For Steve Sukup, CFO and co-owner of Sukup Mfg., numerous bold moves have driven the company to expand to more than 600 employees, including: improving the grain bins that made the company’s name, building an impressive facility for employees (including a medical clinic) and maintaining customer relationships even as the company expands.
Below is the full conversation between Farm Equipment editor Mike Lessiter and Sukup.
Mike Lessiter: I feel like your name has been around my whole life 'cause my dad used to run the magazine Farm Building News —and it became Rural Builders.
Steve Sukup: Rural Builders. Yeah. We used to hang out in the old office building on, paneling walls with the nice plaques that Rural Builders always sent out. So yeah, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Right. But he, Roy Reiman, and who I'm sure you know from the state founded it. And then my dad worked for him and then ended up buying it. So, yeah, I was, you know, seeing the name.
Steve Sukup: Been involved in the business almost since day one. When I was in sixth grade, I could weld and run a torch. When dad came up with his first idea with a stirring machine, we were actually over in a little weld shop across town here about a mile away. Bu dad started the business in 1963 and then we moved over to this site in 1970. And actually, when I was a freshman in high school, I helped run some of the concrete for this facility.
Mike Lessiter: And you were sixth grade and you knew how to use a welding torch.
Steve Sukup: Welding torch. Yeah I did. It was the torch for a sixth grade project.
Mike Lessiter: Excellent. Who taught you?
Steve Sukup: Actually, it was one of our guys out in the shop and his grandson actually works for us now. We might look up, Bob out there, but his grandfather is the one that actually taught me how to run a torch. And then, one of our other dad's second employee was a welder and so they taught me the welding.
Mike Lessiter: What do they remember about your welding skills?
Steve Sukup: Well, I work summers here welding a product after that or when I was in college and such. So, I enjoyed first being around with the stick welders, the 7014s or whatever. And then, you know, we have the mig welders out there through my college days and now we've got the computer controlled ones. They just click everything on for frequencies and different metals, and so it's really, you know, just in welding to see how things have advanced.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. So it was '63 when your dad —
Steve Sukup: Yes. Dad came up with the idea with doing some stirring or his version of the stirring machine and started, brought it to a weld shop, made augers, wound the flighting onto shafts, and we'd climb in the car. And my brother and I Charles, we're the second generation, both involved in the business, and we'd go to the state... At that time, state fairs was the primary ag focus at that time, so we'd hit the Iowa State Fair and the Illinois State Fair and go out to Nebraska and Minneapolis, and so we do the road trips in the '60s.
Mike Lessiter: What did your dad Eugene see at the time that allowed this invention to actually flourish? There was a trend going on with shelled corn?
Steve Sukup: Well, it was one. We always have the corn cribs, and I grew up with corn cribs. And dad was deathly allergic to bee stings. And so there's always wasp nests in the corn cribs with, you know, ear corn 'cause I remember my grandpa, you know, picking the ear corn and then put them in the corn cribs.
And then when we'd sell it, you'd have to rake the corn, corn out of the corn cribs and there's always a wasp nest somewhere so then they're climbing away and then they came to the showers and the corn, but then with corn you have to dry it down. And the steel bins came out. That was with, you know, Butler days and Stormor days.
And actually, early '60s, dad bought a Stormor bin and you know, you put some heat in the bin but, sort of like a pot, bins on the stove, if you heat up the bottom, the top is still cold unless you stir it. And so that's what the stirring machine does was mix the grain up so it would dry evenly and quicker.
Mike Lessiter: So, at that—
Steve Sukup: There wasn't anything like it. There are two companies, ours and StirAtor and so dad took off and ran with the stirring machine.
Mike Lessiter: That early model, it needed a power cord?
Steve Sukup: Yeah. The very early ones, you just had an auger on a drill and obviously even back then everybody wanted to something a little bit more mechanical than just dragging that up to the top of the bin. And at that time, he thought of well why don't he put an auger through the handle of the drill and have it move back and forth. And so that was basically his idea on coming up with the first stirring machine.
Mike Lessiter: Your parents were farmers. Did he dream of getting into this life that that followed or was it accidental or...?
Steve Sukup: He enjoyed farming but I think, you know, he sensed he enjoyed making a product and so I think he decided to chase it down the path. And there is always some hills and valleys and roller coasters along the way, but he was a very persistent individual so that he stayed with it.
Mike Lessiter: Mm-hmm. So, the founding of the company or the incorporation of the company would have been what year?
Steve Sukup: 1963. So it was my dad and my mom who occasionally comes into the business. Dad passed away in July, and then my brother and I, and so we were the four original shareholders.
Mike Lessiter: And that was out at the original weldshop at the farm.
