The following is the full interview between Farm Equipment editor Mike Lessiter and Tom and Tim Burenga of Worksaver. They detail the company’s origin story, their early memories and the differences between yesterday and today’s farmer.
Tom Burenga: There were 3 gentlemen in Litchfield, Ill., that formed the old Wikomi Company and one of those gentleman was J. O. Hinken, and he ended up with that company after a year and he ran it up until 1974, the end of 1974. And then he sold that company to Phil Sams. Phil Sams operated the company, he had a manager there that ran it and then Phil, I met Phil in 1978 and in the end of ’79 he asked me to come down and try and operate the company and help them straighten it out. I had run the manufacturing operations of Tractor Supply prior to that. So anyway, I came down and started in December of ’79. We had some very tough times, the ag economy was down considerably, and it stayed down through the early 80s. We had a lot of rebuilding to do. The old Wikomi Company of course was in very bad shape. The widow of Mr. Hinken had foreclosed on us on Wikomi and so we formed a new company called Worksaver Incorporated and that officially came about in April of 1980. Had a lot of challenging times. We had many, many things that were wrong, and the worst of it was the ag economy and I had by spending 10 years with Tractor Supply I had met a lot of people and a lot of them had left Tractor Supply and gone into the farm store business and so that was the one market opportunity that I saw and so we developed a lot of our new equipment and some of the old, we adapted it to the farm store market and that’s what helped us stay alive. So that’s how we at least got to a breakeven point anyway.
Mike Lessiter: Tim, go over the scope of the products that you have.
Tim Burenga: We have a vast array of different products that we have for the market. Basically any type of attachment for a 3-point front loader or skid steer is mainly what we build. And we have a lot of different product lines. We have Land Management products where we have debris removal, material handling products such as pallet forks, grapple rakes, rotary brooms. We have snow removal products, blades and pushers. We have fencing products, post drivers, posthole diggers. And another product line we just got into a few years ago was adapter brackets where we take tractor manufacturers older connection styles and convert them over to either skid steer or euro global attach. So anyway, with all that said, we have over 500 whole goods that we offer to the market.
Mike Lessiter: And a mix of both your own label product as well as making product for other manufacturers?
Tim Burenga: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Who are some of the OEMs that you supply?
Tom Burenga: Well in 2003 we were asked to build some products for John Deere’s Frontier division and we accepted that and we started building I think 7 or 8 different products at that time, and then that’s now expanded.
Tim Burenga: We’re at 38.
Tom Burenga: And so that’s the biggest part of our company, but we’re also looking for other contract work to do and we build stuff for Buhler up in Canada and we do a little bit for Woods and Alamo, and for Bush Hog, CE attachments — which is a division of Gehl.
Mike Lessiter: And the Worksaver product line goes through a 2-step distribution?
Tom Burenga: Everywhere except Illinois. Yes, in Illinois we are direct to the dealer, but everywhere else in North America we do go through wholesale distribution. And primarily the way our business is as of right now, it’s 50% Worksaver, 50% contract manufacturing.
Mike Lessiter: I’ve had the pleasure of getting to your place, but for our listeners here, describe the type of machines and type of manufacturing that you do down there in Litchfield.
Tom Burenga: Well, years ago we were building mainly product line for the farm stores. And the competition we had were down south and they paid a lower wage and so they could produce their equipment more economically or for less cost than ours. And I knew at that time we had to do something to change it. So we started back in say 1990 to try and modernize and add computer-operated equipment and become more productive. And I’ve told the men that work for us, we didn’t necessarily need to work harder, we had to work smarter. We had to produce more product per hour per day to compete against the southern competition that we had at that time. And that we have kept that philosophy and so now today we have 5 welding robots, we have a laser operated cutting machine, we have plasma cutting machines, got CNC operated lathes and machining centers, we have a CNC operated press brake. We still have some of the old equipment, big old presses and stuff like that, but we definitely tried to modernize and also become more sophisticated in our manufacturing with our fixturing and tooling and stuff.
Tim Burenga: Yeah, that’s one thing that’s made us successful, Mike, is that we’ve never sat still and just said, “hey this is good, we’ll just ride the wave.” We’re always developing our processes, investing in new technology, changing past practices to the most efficient way. And that’s what you got to do today to be in business. You always have to change and don’t be afraid of it.
