ST. CLOUD -- Spend an hour wandering around Central McGowan and you quickly learn - the relatively under-the-radar St. Cloud business is a highly diversified industrial powerhouse.

Central McGowan began as a gas and welding company in 1965. Today, the company, headquartered in St. Cloud, provides equipment and supplies for over 20 industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, food and beverage services and construction.

Abby Faulkner

Earlier this year, Central McGowan grabbed the spotlight by winning a for-profit Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation Innovation Award for "combining robotics with fixed automation to create systems that meet the unique needs of each manufacturing customer."

Or, put simply, they won for building robots.

"We buy a robotic arm, and then we design a system around that arm," explains Central McGowan CEO Joe Francis.

Francis says Central McGowan isn't new to the world of automation: they began buying, fixing and installing robots in 1988. The company began designing and building them in 2015, moving the bulk of daily operations from Little Falls to a new St. Cloud Automation Center.

Abby Faulkner


Today, Central McGowan's designs can be found in manufacturing centers around the Midwest, Texas and the east and west coasts. But, has this success arrived to the detriment of human workers? No, Francis says - because each piece of equipment needs a operator.

"There's that age-old comment you hear any time you talk about robots in the workforce. "(Robots are) taking jobs." The reality of it is, all that robots are really doing is taking unsafe or inefficient areas of manufacturing and creating new jobs. When we sell a robotic piece of equipment, we typically train an operator. A lot of the time, that operator is actually the person who was doing that repetitive task."

Francis says automation technicians aren't just new graduates.

"We train any age operator to use these robots - it could be someone who's ready to retire, or someone who's brand new to the workforce."

Central McGowan is expanding in areas outside of automation. In October, they announced the acquisition of St. Paul-based Jasons Beverage Carbonation Company, which sells carbon dioxide, nitrogen, beer gas, and dry ice to restaurants and bars around the Midwest.

Abby Faulkner

Francis expects to be making more announcements like this in the near future.

"I don't like to share too much," Francis says. "But, we've got a lot of big goals."