Steve Sukup: Yeah. And then we moved out to this location in 1970. Bought a 25,000 square foot metal building and cheap building and so we got started out here.
Mike Lessiter: For those who maybe didn't get a chance to meet your father, how would you describe him?
Steve Sukup: Oh, he's very energetic. He just loved the product that he was making and selling and so he was just full-bore on so he was always game on and pushed the product hard and great relationship with customers and vendors.
Mike Lessiter: How did you go to market in those early days? How did you go from invention to getting it out there?
Steve Sukup: Well, at that time, we started working with the different bin companies, as such. At that time, there was modern farm systems in Webster City and chief industries out in Grand Island, Neb., Baughman-Oster out in Illinois and then there was Butler down in Kansas City. So those were the primary four. Then there's some other ones scattered about.
There's a Long Manufacturing out of Davenport and there's all sorts of little bin companies along the way and some larger ones and so they're the established dealers throughout the ag industry. And so, you'd sort of look up the dealers and see if they didn't wanna add the stirring machine to the products that they were handling at the time.
Mike Lessiter: Was it challenging in those early days of kind of a market shift toward shelled corn or was it a rising path that you were able to...?
Steve Sukup: Oh, at that time, it was a rising path that in-bin drying systems are what was taking off that everybody realized that just putting a fan on a heater doesn't solve their problems of drying the grain, that they needed a more efficient way and an easier way to keep the grain mixed together and dried evenly because you'd have hot and cold spots and spoilage on the side walls of the bin if, you know, with all the condensation.
One of the old slides we used to have shows a 30,000 bushel bin which is around, you know, 30 foot or so. And, in order to take the corn from 25% moisture down to 15, you have to take 10,000 gallons of water out of that bin. And so that's why I always say you saw steam coming out through the top of the bins because you were having to vaporize the water and to get it out there. And, you know, 10,000 gallons is a lot. If you don't get that moisture out, it's gonna spoil or freeze or have some other bad effect on the corn.
Mike Lessiter: So if you were kind of encapsulating a timeline for our listeners or readers about key moments in your history, obviously starting with '63, I'm sure that moving out here in '70 was part of that what else would come to mind?
Steve Sukup: Well, one of the others, early '70s, dad came up with the four way to unload grain from the very bottom of the bin, still in-bin drying. And then came up with the airways that go along the side walls of the bin to take care of that spoilage on the side walls when the water accumulates on the side walls or freezes. And so, yeah, that product.
And then, after that in the late mid-'70s, 1976 or so, we got into the fans, centrifugal fans and vane-axial fans. And, Charles worked, quite a bit with the fans and air flows on the centrifugal fans. And then, you know, 1980 was good, busy year. '83 was the peak in the drought year, and so I remember that year quite well. I'd came back, graduated from Iowa State in 1979 in industrial engineering. So, I've always liked the metal fabrication and production aspects of it.
And then in the mid-'80s, Dad and I went out and bought two floor, grain bin floor lines, low forming grain floors, the perforated floors and then we bought a Hawk Cut line. And so, we bought those two lines in the mid-'80s and, so we sort of run with the fans, the heaters, the floors, the power sweeps for unloading the grain. We really established those as the leader in the power sweeps for getting nice, high capacity grain flow out of the grain bins when they're ready to take it to market.
And so that was sort of the establishment, and actually up through the '90s that was sort of our core business. We're still selling to all the grain bin companies. I think at one time there's like 20 different grain bin companies just through the areas of all the names you could run to, and so that's who we tried to market to.
It was 1998 is when 12-row, 16-row, 24-row planters were starting to, to hit bigger combines, more combines for our customers. And they're going away. They had gone to the portable dryer side instead of just drying everything in bin. In bin, it was more like 300 bushels an hour, whereas portable dryers, it was more like 2,000 bushels an hour. You know, in farming, you like speed and get it done.
And so in 1998 one of the engineers and I went out, John Hanig, and so we started looking at, you know, portable dryers. And one that, we said that, “Hey, we got to find something different. Portable dryers have been out there a long time but there's something that we got to be able to figure out that we can do different and better.”
So, John and I are bantering around and John says, “Well, hey, there's what they call metering rolls on the dryers, but you’re taking the grain from the same point.” And we'd known from our grain drying even though you might have a 14-inch column on a portable dryer, you have a heated chamber and you roll the hot air through the 14 inches of grain flowing down through the portable dryer that the inside is still hotter than the outside. So, came up with metering rolls for both the inside and outside and running the inside one faster because that's the dryer grain.
