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.
Mike Lessiter: You said that you've grown eight times since '98. Did I have it right?
Steve Sukup: Correct. Yup. And 80% of the products we're making now, we weren't making then. So it's been product development that we've seized, grabbed some opportunities and said, “Hey, we need to be in this market.” You know, which as a marketer, when we say be in that market, it's a demand from our customers that says, “Hey, you know, I'm buying steel buildings, so, why don't you get into it? I'm buying conveyors and bucket elevators.” Saw the opportunity and, uh, seized upon it.
And then in around 2010, I started buying up structural steel equipment to make steel buildings. That had always felt that was gonna be a part of our, you know. We like rolling steel, like welding steel, like selling finished steel, and this was gonna fit nicely into our product mix.
And again, a third of our dealers had, you know, been... had some experience primarily with buildings, but then when we came up with the steel building line, they, they said, “Hey, that customer has your grain bins out there. He wants that, 80 by 120 foot machinery shed there at Sukup building, too. He wants…” You know, they get aligned with whether they're red tractors or green tractors or whatever, they like consistency in their farming.
Mike Lessiter: That time that you went into the bins, was that considered a risky move?
Steve Sukup: Yeah. Everybody's asking, “Oh, you know, what are you ... What are you doing that for?” I mean there's been lots of bin companies out there and, as always, you know, I think well, we got enough bins already for the storage. This was, you know, the general feeling.
But again, we just needed the complete package to say... 'Cause whenever we tried to sell a product, I mean the bin, it was the first thing everybody asked for and then I say, “Well, what do you need for this?” They're like buying the car, you buy the Ford or the Chevy, but then you get all the other added options onto it, and the grain bin is always the first thing they ask for. And so we wanna have our name on the first product they ask for and then we'll go from there.
Mike Lessiter: One of the videos I was watching, and then, and there was your father who was talking about how very different you were by coming up with a single accessory and coming this way into the rest of the process where the others may have started with the bin.
Steve Sukup: Bin.
Mike Lessiter: It worked back the other way.
Steve Sukup: That's how we did it. Through all those years, everybody asked for the grain bin first though so we... I mean the products we made were excellent. Our fans had the highest airflows. Our grain bin floors, we... Actually, when we bought the two different lines, combined the supports and the floors differently than what the previous companies had done, and made it, we made a very successful, combination of it taking the best points of both of those units.
The power sweeps are still a great system for getting, loading the semis up in 10, 12 minutes and getting them on the road again. But, uh, the grain bins and the portable dryers is what gave us the exponential growth.
Mike Lessiter: I'd asked you a little bit about Eugene before. Tell me about your mother.
Steve Sukup: She was just always very supportive of it, you know. Back in the early days, she'd make the lunches when we'd have sales and service schools here and bring people in with all the different dealerships.
Back in the day, we'd have like 10 days of sales and service schools and each grain bin company would have their particular day to come in because none of the dealers wanted to mix with the other competing dealerships and things like that. And, so mom was very supportive and would travel all over and take care of any wives that came along or cook the meals and stuff.
Mike Lessiter: It sounds like from some of the other videos I watched, she was very much involved in the business and….
Steve Sukup: Yeah. Did all the booking.
Mike Lessiter: What did they think that this company could turn into when they first went out and formed Sukup Manufacturing, put their name against it. What was their dream for what it could become?
Steve Sukup: Oh, I guess just making farming more efficient. And, you know, with the early days with the stirring machine and drying the grain that was an absolute need. So I think that’s what they focused on. So that was, we handle all the accessory products, but grabbing onto the portable dryers and grain bins again is what got us established in all the markets. And that's, you know, that used to be the short answer. If somebody asked do you make grain bins, you know, 30 years, you could either get in the long answer that we make everything but the grain bin.
It was the grain bins that really drove the stake in the ground for whether on the existing farms or… Now, the commercial market is a great piece of our business. We've sold our commercial equipment to the five largest grain exporting companies in the US and so we're established as a commercial now. So that's been a nice accomplishment.
