Layton, Ryan and Nick Jensen run a company with three individual brands: Blu-Jet, Simonsen Iron Works and ChuckWagon. Father-son duo Layton and Nick Jensen discuss how they’ve managed to do that well over the years, and how they continue to, in Thurston, Neb.
Below is their full interview with Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment.
Layton Jensen: We manufacture farm equipment as our major product line. The brand is called Blu-Jet. And we’ve been doing this since about 1971. My father started the business and I came on board shortly after. And we market mostly across the Corn Belt in the US. And that’s kind of where we started our business, with that market in mind. And since then, we’ve grown into five different continents and several different countries. So we’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve spread ourselves out.
Nick Jensen: I just guess I’d add that as a total company, I feel like each one of our brands tries to create innovative solutions that help the customer achieve higher efficiency. That’s kind of what we see. If there’s a main theme throughout all of our brands, be it Blu-Jet or our contract manufacturing, our assignments in Iron Work side, or our Ground Effect skid steer attachments or even our ChuckWagon mobile grilling system. You know? It’s kind of about being the most efficient you can be and going from there.
Mike Lessiter: Take us back to 1971, when Wayne, your dad, and your grandfather got this business off the ground. What did he see that eventually emerged into this company we have today?
Layton Jensen: Well, we farmed and raised livestock and mainly corn. And we were just looking for other opportunities to add income to the operation and felt that maybe a manufacturing adventure would be interesting and kind of fun. My dad found out that he could sell. He was selling a feed supplement in the local area. And it was a very high-priced supplement but it was very concentrated and he was able to sell that. And usually you find that a lot of people will sell on price. And he discovered that he’s selling on the product. And so it was real natural for him to not be afraid to go in and try to build something and then go sell it. And that’s where his strongpoint was, is selling and also in just managing the business to get it off the ground.
Mike Lessiter: So what was the very first product you came to market with?
Layton Jensen: We started with a self-coupling tractor and wagon hitch that we were using on the farm, actually. It was already a commercial product. And we contacted the maker and he had just fallen out of bed, so to speak, with whoever was making it for him at the time. And the timing just happened to fit. So we picked up that product. It was a patented product so we paid a royalty and did quite well with it.
And then we also had an air supply pickup bumper that we were making at the time. If you recall back in the 70s and maybe even early 80s, a lot of pickups were sold without bumpers. So this was a 6x6 tube that you’d cap the ends and make a license plate cutout and held compressed air to help pump up flat tires. And so it was very popular on the farm. And we eventually got out of that business because the pickups started coming with their own bumpers and the pickups started changing the frameworks and the bolt patterns, and so it became more difficult to keep up with the industry. So we evolved into more of the farm and the tillage and some of the fertilizer aspects.
Nick Jensen: One of the earlier pieces of literature that I’ve seen from the air supply bumper he’s talking about features my Aunt Julie, his sister. You know, holding the cord up kind of like, “Yeah. I’m going to fill the tire.” You know? It’s that easy, you know? So it’s kind of interesting that way, too, that she was involved and had her own little deal with the literature.
Mike Lessiter: So the opportunity that he saw was because he was a good salesman, it sounds like. So why manufacturing and not distributing someone else’s?
Layton Jensen: Actually, the first product considered that we looked at were hub and spindles. And the reason we looked at that is because there was a lot of manufacturing in northeast Nebraska, in our region, that made farm equipment with wheels and tires. So we thought, “Well, maybe that’s a product that we can supply to other companies.” And as we started looking into that, it took a lot of capital for the specialized equipment to turn castings and that type of thing. And so we didn’t have the wherewithal to make that investment, so that’s when we started looking at other types of ag equipment.
Mike Lessiter: As we were talking to a lot of the other companies, companies that were formed on-the-farm, for a small period of time, it was not really clear whether it’s going to be an enterprise of its own as opposed to a sideliner, handling other farmers in the area. When did you know that this company was going to be an enterprise of its own?
Layton Jensen: I remember our first year, we did a lot of repair work and we were trying to find ourselves. And I think the whole year, we sold $23,000 worth of product. And it was apparent then that this was going to be harder than it looked. So we didn’t let that bother us; we forged ahead.
And actually probably the third or fourth year in, we hired a gentleman that did farming and he was looking for part-time work. And he also did custom application for anhydrous ammonia. So he owned his own toolbar and went out and worked with other farmers to apply ammonia. And his biggest challenge was when he raised the toolbar, the tank wagon tongue would come up and bend. Because it just … The hitch goes too high. So he came up with a self-leveling hitch for toolbars. So we started building this hitch and it was quite successful on three-point pounded toolbars.
And it didn’t take us too long to figure out — well, maybe we should just build a toolbar also. And knowing that a lot of the frames out there that were being made were 4x4 quarter wall tube, we decided — well, let’s not make this complicated. Let’s make a single toolbar out of 4x6x0.5-inch thick steel and less welding and less labor. And of course, we started with a little five shank machine and that’s where that grew from.
That’s about the time that I started getting involved with some of the design work. I’m not a degreed engineer but I’ve done design work from day one. And I started making hinges and making the toolbars fold. So we took a 21-foot toolbar to our first trade show. And it was a Nebraska fertilizer show. And I was there and my dad was there. And people would say, “Well, do you make a 27-foot?” And I remember the first question and dad looks at the guy and says, “Yes, we do.” And it was a bit of a leap but it worked very successfully. And from there, we grew with that product line.
Mike Lessiter: How old were you, Layton, in 1971?
