For months during the pandemic, automotive hobbyists had plenty of time to tinker in their garage – and it showed in sales for a Sioux Falls company that has grown from the ground up.
Dakota Digital started in founder Ross Ortman’s house in 1986. It’s now a 165-person operation that’s the leading manufacturer of aftermarket gauges for hot rods, muscle cars, street rods and trucks. It also has a full line of gauges for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
And it’s getting bigger in the coming year. The company is putting up a 40,000-square-foot expansion that will be connected to its current headquarters in northwest Sioux Falls, along with plans for a 60,000-square-foot building to the north that would be available for a tenant.
“When the pandemic hit, things went nuts,” Ortman said. “We’ve been struggling to keep up ever since.”
The new addition will connect to the existing building with an enclosed walkway for moving product back and forth. The multilevel building will house sales and tech support staff and offer additional warehouse space and electronics production area. It’s expected to be complete by the end of the year.
“We’re really squeezed into the length of what we’ve got now for open space, so we’re making our production lines longer with more automated equipment,” Ortman said. “Things will run a lot smoother.”
The expansion is the latest chapter of an impressive startup success story. As a high schooler, Ortman was into electronics and autos. In college, he did some technical writing, and after graduation he converted his work into articles for an industry magazine. Through that exposure, he began selling parts through mail order to other hobbyists.
This 1967 Chevelle, seen at a recent SEMA trade show in Las Vegas, includes an instrument cluster that Dakota Digital manufactures.
By the time Ortman decided to leave his job seven years later, “I had a few people working out of my house,” he said. “I’d have people show up to work, and then I’d go to my full-time job.”
Dakota Digital gradually grew into commercial buildings, and by the early 2000s, it was out of space.
“The Sioux Falls Development Foundation actually opened their Park VII early because I wanted to move to that part of town,” Ortman said. “They said if I’d commit to being the first tenant, they’d get the streets in.”
In 2003, he moved into a 20,000-square-foot building on 6 acres in the northwest Sioux Falls development park near 60th Street North and Marion Road. It doubled in size five years later.
“We were the only ones out here in the middle of a cornfield for years, and now it’s growing like mad,” Ortman said. “For us, it really helped because a lot of my employees were from Canistota and Montrose and Humboldt, and I lived by Renner, so being in that part of town was good geographically for commutes.”
While Park VII is sold out of land today, “it was a slower development park,” said Dean Dziedzic, vice president of economic development for the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.
“We were out there way in advance, and everything is starting to catch up, with housing and commercial business filtering in around it. The game-changer was when Walmart located there in 2011, and we knew early on with the exit off I-90 and Marion Road that it would be an appealing area to develop, but it just took patience and growing tenants like Dakota Digital.”
Ortman knew the area was where he’d want to expand, so he purchased additional land before Walmart built nearby and the subsequent interest in the area.
“Ross has been great to work with for years,” Dziedzic said. “He served on our real estate committee for six years and was an asset to that, and he has a great business. They’ve just been booming, and we’re excited for their success.”
Despite supply chain-related issues that have plagued many industries, for Dakota Digital “it hasn’t been too bad,” Ortman said. “We always over-forecasted, and consequently the whole microchip shortage affected us to a lesser degree, so we got really lucky with long-range planning and forecasting.”
The company designs and manufactures its products in-house, so “we’re very vertically integrated in that respect, from concept to engineering to the hardware and software development and the production side,” Ortman said. “We do all our machining in-house, our printing of overlays and the final electronics assembly and production.”
As he prepares for the expansion, Ortman is hoping to hire up to 20 additional production workers.
“We have a lot of orders on the books and need help fulfilling everything,” he said. “We have a really good referral program, so that’s worked well for us, and we try to maintain a really good, quality family work environment.”
Dakota Digital has worked closely with the Sioux Falls Development Foundation since moving into its first park decades ago, Ortman said.
“They’ve been fantastic to work with,” he said. “Just going through concepts and with Dean and getting his thoughts was helpful and especially with the whole retail side of it that’s gone on in Park VII. We want to make sure we do the right thing for the neighborhood – something that’s going to fit well and just give the best visual impression.”
The potential 60,000-square-foot additional building is being marketed by Bender Commercial Real Estate Services.
“If we get a tenant lined up for all or part of it, I’ll move on it sooner. Otherwise, I’ll wait until our expansion building is completed,” Ortman said. “Jans Corp. is doing all the dirt work for both buildings, so it’s ready to build whenever the timing is right. I think ultimately it will be a nice park-looking development with buildings that lay out really well together.”