Mike Lessiter: When the four of you got together, did you think you would have this size, this influence, this name in the international business that you're in today?
Steve Sukup: That was always one of my dreams is that we could just really put the name out there. We grew up with, you know, Butler bin, the, the name in the industry and the grain drying storage group. And then they had, they sold out, 25 years ago, 20 years ago, and that I think sort of cracked the door and said, “Hey, we can put our stamp on the industry.” And that's one, I think, you know, from day one, when somebody calls in to Sukup or now, they're asking for an individual whether it's, you know, Steve or Charles or John or Cary or Matt, or Diane. They're asking for a specific individual. We hate the rotary system or the system, well, punch this one for department here, department two.
So anyway, and maintain that close customer relationship. All of us, you know, Charles and I and there's Matt, Emily and Andy in the business, the third generations, but we'll have dealers call up and, you know. I've had a dealer call up, doesn't tell who he is and hearing him, I go, “Oh, hi Ed.” And so I mean, all of us know our customers like that or our dealers and that's...
And we go to all the trade shows with the ag trade shows and we spend our days there and make sure we understand what the industry is doing because the industry did shift on the late '90s from the in-bin drying to the portable drying where they needed that speed, and we were still selling the in-bin systems. But we needed to transform to what ... where they wanted to go and so that was the sense that hey, we got to start doing something different out there and so…
And then also with the manufacturing equipment, enjoy going to the trade shows for the manufacturing that we can become more efficient. We brought our first robot in, well over 20 years ago, but we've tripled our employment since we've brought in the first robot. With robotics, as long as you're being more efficient, you're gonna create your opportunities to develop into more markets and sell more. Become more efficient and put out a high quality product that you can keep growing.
Mike Lessiter: You know that the question I wanted to ask you is, we're a small family business that's started by my parents. But as we've grown and got more people in, I like to go back to some of those stories of the grit, perseverance. Do you have stories like that that you tell this younger generation to, to understand what the Sukup world was like back in those early years or something that come to mind?
Steve Sukup: Well, I think the one story I think is that the first five machines dad made... Charles actually tells this story. I sort of cringe. The first five machines, I think the three of them were brought back and, the other two they never heard from again. But that was perseverance that dad just was gonna say, “Hey, they... We have to have stirring for in-bin drying. I'm gonna make this thing work.” And so he persevered there.
We had some good years or growing years. I mentioned that, you know, the one that sort of strikes me came back from college in 1979, industrial engineering and, you know, things are good and busy with things, and line prices are growing up and agriculture was going strong. And then 1983 the peak year and the drought hit and just face-planted. It was mid-'80s. No matter what you did or, you know, no blood was coming out of that turnip. So anyway, it was mid-'80s.
So that's what sort of you always go back to. Okay. That was a real hard reality check. We came through fine, but it was tough years. And then in the '90s, we had some growth, but it was one of those, we're having to figure out what our product mix should be. Some of it was good. My folks we traveled with them.
We try to do exports. We travel whether it was Mexico or Europe or, you know, just seeing what other markets are doing. So, that was, that was the thing. And I think that I sort of feel I picked up from my dad. My dad can walk through a plant and feel what was going on and that's sort of what I enjoy. You can walk through the plant and feel what's working, what's not or going to trade shows. Okay. What's, what's sort of the excitement here? Where is everybody headed to? And, that's one of those sensory, items that, you know, my dad had. And you know, I feel I sort of was able to get some of that DNA to sense the same things and, you know, walking in a room, knowing who your customers are and how to take care of them.
Mike Lessiter: So you graduated in '79 and came right into the business.
Steve Sukup: Yes. The mid-'80s was like, whoa. What are we doing here?
Mike Lessiter: So how did your brother, your parents get through that when a lot of others didn't?