Layton Jensen: ’71, I had just graduated from high school. And I attended college for two years at the University of Nebraska. And during that time, I was on the road selling in that region, selling some of the bumpers, and coming back on weekends. And we were still farming then and working the livestock on the farm and also a little bit in the shop in the summer.
Mike Lessiter: What do you remember about the conversations that you had with your parents at that time and getting into this business and putting up the capital needed to get going?
Layton Jensen: It wasn’t difficult to convince each other that we’re doing the wrong thing or the right thing. I mean, it felt comfortable. I don’t recall all the details on the financial side but I’m sure it took three or four or five years before we were really emerging with some profits. And so it wasn’t like it was easy street but yet it still felt comfortable.
Mike Lessiter: And you were farming this entire time?
Layton Jensen: Yes. We farmed about 10 or 12 years into the business.
Mike Lessiter: Okay. So you were 10 years in when the ag recession really hit hard, ’81 or so.
Layton Jensen: Yeah. We were in the middle of that with the crisis with the grain. Any time grain prices dip, it’s a struggle to sell iron. So it’s not too unlike today, you know? And we were probably looking at one dollar corn then where it’s three dollar corn now. Well, neither one was profitable in these times. And so it was a struggle for a couple years but we kept forging ahead and coming up with new innovations, new products, and made it work.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us where the whole Blu-Jet name came from.
Layton Jensen: When we started the business — actually, during the start up, we kind of wanted to use the name of the town, because it’s a very small town. Thurston has only got about 120 people. And so we wanted to use that name as opposed to our own name or another name, just for a little recognition, thinking that maybe someday, we’ll do something. And I’ve gotten quite a few comments over the years, the town really appreciated that.
But the name Blu-Jet actually came sitting around our kitchen table. My mother had a scratch pad and a pen and we were discussing different things that we might come up with for a marketing name that’s a little more special than Thurston. So while Thurston’s our incorporated name, we wanted a trade name. Well, the school in town had just closed their high school and their colors were blue and white. So we thought, ‘Well, blue would be a good color for that reason. But it’s also a good color because there’s not many pieces of equipment out there that are blue.’ And that was true at the time. And so blue was written down along with a dozen other words on one side of the paper.
And the first product that we had, I mentioned early on, was the self-coupling tractor and wagon hitch. Well, it was fast. So we related fast to jet, jet ended up on the other side of the ledger. It wasn’t too many minutes went by and we put blue and jet together and we dropped the ‘e’ and added a hyphen and there we are.
Mike Lessiter: What’s your earliest memory of Thurston Manufacturing, Nick?
Nick Jensen: I can remember going in as a kid, you know, when either mom couldn’t find a sitter for the day or, you know, things like that. And going in and hanging around the office. Of course, you know, a couple of the salesman that I still remember very fondly and things like that. And remember going to State Fairs every once in a while, when Dad would bring us along. We mostly begged Mom to go on the rides and go try the food, but learned a little bit about selling even when we were growing up. Then having Mom and Dad just basically right down the road, being able to come up to the plant whenever we needed something or anything like that. The factory was actually just up the hill from the elementary school so that made things pretty easy for getting off of school and going there or to Grandma and Grandpa’s house — which was also kind of just up the hill. So there’s a lot of fond memories there, being there and being around it.
Mike Lessiter: And you kind of gravitated towards the sales and marketing side? Is that where you were personally most excited about the business?
Nick Jensen: Yeah. That seemed to be what excited me and it seemed to be where I fit best, you know? I like to meet new people. I like to hear about their experiences. I like to help them solve challenges, you know? And so that’s where I felt that it was a really good fit for me. We have so many different unique products that we build. And several of them have been compared to kind of Erector Set-type pieces. You can kind of take this piece here and move it over here and help a guy customize and maybe come up with a solution that he hadn’t thought of before, or maybe he had thought of but didn’t know how to get to or things like that. And that’s been really, really rewarding for me.
Mike Lessiter: When did you start putting him to work? What age was he contributing around the joint?
Layton Jensen: Oh, I don’t recall for sure. I’m sure in high school we had him in the shop — if nothing else, sweeping the floor. But I’m sure we did some activity with some machinery. But it didn’t take too long to see that he had a talent with people and he enjoyed it. So we kind of let him go.
Nick Jensen: They trusted me with the pattern torch in the factory. When I was in high school. And they trusted me with the broom. Never really tried to pass the welding test and I didn’t ever do anything in paint. But me and the pattern torch were pretty good friends until that got replaced with a better machine. So you know, if anybody bought a coulter from us from — I don’t know — about maybe 1995 to 1997, 1998, there’s a chance that I probably cut that coulter arm out for them.
Mike Lessiter: Nick, tell us today about what your role in the company is.
Nick Jensen: Well, I serve as the company’s president. And that’s on kind of … The Thurston Manufacturing Company has an umbrella of brands. And so I serve as Thurston Manufacturing Company’s president. My brother, Ryan, serves as the CEO right now. Dad serves as the chairman of the board? And as a family, we all kind of sit on the board together and make decisions and do the strategic plan and everything like that. So on a day-to-day basis, my job really comes down, right now, to the marketing team. And then when we need somebody to step into that presidential role and we need somebody to do executive functions, that falls on me as well. But to put on the shows like this and make sure that the sales team is coordinated with our brand message and everything like that, that’s what I’m doing currently on a daily basis.
Mike Lessiter: And tell me about Ryan’s role in the company as well.