When we went to the trade shows, then people just looked at and go, “Hm, you are right.” And so we've got a patent on the quad metering rolls and so that's also a part. Uh, and then from there, through the years of moisture sensing, and that's what Matt Koch, our electrical engineer and part of the third generation, came up with the Quadra Touch Controls, you know, the touch screens, fiber cords that we can run any distance with for controlling it. And now, you grab your cellphone and you can call up the dryer and see what's going on. So we've really taken from 1998 to now that you're controlling it with your cellphone. So, the dryer aspects have been a great production and we keep adding on. Matt got UL listings done on the dryers and so its the power boxes. So that's been a great accomplishment.
Then in 2000, after we had hit the markets so low with the portable dryers, we just felt like we had to control our own destiny with going into the grain bins. And so another engineer and I went down to one of the roll forming companies and started pricing out or seeing what we could do for making side walls and roofs. And so in 2001, we came out with our first bins and got into the bin market. And everybody says, “What are you doing? There's been so many bin companies out there.”
But this was right at the start of the ethanol industry and I've been just one of the firm believers that ethanol is fabulous for having the US having our own energy program. I mean when you can have a cornfield, an ethanol plant and a Yukon XL and fill it up with E85, we don't have to go to the Middle East for gasoline. And so, you don't have to go through Alaska or some other place. So, Ethanol is the perfect fit for energy interdependence. And so that's where the grain bins.
And then in 2003, sold the first Rockwell. I'd worked with the Rockwell Co-op and I sold them our first half million bushel bin in 2003. So, without a long-term plan going into commercial bins, but when there's a need, you jump on it right away. So within a couple of years, we had our commercial bins, going and so that took off well.
And then in 2005, 5 miles north of here, we established the signature side of our commercial bins. There's four half-million bushel bins at that site, two million bushels worth of storage and we put on some of the very first conveyors there. So we got into material handling with conveyors and bucket elevators and catwalks and towers and grabbed onto the material handling aspect. So, between the dryers, the grain bins, material handling, we wanted to have the whole package for our customers.
And because, you know, it's one of those, customers don't want, you know, somebody pointing fingers, well, it's their fault or somebody else's fault. They really do want, okay, come up with a whole package, you know, put together what we need and look you in the eye and say, you know, you'll make it work. And so, we can do that.
Mike Lessiter: Looking back, when was that identified that you saw the opportunity to like you said, close the loop, control your destiny, have the whole full solution? When did that start to come into focus?
Steve Sukup: Well, it was at the '98, we all had a great success. We're getting into the grain dryers or the portable dryers that set us apart. And then in 2009, it was sort of the year that “Hey, we gotta seize our opportunity, control our destiny.” One of those years, one of the grain bin companies was our biggest customer, but also our biggest competitor. And that combination generally doesn't last very long.
Somebody pulls the trigger and it was one that, you know, I said that, you know, so that's why I went down to the roll forming company and said, “What's it gonna take to get us into this market?”
And then the ethanol aspect of it just converted agriculture from like here, you know, it's when you harvest your crop, it's just okay, once again it will be hauled over to the river. With the ethanol market, it said, okay, within this 30 mile radius, this plant is gonna need grain every day.
And so that sort of established that the on the farm market, storage was gonna really make that happen. And we've got our grain bins on probably 20 different ethanol plant sites just for the commercial side of it plus all the storage that they need year-round 'cause generally they only have maybe 30 days' worth of storage.
Mike Lessiter: What do you remember from, you know, that point where you guys were stepping into a much bigger line than they have done and what do you remember about that era?
Steve Sukup: We had a great dealer organization set up by that time or a long time, an established one. And so, as we then expanded our products, it was like they were gonna have to decide whether they're gonna stay with their established company or... All of them had experience with us and our product lines, but it was... They had to make a lot of switches over to our grain bins, but we brought them in. We actually went through and got their thoughts on what they liked about grain bins, what they'd like to see differently. And so we designed around what they wanted and thought. Like I say, the ethanol industry just gave it some steroids to say, “hey, we got some things are changing out here in the ag sector.”
Mike Lessiter: That was kind of prior to the ethanol coming into focus.
Steve Sukup: Yeah. One, it goes back to we just need to control our destiny. And so we just had to go out on our own and get it accomplished. And we hang on to it. So, we had great sales group. Charles worked a lot with the sales and Dianne Hughes, and so put together the package that way and that's been the other key. Our dealers have grown with us. That's what's the other aspect of it. It wasn't, you know, finding, you know, the new dealer that could, you know, pull all the sales in. It was basically, most of the time, using our established dealer base that grew and expanded with us.
Since 1998, we've grown eight times larger. 80% of the products we're making now, we weren't making back then. So, it wasn't just that oh, this product really exploded and we were able to keep making more of them. We had to go out and figure out how we're gonna do portable dryers and make all the different options for the customers, how we're gonna do grain bins and commercial grain bins, material handling.