Steve Sukup: Well, dad would run a frugal company. So I mean he ran it pretty tight. You really had to cut back hours and just go back to the nitty-gritty to get the product out and just work that much hard at selling, and so we made it through that downward roller coaster. And then '80s and '90s started working its way back that we could get our products all reestablished again and maintain our good dealers. We didn't at that time didn't have to make any bankers happy or and bought any of the... At that time, in the early '80s, the land had gone at that time to 3,000 to $4,000 an acre and then it all came back to 1,200 again… and so we sort of watched the markets, the ag markets and track it.
Mike Lessiter: Sort of related question I guess. If you look about what you know, you and your brother are doing with this company and you've heard the phrase, like you could give someone your playbook but they couldn't execute it the same way, right? Some football analogy. So what is it about your playbook that only you can execute?
Steve Sukup: Well, I think it's the personal relationships. I mean as I mentioned, whether it's Charles and I or Emily, Matt and Andy, the third generation, we interact with our dealers and our customers. Matt will give you a little plant tour. I'll be out a little bit with it, but I think you can sense that we're engaged with the employees, most of them. We're at 600 employees. Two years ago, I knew everybody's name.
I guarantee you that I could go out and tell you. Now, we bumped up another 200 and that's a little, little tougher, but enjoy saying, “Hey, Yolanda, how is it going” or “Ray, how is the dryer line going today” or go down to Jonie in the electronics room and see how the power panels are doing. So you can look them in the eye and know that if there is something of an issue, you can take care of it and all five of us are empowered to do it. If something comes up, we'll take care of it. Or the customer calls and says, “Hey, I need this.” And so, okay moves up on the prior, or you know, we're gonna make sure get them an answer to what we can get done for them.
So I think that's in, you know, like I said, mentioned on the telephone systems, it's one of those... We're available. If we're in the office, we'll take the call right this minute and if not, we're gonna get back to you.
Now it's, we've got a lot of good people, dedicated people and we're trying to keep that same atmosphere, but that's one of those out of the five of us. So, we enjoy that. That's what makes it through. Like I say, hopefully you get the same sense when you go on the plant tour. There's one time I had somebody on the plant tour and we're about halfway through or 45 minutes into it, and he goes, “I've had enough. I've seen it. But I don't know how to get back. So you need to take me back.” And somebody else says, “You enjoy the plant tour? It's way too much.”
Which I do. I enjoy going out there and again sensing what's working, what's not. Matt might show you a bender that started here. It was taking five different bends to get the completed part. Now, one head of the press and we get a finished part after every stroke of the press and so that was one. Andy Schmitt, third generation, he married Emily, my daughter, Andy works with me a lot. Diane, the maintenance aspects and machinery and the equipment. And Emily is our general counsel and so takes care of,works a lot with HR and some of the financials and keeping things all coordinated that way. And then Matt works with electrical engineering and the programming on the dryers and works a lot with the sales aspect. And so, we've got a good balanced team going.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. You'd mentioned the employees in the HR. You have some really interesting programs here that you're doing to support your employees.
Steve Sukup: Well, yeah. It was one of those... I'm one of those if somebody ask questions, I can do something unless it's, you know, earth shattering or, with things, I'll say sure. And, Emily said, “hey, you know, we're paying lots of money for health insurance. Health care is the primary, you know. Everybody, we all want good healthcare. We all want accessible and affordable and, make it happen.” And Emily says, “You know, I think we can need a medical clinic on site.” And it was like you sort of go, “Okay. That's gonna be a lot of work.” And so Emily dove into it, worked, interviewed hospitals, different groups, and so, you know, and we had all the regulations of how a clinic had to be set up, but our old office building, they've completely remodeled it and we have our own medical clinic on site, and it's been very well received because, you know, we've always paid a hundred percent, and a couple of things that will set us apart. We've always paid 100% of our employees' health insurance premium and, so we've always valued health insurance.
I knew it was important to everybody, and so they knew we always took it seriously. And then when we opened the clinic, it's really been a nice addition that they have accessibility, affordable health insurance. And so Emily really worked out, worked out well with having that stuff on site and they're looking on keep expanding a little bit more out in the community and stuff but it's been a great success that way in-house.