Nick Jensen: Ryan came in on the operation side. He took a little bit different path than I did. So when we were coming out of college, you know, it had kind of been communicated to us if we wanted to come back into the business, we were to maybe get some experience outside the business first or get a Master’s degree or something like that. So we didn’t just, you know, go to high school, go to four years of college, and come right back into the business. And I think, looking back on that, that was a very wise move. After college, I sold real estate signs in Dallas for a couple years, just getting into that market, and it got me sales and marketing experience in a completely different industry and things like that.
My brother, Ryan — getting back to him. He chose a different route. He chose an accelerated MBA program out of Oregon State. So when he came back with that MBA program, it was a no-brainer to have him go right into operations. And he seemed to fall into that role. And I tell you, as the corn price went up and we were meeting new challenges in how do we get enough product out the door to meet the demands of the customers and the distributors and the dealers? I don’t know how we would have done without Ryan. I mean, he took those things that he had learned and he applied and he just made our business soar during that time. That’s what he does on a daily basis. And then of course, CEO stuff as well, budgets and making sure everybody’s following those and financials and things like that.
Mike Lessiter: Having gotten to know you guys the last 12, 13 years, I’m impressed on how well you work together. And also the vision that you had on the succession plan. Tell me a little bit about how you set this up to make the family business work and to set it up for these guys to continue moving forward.
Layton Jensen: Well, it might seem complicated, but I don’t look back and say, “Why did we do this? Or why did we do that?” It just happened. I guess maybe I expected it to happen. I never discouraged and I never encouraged the kids. But it just happened. And I’m tickled to death that both boys are interested. I’ve also got a daughter that is currently in Colorado Springs as a teacher. And she’s not directly involved with the business although she does help with payroll over the internet, so she’s kind of involved.
Nick Jensen: I don’t ever remember feeling any pressure to come back or anything like that. Obviously, they would think it would be really nice if we lived close but that’s something completely different. And I think God willing and the business continues and everything, that you know, I don’t see me pressuring my kids to do it either. But I sure hope they decide to one day, you know?
Mike Lessiter: Question that I’ll ask both of you. At age 18, did you think you’d be doing what you’re doing today?
Layton Jensen: My vision was to farm at that point in time. I didn’t have any experience with manufacturing at that time. I looked at it as another opportunity. My role in the business kind of from day one has been on the design side. And that’s my love and I remain there today. As I was growing up through with the business, that the farm would have been okay but I could see a vision where the company would outgrow the farm in terms of opportunities. And at some point in time, 10 or 12 years, we decided — well, let’s rent the land out and just focus our time on the factory. And it’s all been good.
Mike Lessiter: How about you, Nick?
Nick Jensen: Well, at age 18, when you're first coming out of high school, graduating from a class of 34 and in a small town, you kind of have that attitude of — kind of tired of the small town life and going to go off and away somewhere to college. And I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do for sure. I was really interested in business and I was really interested in politics. And so that took me to SMU to pursue degrees in Political Science and Business. They had good programs for that. And at 18, I can’t say that I really thought that I’d be back into the business. But at 19 and at 20, as the big city life starts to wear on you and you start to remember how nice things are, you know, back in the small town; you kind of change perspective a little bit. And by 23, I was … At 23, when you're married and you're thinking — well, maybe it’s time to settle down and start raising a family. All of a sudden, that small town with that good school system looks awfully good. And so at 18, I can’t say that I knew I’d be back. But it was always there and it was always in my mind at least as something that was a possibility, you know?
Mike Lessiter: Give me the timeline of the first manufacturing facilities, what machines you had in there at the time, relative square foot.
Layton Jensen: When we first started, we actually bought a grain storage building. It was 40x180, so we had 7200-square feet. We had a band saw, we had a couple of drill presses, we had a pretty good sized punch press, and a handful of welders and a paint booth. And that’s where it all started.
Mike Lessiter: How long did you remain at that size before you made the next investment in manufacturing?
Layton Jensen: In 1979, we moved into a brand new facility. It was about a half a mile away. And since then, we’ve added onto that five times. And of course, the machinery is all different and updated. It’s a lot different.
Mike Lessiter: That was about the time I was out there. You had just completed that. And I know you're into a lot of different products. But if we had to pick the five most significant product inventions that you’ve brought to the market, what comes to mind?
Layton Jensen: I would say the anhydrous ammonia toolbar would be the first one.
Mike Lessiter: What year was that?
Layton Jensen: That was way back in probably mid to late 70s.
Nick Jensen: And you’re talking the 4x6 design, right?
Layton Jensen: That original design. And we expanded from there, of course. The second machine would be our deep tillage machine. We call it a sub-tiller. And that machine was so unique. It was a little bit ahead of its time in the beginning, because we can fracture deep compacted soil and not disturb the topsoil. That’s product’s now been around, I think, 35 years with very few changes to it other than the frameworks, where we’re now folding and those types of issues. But the shank design is very close to the original.
Nick Jensen: In fact, the angle and the point are the same as they were in 1982. 1982 is when we came out with our Sub-Tiller II, our second version sub-tiller. Do you remember the year that the original sub-tiller came out?
Layton Jensen: That was probably about ’77.
Mike Lessiter: You guys hit that one right pretty much out of the box then. One iteration
Nick Jensen: Yeah.
