If the consumer wants to raise the pier, he lifts the pier and steps down on the footpad designed by Surges. “The secret is a one-way cam,” he said.  “The leg can slip one way but not the other. We mount the cam so that it holds the pier up rather than the other way around. When you lower the pier, all it takes is a quarter turn of the wrench to loosen the cam mechanism. When you let go of the wrench, the pier stays.”

Surges also said that storing and caring for the pier is just as easy. Frames are stored upside down with folded legs without leg-caps removed and can be stacked as high as the owner likes.  Panels are stacked vertically allowing for minimal storage space in your shed or shore.

“We’ve weight-tested our pier,” Surges said. “The more weight you put on our pier the more secure it is.  Each 4 by 8-foot section will hold over 7,000 pounds. That’s about 40 people. If you do get that many people on one section of our pier, send us a photo. We’ll send it to the Guinness Book.”

In the fall of 2004, Pier of d’ Nort moved the company and started making piers in a small abandoned car garage in the middle of Slinger. Late in the fall the location already needed more space to meet the growing needs and the company moved to Hartford. With seven full-time employees, Pier of d Nort began building piers targeted for sale in 2005.

“We had a pretty good season,” Surges said. “In 2004 we sold 10 piers, and in 2005 we sold five times that many. By 2006 our investor wanted to get involved in other ventures and offered to sell back his shares of the company on a royalty basis. We moved the company back to St. Germain, and I bought him out with a deal based on future royalties.”

Pier of d’ Nort has enjoyed enviable and consistent growth since then, including maintaining that growth right through the current recession. The company has sold 3,500 to 4000 piers all over the USA, including Alaska, and in Canada and Europe. Several Pier of d’ Nort piers are on the Great Lakes, several on Lake Winnebago, and several have been sold for use in salt water locations. 

Currently, 21 employees work for Pier of d’ Nort. “This is the best crew, a sharp crew, and a fun place to work. Everyone understands how the pier works. Creative input from everyone is welcomed and encouraged. Had great support from my brother Neil who worked with me in the sculpting business, and from my brother Bruce, who was recently retired from a tool and die career. Bruce made tooling for many of the various elements that went into the pier.  Without my brothers’ expertise and generosity we might never have succeeded. Nowadays, we have a holistic crew that feels like family more than anything else. They all pull their weight.”

He said that one of his best decisions was to not sell through dealers, which would have increased cost by 25-30 percent. “If we can put that money into the pier instead of the dealer’s pocket, well it was a no-brainer,” he said. “It was a scary decision. Once you decide to sell direct, you can’t go back. Once you go through dealers, you can’t either. It was a really good decision.”

Persons interested in the product work directly with the knowledgeable and helpful pier experts.  Because the manufacturing floor is just steps away from the office, the entire team can work together to create a pier that is just right for the customer. When they purchase, Pier of d’ Nort arranges to ship the pier. Once the pier is received, most consumers find the instructions so informative that they don’t need to look at the additional supporting material that is available. Depending on conditions, a seven-section pier is likely to take less than two hours the first time and considerably less time with experience.

“We have piers owned by people with a wide range of capabilities who put their own piers in,” Surges said. “We don’t operate on a huge profit margin. What people pay for in the product mostly goes in to the product. There are lots of shoreline conditions, and other special things that need to be considered, including high water and soft bottom requiring larger footpads. Our sales people know what to ask in order to ensure customers receive the pier that works well for them.”

“Sometimes we say, ‘Don’t buy our pier’,” said Surges. “If the customer is in 20 feet of ocean water with no break water and a chance of scouring wave action, I tell them our pier is not for them.  That being said, on a protected ocean site our pier does offer advantages.  A hurricane doesn’t care if it is a permanent structure. At least our pier can be taken out quickly.”

“Nothing on our website is exaggerated or untrue,” Surges said. “People with piers are sophisticated; they live on lakes, they’re doing well, they’re smart. To put things on the website that are untrue would be counter-productive. We understate the quality of our piers. To have customers discover that it’s even better than they expected leads to more referrals than the other way around.”

Pier of d’ Nort was recently chosen as the World’s Greatest pier by How 2 Media’s television show “World’s Greatest”.  If you’re in the St. Germain area, stop by the Pier of d’ Nort showroom and manufacturing facility to see the piers in person.  Or connect with them at www.pierofdnort.com or 715-477-3232.