We got the different lab rooms and exam rooms and such. I think it's around probably 4,000 square feet so it's a nice size and our old office has never looked better.
Mike Lessiter: How long have you been doing that program?
Steve Sukup: I think it will be like a year now. But it’s been well received and working well. So meeting our goals of providing the health care for our employees and others and their spouses and dependents and things like that.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. That's a very progressive thinking there.
Steve Sukup: I mean 'cause health care is a major portion of the bills we pay. And plus, you know, keeping good people. I mean that's the other aspect. So when we moved out of the old office building, we built a new office building here four years ago. We moved in in 2014 in July and we're able to do a lot of... It's one of those, you always have a little trepidation about building a new office building that whether you're overreaching or what the perception is and everything, but when we got into steel buildings, we bought the structural steel equipment and roll forming equipment, and so we made 800,000 pounds of structural steel that's in this office building on site.
We'll go down to the tech center and show you some of that structural steel throughout the building here. The roof is a standing seam roof on there. It's what we manufactured ourselves. All the steel panels around the building is our design and our fabrication. And some of the items inside the office building are made here. So it's one that we can bring our customers in. We did a lot of the work ourselves. So we made it efficiently and yet they can still see “hey, these guys, if I'm gonna build a steel building, these guys know how to do it.” So it was one of those that we could really show off our product.
Mike Lessiter: For our listeners who you can't see what we see here. If you could describe them what they see in the building and then give us a bit of a virtual plant tour in your words, what they will see here.
Steve Sukup: I mentioned when we first came out to the site, we built a 25,000 square foot metal building. We currently have 650,000 square feet, 15 acres under roof of steel buildings. The last 200,000 square foot has been built in the last six years and it's our own steel building, so that we get to show off the products that we make.
When you look at the steel buildings, the sides, the roofs, the rafters the purlins, side wall sheets, all made by us — everything but the lights and insulations from somebody else. You'll see the newest equipment. We've got 20 welding robot systems, 10 laser systems, CNC lathe and machining centers and benders.
The other thing is our operators all do their own programming. We have a good, great programming, system here that we've always felt the operator should know their equipment the best and how to make the part most efficiently. And, so they do all their own programming. And as I walk through a plant, I wanna see product moving. As long as the product is moving, we're accomplishing our goals, and you know keep taking a look at how we can be more efficient like we used to have a part that took five bends and now it takes one bend to complete every part. You know, still we're like, “Okay, well, let's... There's a better way to do it.” So the manufacturing we really focused on. We've got a great team plant manager, Jon Swanson and Dave O'Connor and Nadine Wreghitt. And then Andy and I work with them on manufacturing how we can do things better.
Then when we tackle the office building, Emily really, uh, latched on to that one. We want to show off our product and so, the standing seam roof, you'll see a copper standing seam roof. They're sort of like two wings, rectangle wings to our office building with a center round portion and then we have a tech center, a 50,000 square foot tech center there that we can show off our products inside and you can see the big structural steel rafters on the inside. And so it's one that, yeah, we take great pride in and we enjoyed.
We wanna make sort of a signature site here in Sheffield. And I'll also say we didn't build the new office building for resale value here. So we are invested here in Sheffield.
It's one of those… we're here, enjoy working here, and come and work with a great group with our sales and engineering groups and production management and we also noticed that we are connected from the office building physically with the corridor to the manufacturing plant. And that was one of the original companies motor companies. That's how they did their office building and that was you know, that's neat because you want the office and plant to be integrated. It's not them and us. It's like, how can we do this all together and make a good product?
Mike Lessiter: So when you bring visitors through and so there's 600 employees and 15 acres on the roof, you lead them through. What are the things that they tend to like share that really amaze them by the time they're done with the tour?
Steve Sukup: Well, like for a first time customers, they always come through or at first, they said, “Yeah, I went through a plant tour a couple of years ago. I'm good.” Which we enjoy showing and giving them plant tours. Then they go through the plant tour. “Man, there's always something different out there that you're doing.” They always see something that hey, that strikes them that you're being very, you know, efficient and quality product and just trying to always up our game.