Layton Jensen: The third product — I’m trying to recall the order. But the third significant product was probably the liquid fertilizer applicator. If I can step back to the ammonia applicators, one of the things that have generated success for us was the innovation. We were the first one in the industry to come out with walking tandem wheels on an anhydrous applicator. We were the first ones to fold the wings way past center so they didn’t fall down. And it narrows up the transport width. So we were ahead of the curve on some of those things. When we got into the liquid applicators, we were the first one to use the tall tire, the tractor style tire on those applicators. And now we’ve since carried that over to the anhydrous ammonia applicators. So there’s been a lot of innovative things that we’ve done to keep our image well-known and I think well-respected.
Another product that we came to be known for is we had a distributor that had a salesman, and they were in the center pivot irrigation arena, or in the region of Nebraska. And a problem that he foresaw was they needed a machine to fill the equipment tracks. And we were making —
Mike Lessiter: This is the Track Master?
Layton Jensen: Track Master. And we already had a disk blade that was a mount that held one blade. So we had made a disk that was individually mounted for the blades. So he wanted to take some parts back to his shop and play with it. Well he actually came up with this concept, this way that the Track Master works. And at the time, I don’t remember if I told him out of the chute or during the project, but I said, “If you want to do this and it works out, you know, I’ll give you…” I don’t know if it was $1,000 or $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 for your efforts and it’s going to come back to us. Oh, he was tickled to death about that. And so that’s where that product was born. And it’s been a pretty big volume product for us over the years. I’m trying to think of what the fifth one would be.
Nick Jensen: I think you should talk about the edge bent shank.
Layton Jensen: Oh, that’s a possibility. We’ll back up here a little bit. One of the other innovations that we came forward with for the anhydrous ammonia applicator was a different shank. Of course, in the early years, we used a coil shank which had a double loop coil on the top and it was a square shank. And they worked quite well for the time. And then the industry kind of changed to a 1x2, what we call a flat chisel-type shank. And that particular shank was okay, but it was vulnerable to breakage. So I got to thinking, ‘Well, there’s got to be a better way to make a shank.’ So I come up with an inch and a quarter by two shank that was edge bent. And like all of our shanks at the time, we flattened the bottom to bolt the knife directly to the side of it, and came up with a rigid mount to start. Then we developed the spring-loaded bundle. Which the spring bundles were already in the industry but just not with that shank. And then we later on came with our AR-700 mount which is an auto-reset type shank that really took off well for us as another component of that toolbar.
An additional innovative portion would be the rolling coulter. A lot of our products, we kind of like to think out of the box, you know? A lot of the coulters at the time had a horizontal spring that was a little bit complicated to make. And so I came up with the design that the spring was actually in a vertical position and the nose of the coulter arm came up and pushed pressure on the spring. And through about the six months of toying with the best design, we were in business with a new coulter. And it was very successful with both our fertilizer equipment as well as our sub-tiller.
Nick Jensen: I think it’s also important to note — we try and push the market and the industry. We talked about efficiency a little bit earlier. We try to push the market on efficiency in terms of width on a lot of these things. For example, on our ammonia applicators, we were the first one to get to 62.5-feet. In fact, we were the first one by a long ways. I think about the time the next one got in the market, we were celebrating our sixth or seventh anniversary of being there. You know? We were the first one to take a liquid applicator to 90-feet. So those kinds of width efficiencies have been things that we’ve always tried to strive to develop and be first to the market on.
And another one on the anhydrous ammonia row units would be the sealer. We have a very unique anhydrous ammonia sealer that can also be used as a strip-till berm, bermer. It was really the first in the industry, at least that I know of. And you can correct me if I’m wrong. But it really was the first in the industry that had independent arms. So all of a sudden, you didn’t have trash balling up between your blades on your sealer. Instead, one would raise up, the trash would go through, set back down. And now there are many, many imitators of that on the marketplace. And so that’s something that I suppose … You know, even though you kind of go, ‘Darn it. There’s another competitor out there.’ You’ve got to be a little bit proud of, you know?
Mike Lessiter: Right. Blazed the trail for them.
Nick Jensen: Right. And so the sealer was another one that I’m really proud that we came up with first. And so that whole — when you combine that and you really think about it, that whole row unit that we use for not only anhydrous ammonia but now a lot of the components that go into strip-till are unique innovations that we have developed over time.
Layton Jensen: Another thing that was always paramount in our mind was safety. As we all know, anhydrous ammonia is a product that you have to respect and understand and you can’t be careless with it. And I’m not sure when we came out with it but we came out with a splash guard that went over the quick coupler. And the idea here was when a coupler comes in coupled, you have to plug it back in. Well, that’s the time you get sprayed with ammonia if you’re not careful. Well this splashguard, even if you weren’t careful, stopped it from hitting you in the face. And we felt real proud and it was a good innovation for the industry. It’s changed a little bit as things have evolved because couplers have changed but it still remains an important piece of our product.
Another thing that we’ve always tried to do — or were always concerned about from a safety aspect — is the transport width. And while somebody from the city will still complain that, ‘Boy, that thing takes up the whole road.’ We’re consistently anywhere from one to 6 or 8 feet narrower than our competitors in the way we fold. And we’ve always said that an inch on the end of your nose is a long ways. Well, a foot on the highway is a long ways, too. So we tried to keep that in our mind when we develop new products and throughout the whole period of time.
Mike Lessiter: Let me ask you a question about the approach to new product innovation. Because I’m aware of other products that could have been in your top five. Some companies, conservative family companies, could just cold stop. Could sit where they are and say we made some good products and they’re going to keep churning those out. But you guys are making a decisive action to continue to innovate and invest. Tell me where that came from and why that is.
