Interview: Sean Fernstrum, President, R.W. Fernstrum & Company

Sean Fernstrum

Published Jul 4, 2024 3:52 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in May/June 2024 edition.)


Fernstrum, the leading name in marine cooling technology, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. President Sean Fernstrum explains the secrets of the company's success. 

Let’s start with the company’s founding – it’s such a great story. It was during World War II – correct?

Yes. My grandfather, Robert Fernstrum, was working at Gray Marine as head engineer at the time. He was tasked with designing a keel cooler that would be efficient and durable enough to use on U.S. Navy landing craft. The intention was to equip the landing craft for the Normandy invasion, but the design, fabrication and testing took too long. The units were first used in combat for the Inchon invasion during the Korean conflict. The company was officially founded in 1949 and incorporated in 1959.

And this is its 75th year - congratulations! Do you have any special celebrations planned?

We’re in the process of getting our plans together for a celebration. I hope to have both a party and a year-long recognition of the hard work and good fortune we’ve had with our employees over the years.

What are your main products?

We’ve been engineering, manufacturing and selling our GRIDCOOLER® keel coolers from the beginning. We also manufacture and sell Weka Boxcoolers® for the North and South American markets, and we sell Omega Laser Plate™ pillow plate heat exchangers as well.

How many offices and employees are there?

We have our main office in Menominee, Michigan with just under 40 employees. We also have about 20 independent representative groups worldwide.

Where exactly is Menominee, Michigan?

Menominee is located at the southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

How is business? Will 2024 be a good year for Fernstrum?

Business is looking good. We had solid growth last year and are planning on more of the same in 2024.

Are you the sole owner of the company?

I share ownership with my father and brother.

What markets do you serve?

You can find our products wherever you have a body of water. Nearly any river, lake or ocean can meet our needs. As for the equipment we can service, if you need something cooled down or heated up, we probably have a solution for you. And if you have something unique, well, that’s the kind of work we really enjoy.

Our heat exchangers can be found on AAUVs, ROVs, buoys, oceangoing vessels, coastal vessels and inland boats running in as little as 6” of water. We work on pumping stations, hydroelectric installations, wind farms and tidal power generation systems. We heat petroleum and other bulk cargo barges and cool live wells in commercial fishing boats. We can be found on vessels transporting solid rocket boosters as well as the tugs that recover them after reentry.

Imagination is our only limiting factor.

Wow, impressive! Where’s the biggest growth coming from?

Tugs, dredges and offshore power service vessels have been big for us lately.

What makes Fernstrum different? What’s the “secret sauce” that has made it so successful?

Our family name is on every keel cooler we sell – that means something to us. We strive to be the best –  the best employer in our area, the best quality products and the best customer service available.

How many patents does the company hold? How do you keep innovating at such a successful rate?

We’ve developed a long list of patents over the years. Many of the innovations have come directly from the needs of our customers.

In the 1970s, the advent of new steel alloys introduced additional stresses on our keel coolers. To meet this new operating environment, we started ultrasonically testing the joints on our coolers and increased the silver content of those brazed joints.

In the 2000s, our customers were looking for an easier way to attach our keel coolers. This led to the development of our Z-Option flanged units.

More recently, we’ve seen the progression of heat exchanger requirements as EPA and ISO regulations on engines have changed. As a result, we’ve developed a new tube to reduce the size and cost of heat exchangers compared to existing offerings.

These are just a few of our innovations – there have been many more over the years. Our knowledge of the materials we use and the environments they’re used in gives us a unique ability to match our units’ capabilities with our customers’ needs.

What’s your vision for Fernstrum? Where would you like to see it in, say, five or ten years?

I want to see us expand into new markets and applications, and continuing to work with quality companies is a big part of that. We need to prepare the next generation for leadership in the organization. I want them to take on additional responsibilities that will lead to a smooth transition over time. We may individually own our company’s stock, but it’s the family’s business.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Managing change – it’s a constant, but necessary development. If you don’t pay attention to the details, you usually create a monster that will surprise you at the worst possible time.

How would you describe yourself and your management style?

I hope I’m an approachable and thoughtful individual. I like to surround myself both with people who are experienced as well as those who are learning so that the newer people can become the experienced staff over time. I prefer managing by committee, but once all the information and options have been presented, my final decision is made.

What’s a typical day like?

I’ll let you know if I ever have one. One of the things I like most is the variety from day to day. I generally have my list of things to tackle before I reach the front door, and that list invariably expands significantly – whether it’s decisions on the new company shirts, employee interviews, reviewing new literature and ads, prepping for tradeshows, communicating with representatives and customers and reviewing company policies. All of that and much more find their way to my office.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

If I’m not spending time with my kids and grandkids, I’m talking my wife into our next trip.

Thank you very much for your time. Is there one final message you’d like to leave for our readers?

In a modern world, run on the Internet and transactional relationships, you will never regret taking the time to create real relationships with real human beings. – MarEx

Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.