I'm on the Iowa Motor Truck Board Association, so the director came through and then it was sort of nice. Also, I’m on the Iowa, the Supreme Court Nominating Committee, and so, I stay in contact with the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. And he wanted to come up and there's another project that, they had going on with some things. And so I took both of them separate times through a plant tour.
At both times afterwards we got a note back. “It is just amazing the interaction you have and the relationship with the employees and everybody working together there that this is what's something special about you guys. And, you know, we travel a lot in the state but you guys are one of those special ones that can maintain that relationship with the employees, and that's the work that we do with our customers as well. We love taking care of them.”
Mike Lessiter: I was gonna ask you about your political career and how that came together.
Steve Sukup: Well, uh, I've always enjoyed politics. I was on the… I will have to go back and see what grades I was, 1964, the Goldwater-Johnson, election was 1964, and rode the bus and part of our route was Daugherty, which is our hometown, but it's 90% Irish Catholic, and so their views and my views were different. And so we had the banter back and forth. So I remember that in the fourth grade, fifth grade. And so anyways, so, I've always enjoyed politics, and then when I was in high school as well as when Charles was, we were pages in the legislature two years part, so I enjoy being part of that and I'm never... We're never afraid to just make a choice and say, “Hey, let's go with it.”
When Senator Grassley, back in I think 1973 ran for Congress or something like that, '74 ran for Congress. We got involved in the primary at that time when he's in Congress and so we got involved there. And then 1994, got the itch and ran for the legislature. And so, spent eight years in the Iowa Legislature, before I managed a lot of bills. I was in the judiciary committee, the business committee, appropriations committee, and so enjoyed that. And then, the last years a speaker pro tem of the Iowa House.
And, uh, so got to run the gavel quite a bit and enjoyed. We made nice accomplishments whether it was tax policy or workplace issues, economic issues, and so it really made some nice changes, some accomplishments. So, I enjoyed that and then I took, took the bite and ran for governor in 2002 and ran in a primary, through a primary and I finished second, two points behind the eventual winner. So that was the deal. And I was worried I might miss politics but, maybe once a year and that's enough for me… So I enjoyed it and that was 16 years ago, but I stay in touch with a few people.
So, I feel like that the process just gets harder and harder, like we're seeing right now whether in, you know, Washington, DC. And one time, I thought I might like to do Washington, DC, but now it's like, “Oh, man.” To have to go through that would be brutal. So I'm one that… One political pitch here. I think term limits is the only thing that can solve the problem you have. Everybody thinks they can be there forever, and unless they know that it's terminal, they won't sometimes make what's the best decisions.
Without terms limits, you're a short-term company just trying to get reelected in two years or six years. With term limits, you'd say, “Hey, we're gonna have a long-term approach. You know, you're not gonna be here forever whether it's six, 12 or 18 years, but at some point, you need to go home.” So, anyway, that's my pitch there. Term limits.
Mike Lessiter: So, you were able to bring a good influence, agriculture, family business, metal fabrication, the whole thing.
Steve Sukup: Yeah. And engineering. So, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about what you see today for ethanol.
Steve Sukup: It’s a great energy source. It’s one that we can easily get added into the gasoline system. As in all energy efficiencies or energy, you know, there's not necessarily a perfect answer all the way. I believe there needs to be some wind and solar, but ethanol needs to be a part of our, you know, energy for fueling our cars. It makes us, our country, more energy self-sufficient.
It adds a great boost to the gasoline. I think it's always gonna be part of the market. And again, I say we can have a cornfield and an ethanol plant and a Yukon or one of the other ethanol friendly vehicles out there we can keep running. We don't have to worry about everybody else.
So, it's one that, you know, I think we are in a probably a mature industry. There's not a lot of the new plants being built like there was. We're at that plateau, but as long as we provide ourselves this fuel-efficient energy provider, green provider, I mean it's... when we're in China, they have to do something different, you know.