Nick Jensen: Honestly, I think we like to help people solve problems, you know? I mean, a lot of the best ideas that we have come up with have been from somebody that has come to us or somebody at a farm show that had a particular problem and either maybe thought they had the solution for it or maybe had no idea but said, “Hey. I really need something to help with this.” It was a lot like the Track Master story that Dad told. Do you want to address that a little more? He does… Dad’s day-to-day job, by the way, is to head the engineering department, so he can probably address that a little better.
Layton Jensen: Well, we don’t try to be innovative just to be innovative, we try to solve problems. And again, I mentioned about not trying to see what everybody else is doing. We try to think outside that box and how can we do this better? And usually what we end up with doesn’t necessarily cost less. It’s not the cheapest out there. But in our minds, if we can justify that there’s a reason to pay a little more for it, we can usually sell that. We’ve never been a low-price implement at the show. We’re always near the top. And we’re not ashamed of that at all. It’s easy to sell a product that’s got a lot of good features. And maybe back to innovation, one of the biggest things we’ve ever done is a five-year frame warranty. And nobody touches that in the industry yet because they’re afraid to, I think. You see some threes out there but nobody has a five. And our failure rate on an overall warranty, whether it’s a frame or whether it’s a piece on the machine that’s bolted on — our warranty rate is less than a 0.5% of sales. And that’s a pretty darn good rate in the industry.
Nick Jensen: And that goes right back to our people. I think we have some of the best people working for us. We’re blessed with the team that we have. We’ve got guys that are getting 30 and 35 year employee awards, you know? For being there that long. And we’ve got the new guys that come in with welding certificates and the first thing that production manager does was put his hand over his shoulder and say, “That’s a real nice certificate you’ve got. But we’re going to have you go over here and work with Tim for just a little bit, just to make sure that you understand how we want you to do it.” And because it’s been developed over that time. And they take a lot of pride in their work.
And there’s nothing they like more than us coming back from a show and telling them a story about how a farmer stood out here and said, “Boy. That’s a really nice weld. What kind of robot you got that does that weld in your shop?” And you look at him and say, “Well, that’s Troy. He does do a nice job and we’ll tell him.” You know? We do have some robots and we do have some CNC machines so don’t get me wrong, but we’ve got some great people. And that really makes a difference. And the relationships that you build with those people over time really reflects in the quality of the work that they put out, I think.
Mike Lessiter: If we go back to the early days, just for a moment, how did you guys go to market with these products, the ag products?
Layton Jensen: I’m glad you asked that question, because I left that part out. When we first came up with our ammonia toolbar, we went to our first show and then we went to our second and our third show. About then, we had an entire group of reps from a competitor come to us and say, “We want to sell your product.” And we had corn acre coverage across the United States immediately. And that’s how that started. And they were a great group of guys.
Nick Jensen: Some of them are still with us. Yeah.
Layton Jensen: Yeah. That was a bit of a chance circumstance, but we’ll pat ourselves on the back a little bit; they came to us for a reason.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. Most profitable show you’ve ever been part of, I guess. And so what year would that have been?
Layton Jensen: That had to be in the late, probably the second half of the 70s. In ’76 or ’77, somewhere in there.
Mike Lessiter: So how did your distribution evolve from that time to current how you go to market with these products?
Layton Jensen: Well, like a lot of things, people retire, people die, people change. And so the evolved part of the fertilizer distribution went to distributors as opposed to the rep model. And that was a good blessing because the fertilizer equipment takes more maintenance and more spare parts than a sub-tiller does, for instance. There’s more moving parts.
Nick Jensen: It’s a higher specialty, you know? It’s a higher degree of specialization in terms of even the technicians that you hire and the salespeople that you employ. A dealership, for example, they can certainly achieve that. And many of them do. But our distributors, for example, we know each salesperson personally. You know, it makes a difference.
Layton Jensen: The distributors are covering usually multiple states. So it’s easier to communicate with one group instead of 100 dealers. And not that we don’t have some dealer areas in our tillage products that we sell direct, but for the most part, the fertilizer applicators are all sold through the distributor network.
Nick Jensen: We do have some dealers that sell the fertilizer applicators for us but they’re qualified quite well before we can just say, “Hey. Here’s the dealership, have fun.” You know?
Mike Lessiter: In all small business, probably every business for that matter, there’s some defining moments both on the positive side and those that really nail you in the fire, so to speak. You know? The moment that you decided to put your head down and come out on the other side. When I ask about defining moments, what would come to mind for you?
Nick Jensen: I’d like to tell a story about when we purchased Simonson Iron Works. And I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a huge defining moment in the company, that’s probably yet to be seen, but it might help you jog your memory as to some other times. It was May of 2013, I think? When we bought Simonson, is that right?
Layton Jensen: Yes.
Nick Jensen: We decided to pull the trigger on that. We had been using them as a contract manufacturer to make our row units. It was one of our solutions or Ryan’s solutions, rather, to how do we get more product out the door? You know? Everything’s mowing and going and everything looks like it’s going to keep going forever. And we decided to purchase Simonson Iron Works because we felt that adding a contract manufacturing element to our business was diversifying a little bit. And at the same time, boy, isn’t it going to be cool to be able to build our own product as a contract manufacturer and bring it back in and capture that, you know, those extra benefits and things like that? And about the time that we did that is about the time corn started to go down. And you know?
