Machinery Chatter
Jim Patrico Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

Wednesday 02/26/14

Passing Down the Family Business

An invitation in my inbox to a media event usually means that a manufacturer has some new product to unveil or that it is opening a new factory. Vermeer's invitation to an event at the National Farm Machinery Show had an entirely different agenda. The company wanted to re-introduce itself to reporters and editors and to describe how, as a family business, it was planning to move into the future.

Mary Andringa and her son Jason represent the second and third generations of the Vermeer family to pilot the company that bears the Vermeer name. (Photo Courtesy of Vermeer

The event reminded me how much some short-line manufacturers have in common with family farms. Many were founded by farmers; they have a strong work ethic; and succession planning is a big deal because they often are family operations.

The program itself was elegantly simple. President and CEO Mary Andringa and her son, Jason Andringa, sat on stools in front of the audience and talked family history and company vision. They also talked about passing down the family business.

First, you know who Vermeer is. It produces hay and forage equipment for the farm sector as well as all kinds of machines -- horizontal drills, surface mining tools, trenchers, etc. -- for industrial applications. It got started in 1948 when farmer Gary Vermeer decided to put his inventive and mechanical mind to a different commercial purpose and founded the Vermeer company in Pella, Iowa. The company's ag big breakthrough came in 1971 with the invention of the round baler.

The story goes that Vermeer was walking with a neighbor who was considering getting out of the cattle business because he had tired of putting up all those square bales of hay, which he then had to get out of the field in a hurry before a rain. It clicked in Vermeer's brain that a round shape would shed rain better than a square, and the rest is history.

Stories were the fodder of the evening at NFMS. Mary Andringa told how her father Gary treated her much like he treated her two brothers. (Brother Bob is Vermeer chairman of the board.) He gave her her first shares of stock in the company when she was 11 years old.

"My dad was a farmer at heart," she told her audience, "but started a business that grew bigger than the farm."

Today Vermeer is a global enterprise with locations and partners in Europe, the Middle East and Africa; it has plans for Brazil and China. About 75% of its business is on the industrial side, but agriculture remains at its core, Andringa said.

Vermeer also has maintained its core as a family business. Mary's son Jason last fall became president of the company's new Forage and Environmental Solutions segment. Lest you think he fell into the job, know that he has a master's degree in science from MIT and an MBA from USC.

A lot of farm families wisely ask the next generation to work off the farm for a while, learn how others run businesses, see the world a bit. By design or by accident, the Vermeer kids left the operation for a while and then came back. Mary was a teacher for about six years before she returned to the farm. Generation number three -- Jason-- worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Maybe I'm stretching the analogy a little. But as I think of Vermeer's family heritage, I also call to mind numerous other short-line companies that serve agriculture by passing the business baton from one generation to the next, just as farmers do. First one that comes to mind is Kinze Manufacturing, just down I-80 from Pella in Williamsburg, Iowa. Farmer/founder Jon Kinzenbaw started the company in 1965. He's still there, but not long ago he passed much of the control of the company to his daughter, Susanne Veatch, who is now vice president and who worked for Caterpillar for years.

Again, maybe I am stretching the analogy a little. But when Mary Andringa talked to that group of journalists a couple of weeks ago, she said the company was trying to convey "a message from the heart." Sounds like what a farmer would say about her business.

Posted at 12:13PM CST 02/26/14 by Jim Patrico
Comments (1)
I suppose my heart brought me back to this game as well!
Posted by Roger Cooper at 8:50AM CDT 03/14/14
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