You, you go there and everybody is a mess. The people, I mean that they have their days in, some of the industrial cities, you know, one of the 200, 250 days there has alerts and things like that. So I can see ethanol making a plan to China just giving them a cleaner fuel to burn.
And it's a higher octane. So that's why it's a great octane source for the gasoline, companies to up the octane, I'm so confident in it and they've become more energy-efficient. We're making DDGs out of it. We're getting corn oil out of the distillation process. So, we're utilizing all aspect of it. There's just very little ways, you know. Some CO2 that might… is the only thing out of the process that we still need to figure out, but otherwise, we're using 90% of the product going through.
Mike Lessiter: So you still, still feel reasonably optimistic.
Steve Sukup: Yeah. I might touch on our Safe T Homes. We made the Safe T Homes, and it’s one of those that our safety manager Brett Nelson had always wanted to build a grain bin house. And, you know, I was one of those who said, “Oh, a grain bin house? I love building grain bins but I'm not sure I'd wanna live in one.”
And, so he... Brett always had this idea, and then in 2010, they had the earthquake in Haiti where all the concrete buildings fell down. And people, you know, they had thousands of people killed in the concrete buildings. They basically got scared of being in concrete buildings. And Brett comes up like the next week to me out in the plant and says, “Hey, I think we can build some emergency shelters for those folks down in Haiti.”
We saw all the blue tarp villages out there that everybody moved out to and he says, “I think we can build them a grain bin. And I said, “Well, as long as it's an 18-footer which is sort of our smallest standard size grain bin. Let's try and make something standard out of it.”
And so Brett and one of our engineers, Brad Poppen ran with it and came up with the double roof system, put up grain bins. Boy, that's gonna be hot. But we have a double roof on our system that allows airflow through ventilation and then... We started up at the Farm Progress Show and inside the Safe T Home will be 12 degrees cooler than outside. Most of the times in the tropic, so if it's 92 outside, it's gonna be 80 inside which is warm but it sure beats 92 outside. And so it's really been a great addition taking your expertise and helping people. We've got 400 of them worldwide providing them a shelter and this last year that last hurricane went, the eye of the storm, 140 mile an hour winds went right over one of our villages with the Safe T Homes. They had 50 people in one of them. It shook the house for six hours and everybody comes out safe. So, it’s saving lives out there.
And it's been a good one. My son Nick has been down there 12 times, putting them up and helping people. Emily has been and Andy went down this last year with some folks and put some up, and I was there two years ago and so it's one of those trips that you go wow. It's making a difference. You feel good for the group, what we came up with here.
Mike Lessiter: That I did not know about until recently.
Steve Sukup: Yeah. It's been a hit with the church groups because when, you know, missionaries from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin go down, you wanna do something. I mean that's, you know, that's the, Midwest work is, I wanna do something and so the Safe T Homes have been a great item that you can go build some while you're down there. They're trying sometimes, because you can build one in a day with about eight to 10 people. So, some assembly required.
Mike Lessiter: Is it accurate to say you're the world's largest family owned manufacturing?
Steve Sukup: Yes.
Steve Sukup: Well, that's... Hopefully the opportunity will present us so we can keep expanding. I mean this last year, we purchased the steel building company on Pittsburgh. A hundred employees out there.
Mike Lessiter: Is that SBC?
Steve Sukup: Yes. It was SBC and now Sukup Steel Structures, but they've gone through some up and downs. Steel building industry seems to be more of a regionalized manufacturing business and so it gave us an opportunity to go out to the East Coast. They've been doing well. The market right now is good and busy and so it, as always, it takes you a little bit longer to get things to ramp back up the way you'd like to have them done but they're doing a great job right now. And so, we’re running with that.
So I think there's still some items in the steel building industry we can keep growing our business on. And so I think that's one of them. And the commercial market for the agriculture, we've done more. We're starting to get on some of the seaports and things like that or the big projects. And so there's still some opportunities.
Mike Lessiter: Would you entertain getting into other areas of agriculture, ag equipment that are not just grain related?