So you know, things get a little thin and you know, you start scraping by to find that contract work for Simonson Iron Works at the same time that you're trying to find more business for Blu-Jet and things like that. And you know, the workload’s not double but it’s sure a little more than it used to be. And I can say in terms of a defining moment, I think it was maybe one of the first times that the company as a team when Ryan and I were back and had faced that kind of adversity? You know? Because Ryan got back a little bit before things were on the way up but things got going pretty quick.
And you know, I think our family and our team came out on the other side of that stronger and more focused and with a different idea of what management style should look like with two facilities and two brands and things like that. And really a better understanding of what a team has to do going through an adverse time like that. And it was kind of really neat to see that transition, looking back on it.
Layton Jensen: I think I can add when both Ryan and Nick were onboarded, it wasn’t too long that we started instigating a strategic plan. And prior to that, we didn’t have a formal strategic plan. We were just a family in business and doing okay. So I think I can attribute a lot of the successful implementation and the drive to get it going probably to Ryan, to instigate the process. And of course, both Nick and Ryan had great input in terms of how do we establish our core values and what are our goals? And it really helps us tackle some of the problems, when you have a recurring problem every few years with fluctuation of markets and fluctuation of sales, you know? We can look at that plan and say, “Well, here’s what the plan said. Can we get there?” And sometimes we can’t and sometimes you change it.
Nick Jensen: You talked about how critical it was to get those first reps on board, you know? And how key and critical of a point that was. Are there other things that are earlier in time that you might recall as critical? Particularly maybe before Ryan and I joined the business. A meeting that you and Grandpa had or a decision that you and Grandpa made or something that would have been —
Layton Jensen: I would say our decision to build our new factory in ’79 was critical. We were outgrowing our initial facility and we had another local manufacturer in the area that looked at me and said, “What in the heck are you doing?” And of course, that early on in the business, maybe you don’t realize what you're doing but you knew you needed to grow. And it seemed obvious to us, what we were doing. And as you look back now, it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Mike Lessiter: Even with the ag recession hitting you at less than two years old?
Layton Jensen: We made it work. That’s what you’ve got to do; you’ve just got to make it work. Another thing in the later time, maybe in the past… I don’t remember when we actually started, maybe six or eight years ago, was our ISO-9001 program. And that made us a lot better company. We were more diligent. We had some diligence before for inventory tracking and some of the procedures within the company. But the ISO-9001, you had to do it. And I’m so proud of the people that we’ve got that have continued that program successfully. Whenever we have an audit, a formal audit every three years — twice now the auditor has come back and he says, “You guys are in the top 5% in the country.”
Nick Jensen: And gosh, it just tells you how much the people care about … You know, and the ISO-9001 is a buy-in. I mean, it’s not something where you just say … Well, I’m sure some management teams might just give somebody a book and say, “Here. We’re doing this. Go do it.” But I mean, this was a buy-in process where you had to have your … You know, you have to have your upper managers, your middle managers, all the way down to the guy cutting steel. He’s got to be onboard with the process because if you miss a step — you know, it’s a huge deal. And it’s one of those things where the nice thing about ISO-9001 is they don’t ask for perfection, they ask for improvement. That’s another thing that we’ve implemented in our strategic plan and our onboarding process and all the way through the company, is a process of continual improvement. How are you going to be better today than you were a week ago or a month ago or what have you? And you can see that come through kind of all the way from an interview process to a job description to annual performance goals. They’re kind of just all in there.
Mike Lessiter: Was there ever a time that the business was in trouble?
Layton Jensen: Oh, sure. Probably two or three. You’ve just got to dig down and get creative, you know? How are we going to meet this next payroll? We’ve always been very conscious of the community. It never crossed our mind that we’d fail. We just had to figure it out.
Mike Lessiter: There was no decision other than moving forward?
Layton Jensen: Yeah, moving forward. Yes.
Mike Lessiter: Some tenacity there in Nebraska. If you could go back in time and do a do-over, what would you choose and why?
Nick Jensen: That’s a good question.
Layton Jensen: Nothing jumps out at me, Mike. We’ve certainly done a lot of things wrong. I always got a kick out of my dad. He used to tease me. He says, “Two heads are better than one, even though one is a cabbage head.” And I think he was talking about me. But we’ve also had a lot of fun with any of our fertilizer applicator products, we inject into the soil. And we’ve always said the reason that we inject fertilizer into the soil is because we’ve never seen roots grow on top of the ground. And when we tell a customer that, it really gets them thinking.
Nick Jensen: In terms of a do-over on my part, I guess I value my mistakes because they’re good teaching points, you know? But I think if I had something to do over again, there was a point in time when corn was high that we chose to try and branch out into different markets and do a lot of market diversification and spend some dollars there. And I think if I had that to do over again, I might choose to diversify some resources differently. And maybe do more of, instead of a shotgun approach, more of a rifle approach on one or two markets that really made sense. And then maybe do a different product line diversification over here or something different, allocate some resources to maybe a market breadth in our current markets or something like that. That would have been one where given the opportunity in the same things again, I’d probably take a do-over on that one.
Layton Jensen: I can recall back in the 80s, I think it was — we could foresee a need to inject dry fertilizer. And I got acquainted and somewhat over-involved with a dry box that we were going to make. And it was somebody else’s design and all the blessing were there to get it done. But we were about 15 or 20 years ahead of our time. And we spent a lot of effort and time and never got it off the ground because it was, at the time, expensive. So that would be a regret, so to speak, that we could have saved those dollars and put them somewhere else.