Mike Lessiter: And you had a project here in the last year or so that you were pretty proud of.
Tim Burenga: The opportunity came around for us to install a solar field to help provide some of our energy requirements. And a long story short, when we were all done we got 340 kw solar field, and that provides about 45% of our power. And with the programs that are out there today, it made sense for us to do the project and probably the biggest benefit that we’ve received from it is we’re not in an industrial area so we suffered a lot on low voltage and brown outs, which would fry motors and computer boards and things of that nature. By having the solar field there, it actually has a capacitor and we’re not seeing those low voltages anymore. We’re still susceptible to spikes, but the brown outs we don’t see anymore. So it’s been a good project.
Tom Burenga: Yeah, it’s been very, very good for us.
Mike Lessiter: What’s the size square footage of your operation?
Tim Burenga: Well we just did an expansion this year and we’re now at 152,000.
Mike Lessiter: Tom, you come from very much a manufacturing background. Is that fair to say?
Tom Burenga: Yeah, I’ve always been connected with it. I was an engineer for FMC Corporation at one time and then from there I went with Tractor Supply and they had a couple of different manufacturing facilities, one in California that made cotton picker parts and another one, a larger one up in Richland Center, Wisc., and they made engine parts, and then we expanded that and they made air compressors and pumps and manifolds. And then eventually we got into some shortline farm equipment.
Mike Lessiter: You were working out of the Richland Center at one time.
Tom Burenga: Yeah, I started in Chicago and spent about 4 ½ years in the Chicago office, but then we expanded the factory up in Richland Center, I was spending more time up there so I relocated up there and then just made trips to Chicago to coordinate the activities that we were doing with what the Tractor Supply wanted to do.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about the job that you were hired to do down there what eventually became Worksaver, what that climate was like and what you were tasked with at the time.
Tom Burenga: The company had been sadly mismanaged. The people that Phil Sams had thought could manage it were not doing a good job. And when I walked in the door we had machinery that was bad, the buildings were bad, they leaked like a sieve, sadly we had quite a few employees that were not good, drug addicts and alcoholics were part of the problem, and obviously the quality of the equipment had gone down. So one of the immediate challenges was to straighten all that out. There were no safety rules and no work rules. The accident rate was so bad the only insurance they could buy was through the state of Illinois, which was very, very expensive. So I didn’t do anything fancy, just put in common sense work rules and safety rules and called a meeting and told everybody, :okay everybody’s got a clean slate, but from now on here’s what we go by.” Interestingly we lowered the accident rate 96% that first year, just common sense stuff. And that helped a lot. Then had to get rid of some of the bad employees and that was a tough job but it had to be done, and that cleaned it up. Then we also worked redesign on some of the equipment. One of the deals there was basically no drawings at that time. They made sample parts and hung them on a nail in the factory and sometimes there would be slight differences between the parts, so some of the nails had 4 to 5 parts, all the same part but with slight differences. And there was a very fine gentleman that ran the metal fabrication department and he knew which one of those was the master. Well, I was there 3 months and the poor guy got sick and died. So we had – I had an immediate challenge going through all those parts and then making drawings and finding out which one was the right one.
Mike Lessiter: So how long were you there before things took another turn and you ended up leaving the company?
Tom Burenga: I was optimistic that I could turn it around in a year or two, and with the farm economy being down and all the other unknown problems there that I ran into, it took over 4 or 5 years before we got into a breakeven point. So that was a very tough period. But then we started doing other things and we started being able to buy used equipment that was in better shape than what we had and become a little bit more productive. And we built the farm store business up to it was over 50% of our business for quite some time. Everything we stayed on that course and did modernize and become better at it, but then in the early 2000s, about 2008, 9, we saw that the farm store industry was not an industry we wanted to remain in. Other people had gotten into it and the profit margins had always been slim, they became even less so and sometimes non-existent. So we knew Mike Kloster had joined me at that time as a sales manager and we basically we worked our way out of the farm store business and started doing more contract work and concentrating more on products that our distributors could sell. And that took several years to do, but it was like walking away when you walk away from over 50% of your business, today it’s about 5%, we still do a little bit.