Steve Sukup: We'd take a look. It’d have to be a little bit of a match. We tried some tillage before and it's amazing, just there is a complete difference between the tillage dealers and the grain drying dealers and other dealers out there. And so we'd, you know, again, hopefully we occasionally learn from things. We'd target then what industry we go into, but there's still some out there that I think we'd have some opportunities.
Marliss Drills was sort of the original one that we tried. Marliss Drills down in Jonesboro, Ark. And, you know, we're still down in Jonesboro. We got a nice facility down there. But, just the drill market was a roller coaster as well. And so we'd be a little bit more selective next time of what industry. Like I say, it was just a lot more different personality, that market, than what our grain drying was, which is surprising.
Mike Lessiter: What was different about it?
Steve Sukup: Just the marketing, the pricing and again, we weren't gonna be able to get a big enough presence in it I think 'cause they wanna stay with the established lines out there. And then you have the tractor companies versus the short line companies. And we're definitely in the short line companies bracket, and so you're just fighting each other down here and you got the two big or three major tractor companies up here that gonna control the market which sits on their dealers’ lots. And we weren't gonna get past that one. Grain bins, we could get... We could make the end-round on that one and get that one done. We could get that done but, you know, obviously, with the tractor companies, you're not gonna make that happen so...
Mike Lessiter: It must be tough getting the attention of the dealer sales people if they have 20 brands in their —
Steve Sukup: Right. And they're gonna spend their time selling a $20,000 drill or a $300,000 tractor and combine. We know what direction you're going with. So, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: What's the next generation lining have to look like?
Steve Sukup: Well, it's one that, with Emily, Matt and Andy, you know, they were trying to take everything, you know, when you control dryers on phones now, it's sort of like okay, what information? What do we need to, what can we can provide — physical equipment to our customers but, you know, now it's what information, what data, what better information can we give to our customers that they can make better decisions, whether it's marketing or harvesting or planting.
So anyway, they're taking a look at that. So it's one where there's opportunities. There's still some more export opportunities. In the last six years, we have a manufacturing in Ukraine and we have a large distribution center in Denmark so we've sort of pushed our footprint out a little bit farther, but obviously, there's other areas of the world that we need to take a look for agriculture more.
We've always done a little bit with South America, but not a lot Far East. We've always done some but not as much as maybe we need to, and so they'll need to keep their passports current. And also, you know, just trying to see our customers, how we can provide them with better information for them to make decisions.
Mike Lessiter: So they were fortunate enough to know the founder.
Steve Sukup: Yeah, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: One of the videos that I was watching of your dad talking and the interviewer had asked I think he must have asked what was your biggest challenge or something to that degree. And he said there hasn't been one yet or something like that.
Steve Sukup: We haven't had, I guess you'll say a showstopper, just that, you know, I go back to that — 1983 might have been as close to when just the markets stopped for a while, but there wasn't grain and you had had to crop and half the price. That was a tough time and then there are customers, you know, the ag crisis in the mid-'80s. So that, that was probably the closest time, but at the same, same point, we didn't have to make anybody else happy.
We did all the belt tightening that we needed to do and was able to survive it. So, there hasn't been… One, we need to be aware of it. So it's always like okay, you know, when things are going good, you think they'll last forever and when they're bad, you think they, they won't end. But so you need to always keep a perspective, “Okay, this is what's working. What do we need to be worried about?”
And that's probably what our third generation is probably doing a better job saying, “Okay, what do we need to make sure we get covered in this area, or, if this happens what do we do?”
Mike Lessiter: I was, I was struck by the answer because I know that this is a company with great faith.
Steve Sukup: Faith was very important. Whenever we traveled, we visited a lot of different churches wherever we were at. And so Sunday, we were in church and faith was very important. It was the number one thing with him. So yeah, no doubt about that.
And so he was, you know — be reliant that somebody else always knew who had the better answer and had the final answer, and so he just wanted us to keep working hard and have that strong faith. Whether it was this or something else, something ... some door was gonna open.