Mike Lessiter: Talk about Dad and Grandpa for a moment. I know that a lot of the people who are going to be paying attention to this interview know Wayne. But for those who don’t, tell us a little bit about his personality, his background, what kind of guy he is, what’s important to him.
Layton Jensen: I’ve never heard my dad say a negative word about anybody — always thoughtful in what he says and never any foul language or anything like that if he had a bad day. I’ve always respected that. He’s still enjoying life. He just turned 90 recently. And lives at the lake in the summer and lives in Mesa in the wintertime. So he’s got that part figured out. Him and Mom both are still enjoying life.
Nick Jensen: He never seems to stress about anything. You’ll be sitting there, whether it’s just sitting there talking to him or sitting there watching TV or something, just every once in a while, he’ll just look over and he’ll say, “So how’s business?” “Oh geez, Grandpa. I’ve just been traveling so much,” or I haven’t been able to do this or that. Or you know, “I’m three weeks behind on this project,” or whatever it is. He kind of looks at you and he said, “Well, that’s alright. You’ll get it figured out somehow, I’m sure. It will come around.” But he always wants to hear how the business is going. He always wants to hear what you're up to personally. And yeah, it’s just really, really nice still having him around and being able to talk to him about that stuff. Stress just seems to melt off of him.
Layton Jensen: Yeah. It rolls of off him.
Mike Lessiter: He’s got you guys handling all of that for him.
Nick Jensen: Right?
Nick Jensen: Well, the one thing that I have learned from both Dad and Grandpa over the years is if business is starting to trump family, you need to take a look at your priorities, you know? And that’s something that stuck with me, you know?
Layton Jensen: I should mention that my mother was also very involved with the business as far as doing the books in the early years. And she was an important part. And my wife came onboard and she took over a lot of those responsibilities. And she’s a trooper. She brings work home and works on her computer at home and makes sure the job gets done and never complains about it. She realizes the importance of it for the family as well. And people often ask, “Well, how do you stay married?” And I think the easy answer is well yeah, we talk a little bit about business at home but not really. You’ve got to keep it separate. And that’s the key, is you just can’t bring it home with you and whale on it. You’ve just got to separate family from business.
Mike Lessiter: Nick stays married because he’s on the road so much.
Nick Jensen: Yeah, that’s right. Mom and Grandma are also the ones that keep Christmas from turning into corporate board meetings, you know?
Layton Jensen: They have a spray bottle.
Nick Jensen: The spray bottle comes out if business is being talked about too much. They’ll usually let us update Grandpa on what’s going on that’s about it. You know?
Mike Lessiter: Looking back on this, Layton, what are the things that you’re most proudest of?
Layton Jensen: Having the kids in with me. It’s rare. It happens but it’s rare. What about you, Nick Jensen?
Nick Jensen: It’s being able to work with Dad and Grandpa on a daily basis. Can’t say I haven’t ever yelled over the phone — this, that or the other, “What the heck’s going on?” Or, “why isn’t this done?” Just being able to work with them. I don’t know if it’s unique, but we just have a way of separating family from business and working through things and making sure everything gets done. And it’s just so nice to be able to work with your family and be able to accomplish something together that not only builds a great product for customers but also helps build the family and keep everybody doing what they like to do. I guess that’s the greatest thing for me, is being able to work with them.
Layton Jensen: I think I could expand a little bit. Earlier, I mentioned about my dad’s local demeanor. And I can say that the way we’re doing business today with the family, I’ve never heard a shout or a negative word. There’s been discussion. But nothing heated. And Ryan made a comment the other day. He says, “You know, if we’ve got to make a decision that’s a big decision and two of us are thinking one way and if the third one has a real argument, we’ll probably go with him.” Just because we don’t want to split the party.
Nick Jensen: That’s interesting, too. I mean, there’s so many times that, you know, Ryan will have something that comes up and Dad and I will be in different places. And I don’t know how many times that I’ll answer a question that he asks and he said, “Oh, good. Dad said that too, so we’re all on the same page.” And so it’s really nice to know that, for the most part, the big decisions, we’re all on the same page. We all have the same ideals and the same goals for the business going forward.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about what you see as the reason for the short line companies’ place in the market and the future for them?
Nick Jensen: It’s going to continue to be innovation. You know? When you look at where the short line industry has grown up and what it is now today, it’s always focused on innovation. You know? And no matter how much the bigger brands, you know, try to dominate the marketplace, there’s a different demeanor in this industry. Farmers appreciate innovation. They appreciate quality. They appreciate variety. And they go to the short line manufacturer for that. That’s why dealers want short line manufacturers represented in their product catalogs; that’s why farmers want short line manufacturers on their yards, is because they understand that the value that a short line can bring to their farm, particularly if they want a piece of equipment customized to suit their particular need. They’re not going to find that in a major brand.
Particularly compared to some of our large, large competitors, we’re a small family business. And I think the farmer realizes that, for the most part, he’s a small family business, too. Just when they walk on the lot a lot of times, that commonality in and of itself gives us an edge up in a relationship.
Mike Lessiter: That’s an interesting point. Looking at the last 60 or so years, there were an awful lot of small, privately-owned enterprises that came into this industry. Someone’s got a better way to make an implement, a better idea for an implement. It’s got to be much, much harder to do today than it was 50 years ago. Is it harder to penetrate this business today than it was a couple generations ago?
Layton Jensen: It comes back to what Nick talked about earlier with what the farmer wants and expects and needs. And if we can solve a problem, we’re going to be the go-to guy. If we can’t or if we miss, shame on us. And we don’t chase every rabbit down the bunny hole. But if we see an opportunity where there’s maybe some volume, we’ll go there.
