Of Wind Tunnels, Laminates and Miss Elam: Sven Ellstrom

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Life holds some interesting ironies for Sven Ellstrom CEO and Founder of Ellstrom Manufacturing Inc.

“In 1960 I had $854 in my pocket and no bills” he says. Now even though he’s led the development of several of world-renowned companies Sven says “I have no money in my pocket and I have a lot of bills!”

Another irony is that Sven’s unpretentious offices and manufacturing buildings located in unassuming Ballard is where an amazing array of technologically advanced groundbreaking and highly precise products got their start.

But it all began with that $854. Sven and his wife Kersten arrived in California from Sweden in 1959. With few prospects the couple was on their way to Fairbanks where a new job awaited Sven. But when they got to Seattle they realized the $854 wasn’t going to get them very far so they stayed put and Sven worked odd jobs.

With the help of that $854 Sven was able to craft a homemade press built from scrap iron and a modified table saw. Today Ellstrom Manufacturing serves as a worldwide supplier of panel components for the marine aircraft fixture furniture and specialty products industries.

That in and of itself is quite an achievement but Ellstrom Manufacturing and its family of companies has had many diverse accomplishments throughout the years. A few examples:

  • The iconic Boeing 747 got a major boost from Ellstrom Manufacturing. In 1967 Ellstrom was commissioned by the Boeing Company to create the largest wind tunnel blades in history – measuring 36 feet in diameter – used in important testing necessary to build the plane. Boeing engineers estimated the life span of these huge blades would be from three to four years. Decades later they were still in use. Ever since the company has specialized in making composite paneling for numerous applications including interiors and exteriors of buildings and airplanes. “A friend got me my first job at Boeing which was to grind and regrout bathrooms” Sven recalls. “My second job with Boeing was to build the wind tunnel.”
  • The first laminate flooring manufactured in the U.S. was made by a subsidiary of Ellstrom Manufacturing STEL Flooring Inc. “I went to visit my sister in Sweden who owns a hotel” says Sven. “I noticed that she had this new type of flooring so I took a sample home with me.” In 1996 Sven opened a 50000-square foot plant and added another 50000 square feet in a matter of months in Algona WA and sold flooring under the Formica brand. A few years later Formica Corporation purchased STEL.
  • “Virtually all Class A racing boats in the world use a prop we developed with our own proprietary software” says Sven speaking of another subsidiary Five-Axis Industries which specializes in high-tolerance parts with complicated geometries machined from hard ferrous materials such as titanium and inconel. The company makes a wide variety of components for the marine and aerospace industries.

Then there’s that boat…

Of all the world-class products created by Ellstrom perhaps the one that is most well-known by the general public is the Miss Elam Plus U-16. Miss Elam Plus (named for “Ellstrom Laminates”) is the Michael Jordon of the hydroplane racing circuit. The Ellstrom family entered the sport of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing in 1994 as sponsors of an experimental four-point Unlimited. In 1995 they built their own conventional turbine-powered Unlimited and scored the first of 20 victories in the 2000 season at the Tri-Cities. After that the Ellstrom team won among others the 2005 and 2007 National High Point championships the 2007 and 2009 Gold Cups and the 2010 World Championship in Qatar.

The main impetus for the Ellstrom family’s foray into racing was Sven’s children – Tom Erick and Lisa – and their lifelong passion for water and boating. After their first sponsored boat did not perform well the Ellstrom family built their own. While doing so Erick and Tom discovered they couldn’t find parts made with the level of precision they were looking for. Thus Five-Axis Industries was born.

Last year Ellstrom and His Excellency Sheikh Hassan Bin Jabor Al-Thani announced that the Qatar Marine Sports Federation would sponsor the boat which can now often be seen racing as “The Spirit of Qatar U-96.”

With all of these diverse accomplishments Sven is most proud of his family: Wife Kersten and children Tom Erick and Lisa. All of his children have been actively involved in the businesses. In fact the name of Ellstrom’s flooring company STEL is an acronym for Sven Tom Erick and Lisa. Tom and Erick remain very involved in the family businesses and after serving as engineering administrator Lisa left to raise her family.

Ellstrom Manufacturing reached another milestone in 2010: It became one of the rare 50-year members of the AGC of Washington. Sven credits Larry Johnson of Prime Construction for getting him into the AGC in 1960.

This brings us to another irony in Sven’s life: He says that business and family obligations kept him from being as active in the association as he’d like. Nevertheless his fingerprints are all over the AGC – literally – as Ellstrom Manufacturing made all of the insulated wall panels for the AGC Building in Seattle.

Congratulations to Sven and Ellstrom Manufacturing for five decades of membership in AGC!