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.