Nick Jensen: I guess I would say one thing that I feel is a challenge for short line companies today continues to be getting message out, “Hey, we’re over here, we have a new product, you should come and see it.” I don’t know if it’s a mixture of advertising budgets not being as big as the big guys. But that’s why a lot of our industry, the short liners, you see them online. That’s why the dealership is still important to them as well though, is because if a farmer can walk into a dealership and see something that’s new on the lot that’s from a short line manufacturer, that’s where they get to look at it. You know? Other than like a farm show like we have here. Normally, it’s sitting on the highway and he’s driving by and he does a double-take and he comes in and he looks at it. And you know, that’s a little hard to find these days, where a dealer will stock a piece like that. So just getting the message out as to what’s new and what’s innovative is a real challenge right now for the industry.
Mike Lessiter: It’s probably the distribution side that makes it most challenging today, versus starting a new company and having a great idea, a great mousetrap and wanting to take it out there. It’s the distribution side that’s going to get in the way.
Nick Jensen: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s so many other solutions as far as internet and social media and things like that, to try and get that message out there. But one thing that it continues to come back to is you can’t see a weld online very well. Which goes to quality. And if you’ve got a really innovative product, the guy still wants to touch it and he wants to talk to you about it and he wants his questions answered. And yeah, there are ways to do that online. But I think when it comes down to it, they really do still want to have a conversation with you.
Mike Lessiter: I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this before so if you need to, take a moment to think about it. Nick and I share an interest in movies. We talk movies a lot. And I know you guys have seen the movie It’s a Wonderful Life right? The Jimmy Stewart movie.
Nick Jensen: Yep.
Mike Lessiter: There’s a point in that movie where George Bailey starts to understand what would have happened if he wasn’t around. And I want you guys to think about, you know, just for a moment, the employees, the suppliers, the lenders, the dealers, the distribution. We’ve certainly benefited from you guys having some trust in us in the early years. Just chew on that for a moment and share an observation or two if you would.
Nick Jensen: It’s an interesting question. Part of me wants to say that somebody would — if it wasn’t us, somebody would fill that void. You know? It might not exactly be Thurston, Neb., and it might not exactly be exactly what Blu-Jet makes or anything like that. I think there are aspects to our company that are certainly unique and things that we do really, really well. And certainly employees that we have that we wouldn’t trade for the world. In a society that gives us, basically anybody, the opportunity to start from square one and see what you can build, I have a hard time believing that somebody in the marketplace might not have come in and filled that void to an extent. Not in the same way that we have and in that manner and the way that we’ve done it and with the resources that we’ve been able to use in a county with a population of just a little over 5,000 people and things like that, to growing it to something where it’s got pieces of distribution in five continents. I think that might be a bit unique. But you know, somewhere in the marketplace, that demand would have insisted that that gap would have been filled by somebody, I think. Is that a fair answer?
Layton Jensen: Yeah, I think so. We’ve had many suppliers that when the going gets tough, they’ve stuck with us. We talked about making it work. And we’ve had a lot of customers that continue to come to us. And repeat customers buying our product over and over again as they expand or as they grow their operation through some of the innovative things that we may have come up with. Really, the people that you employ are the grassroots of what’s going on.
I think Nick said it earlier, you’ve got to treat them right and do everything you can to maintain them. If you’ve got people coming in every six months and turnover, it’s very expensive to run a business. We’ve been very fortunate to have a good retention plan to keep them. And the negative thing about that is that the workforce ages. And so you have to be careful of that and still bring in new. But it’s important to… It’s like Ed Sullivan. Keep spinning the plates and keep them from dropping. And the more you can spin and keep them going, the better off you're going to be.
Mike Lessiter: I know it was probably a difficult question to ask of you. It’s a question that should be asked probably of your employees and the suppliers who you kept busy during tough times. But I wanted to ask it because I think it gets underestimated, how many lives you affected right there in Thurston by keeping those men and women employed and letting their families pursue their dreams and keeping the small businesses who are supplying you with these goods going.
Nick Jensen: Thanks, appreciate it.
Mike Lessiter: Is there anything that I have not asked you guys about, did I miss anything?
Layton Jensen: I’d like to thank the Lessiters for the things you’ve been doing for our company and for other companies as well. You’re an innovative company yourself and we appreciate a lot of the things that you bring to the table. It’s helped us grow and so it’s a mutual beneficial arrangement. Thank you for everything.
Nick Jensen: Yeah. The solutions you guys present to us, I feel that Lessiter Media understands our business. You know, at a level that some others don’t. That’s really appreciated. Because you can tell our story better than most.
Mike Lessiter: Thank you.
Nick Jensen: The other thing I think I wanted to mention — and Dad did touch on it a bit — is whether they work in our business or not, the women in our lives certainly put up with a lot of stuff. Whether it be late night meetings or, you know, early shows, or weeks on end of nothing but work while they get out and cut the yard and, you know, deal with kids. So yeah, whether they —
Mike Lessiter: I know both of you guys happened to married very well.
Nick Jensen: Yeah. I did pretty well, yeah. But you know, that often gets overlooked. Because boy, if I didn’t have the support system that I had at home, I couldn’t do what I do. And I love to do what I do. So that’s really important to me as well.
Layton Jensen: And I still have fun at work every day, so I don’t have any reason to leave yet.
Nick Jensen: Yeah.