Mike Lessiter: It takes some courage to do that.
Tom Burenga: It was challenging. And then Mike, Mike has always been very good in sales and marketing. We started doing more contract work. I mentioned John Deere, we started building product for them in 2004 and that was good, too, because they’re demanding and we had to change a few of our processes, especially our painting and quality control to meet their standards. And then we used those same things to our other products and we improved theirs also. Then as we improved of course we were also looking for other contract work, which I mentioned earlier, we’ve done some of that. So we finally have expanded and also kept all the modernization and this is where we got to with the other CNC equipment. We’ve added onto the buildings and tried to make improvements all around, and I think that’s what’s helped us out enormously. We’ve got some good people now. Mike Kloster is now our president. He’s been our president of the company for 11 years.
And then Tim joined us and when Tim got out of college he took over the shipping department and was able to make a big contribution there. And then the plant manager I had at that time told me he was going to retire. So we had Tim work with him and take over the plant manager job and Tim did a good job there and also was able to make improvements and help us out considerably from that standpoint. And then as we moved on, I knew that Tim eventually would like to take over the company but we – Mike and Tim and I bought the company from Phil Sams in basically January of 2016. And we’ve got a good working relationship. We work together on it and work on a lot of the problems and of course we identify the problems and then figure out a plan on how to solve it, or try to go a new direction. And it’s worked out quite well. And we’ll keep trying to move forward.
Mike Lessiter: So today the company is owned by the 3 of you. Did you have ownership starting in the 1980s?
Tom Burenga: The arrangement I had with Phil Sams, part of the reward for saving the company and turning it around was I got 25% of the company, and that took some time. Of course in the beginning years it was 25% of a net worth, but it did eventually work out.
Mike Lessiter: What do you remember when you were telling Paulette, your wife, about this move you were going to make down to Illinois, what was that like?
Tom Burenga: Of course I already mentioned that in ’79 and 1980 the farm economy was in bad shape anyway, and Tractor Supply had sold the factory up in Wisconsin to another gentleman and I tried to stay on with him and that did not work out. And of course then Tim, Tim had just been born, and so when we moved to Litchfield, Ill., Tim was only 5 months old. So having 3 children and a wife and then walking into a business that had all kinds of problems, it was a real big challenge. And I tell you, my wife was a very strong supporter and helped me through those trying times, very much so. But at the same time I put a lot of time in at the factory, so she had the bigger responsibility of raising the children.
Mike Lessiter: What’s your earliest memory of Worksaver?
Tim Burenga: The factory also dubbed as a babysitter sometimes, so I’d always get in trouble and get dirty running around the place and usually Dad would scold me a little bit on that. But I don’t know, probably about 6 or 7 we were old enough to do some manual labor. We would just – had a little wheelbarrow and we’d walk up and down the street and pick trash out of the ditches. If a post needed painted around the facility we would do that. When I got older I’d do lawnmowing and janitorial work and things of that nature. But as I kept getting older and developing, Dad let me work with the team leaders and the shop supervisors and they were able to teach me the trades of machining and welding and running CNC equipment. So anyway it was a very good education and Dad was a strong believer in having us kids come from the bottom up. And the other thing he instilled in us was to make sure we never asked anybody to do a job that we haven’t done ourself, and that was a good thing to learn.
Tom Burenga: I also took my children to some of the farm shows and after they’d worked or been around a show or two, then we let them help, they could hand out literature. And then as they acquired some knowledge they could even talk to some of the people that came up to our booth. And I always think that that was a valuable part of their education. Sometimes when I wrote a notice to the schools that they were going to be out of school for 3 or 4 days, the school didn’t see it quite that way but I felt that they would learn more at the farm show than they would those 3 or 4 days in school. I think it gave all my children the ability to talk to strangers and try and answer their questions and help them out and look them in the eye when they’re talking to them. I think it was another valuable – and they also, I had some very good sales people and they worked with them and I would tell all 3 of my children, pay attention to this fella, you’re going to learn something if you just watch how he talks to people and his sales technique.
Tim Burenga: Yeah, I was eleven and sold my first piece of equipment at the Louisville Farm Show, so that was a pretty memorable moment for me.
Mike Lessiter: What was it?