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Ralco finds a comfortable home in Balaton

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:04 AM

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BALATON, Minn. — Where he once learned to conjugate verbs and diagram sentences, Brian Knochenmus once again sits behind a desk. Only this time, he is applying what he learned as a Balaton High School student to serve as vice president of Ralco Nutrition, Inc.

The family owned company begun by his grandparents, Robert and Lou Galbraith, in 1971 initially focused on enhancing the performance of livestock. The firm has since expanded and Ralco has developed a product Generate, which is available through its brand Agnition that increases plant health and performance.

The Marshall-based plant has gone from 25 to 130 employees since 2004. Existing facilities quickly outgrew their initial facility. When Brian Knochenmus received a phone call from the Tracy school district about purchasing the former school building in Balaton, Knochenmus didn't say no. With the new AGNITION enterprise, it was time to consider additional locations.

He went to school there until he was a sophomore when consolidation moved him to Tracy. His father, Jon Knochenmus, graduated from Balaton High School.

The Tracy School District was still using the building for some classes and the gym for after-school activities. However, the building was going down hill fast. Knochenmus could see opportunity, but he could also see potential pitfalls.

If measures hadn't been taken immediately, the building would have been beyond repair, said Rob Falconer, Project Manager for Ralco.

Falconer had successfully helped to convert an elementary school building in Marshall into Grace Life Church, so he had an idea what the project would require.

"This building smelled really bad," said Falconer. "Multiple roofs were leaking. The heating system was not functioning."

Within weeks after Ralco acquired the property, repairs on the roof were made. It was important to begin immediately because moisture was ruining the gym floor and other water damage was occurring.

The boiler heating system wasn't functioning. Falconer was somewhat acquainted with that type of heat as the school renovation in Marshall had a similar set up. This one had major problems and a repairman from New Ulm managed to get one of the boilers to work. The heating system has since been replaced with an efficient propane furnace.

"If Ralco had not purchased the building, and straightway began making changes, the building would have condemned," said Falconer. "Without a heat system, the pipes would have frozen and burst that winter."

That would have been a shame because it's a very solid building that will outlive me, he said.

The work began with one room. After it was completed, momentum built. The library remains a resource room, no longer filled with books, but tables for Ralco to hold meetings for their staff and sales representatives.

The former home economics room required a special team to remove the flooring because of asbestos. It's now the break room. Glass doors to the outside provide a relaxing view of the school yard and its trees. Picnic tables invite outdoor dining.

The former chemistry lab is back in use again. Constant research helps AGNITION develop products for crops. Generate, a microbial and nutrient catalyst, promotes plant health and performance. A greenhouse on the property facilitates more research.

Former classrooms is now office space. Once inside the doors there is little evidence that this structure was once was a school. Walls removed, hallways curved, carpeting and boldly painted interior walls have created a business atmosphere.

"It was a pleasure to be a part of the process that brought all of this to fruition," said Knochenmus. "The City of Balaton was very supportive and the Tracy School District was fantastic. Three totally different entities worked in partnership."