In this interview, Mike Lessiter, Editor/Publisher of Farm Equipment, takes the rare opportunity to interview four ag executives — spanning two generations — from Vermeer Manufacturing. Sitting around the founder’s family table in Pella, Iowa, the group shares the story of how the invention of the round baler lead to their present-day international operation.
In addition to the whole story they share here, be sure to read about how they got their plants back up and running after a tornado hit during the company’s 70th anniversary celebration here.
Mike Lessiter: I'm Mike Lessiter with Farm Equipment and Rural Lifestyle Dealer and I’m very excited to be in the founder's home here on the Vermeer campus, where Gary moved his family in in 1953 and Bob and Mary grew up in this home. We're sitting with the family today to talk about the history of Vermeer and their story as one of the largest family-run companies in the Midwest — including agriculture. It’s going to be a really good story. We're here just a couple days before Christmas with the three generations.
This is the final interview that we have in the series and one that we thought of when we put this whole idea together. So, thank you for making the time at Christmas rush, the busy end year — and knowing it's been an unusual year with the tornado that hit last summer and all hands on deck to get everything running again. We’re excited to talk about that too, but thank you for this opportunity. This'll be fun for me personally.
Mike Lessiter: We'll start with you, Mindi.
Mindi Vandenbosch: Start with me? I’m Mindi Vandenbosch, and I am the Manager of Distribution Development in the forage division and I've been here for 10 years.
Bob Vermeer: I’m Bob Vermeer, I'm Chair Emeritus, but I worked for the company for 40 years and I was CEO during part of that time, and then Chair, and now I'm Chair Emeritus.
Mary Andringa: I’m Mary Vermeer Andringa, Chair of the Board, but also I have worked in the business for about 36 years, including as Chief Operating Officer, and CEO, and now chair.
Jason Andringa: I’m Jason Andringa. I'm honored to serve as the CEO in the third generation of Vermeer family and I've been at Vermeer for 13 years and was in five different jobs at Vermeer before having the opportunity to move into CEO.
Mike Lessiter: Talk about the very earliest history with your father. When someone asks you, “Tell us how Vermeer got off the ground,” how you would answer that question?
Bob Vermeer: Well, my father was always innovative and if you have the chance to go through the museum, you'll see what his shop looked like initially. But, basically, he was always looking for a way to fulfill a need and started with some product that some neighbors were interested in. It really moved on from there to a variety of items in our history.
Mike Lessiter: That first product was a wagon hoist?
Bob Vermeer: Right, and he basically wanted to find an easier way of getting grain out so he developed that. And there was a lot of interest in that.
Mary Andringa: Yeah, and he initially built that for his own use. He and his father were doing corn picking for a number of neighbors during World War II. And, again, they were trying to find out a better way to get from one farm to the other quickly, and a part of that was creating an easier way to unload the corn out of the wagon — so it was a mechanical wagon hoist.
Then, when he had neighbors start to say, “oh, could you build one of those for me?” He went to a blacksmith shop in Pella, Iowa, and actually tried to do an OEM arrangement with them for a while. That didn't really go, I don't think, as well as he thought it would. So, in 1948 was when he decided to start his own manufacturing business with his cousin Ralph Vermeer. Actually, he was a co-founder initially and, unfortunately, Ralph passed away after about the first decade of the business. But the two of them were the ones that really started the business.
Mike Lessiter: He was a farmer at that point, just had found an opportunity to make something different?
Mary Andringa: He was a farmer, but he was always a tinkerer too. So, as Bob said, we have a piece of the shop that he worked in on his family farm, which is right across from Vermeer Corporation, and was always looking at better ways to do things. So one of my favorite pictures that's in the museum is the cab that he put on a John Deere tractor in 1939. So it was before he was married, where he was working at home and there was an article, actually, in the local paper, Pella Chronicle, that showed Gary Vermeer in the tractor with a cab in April. And it said, “When everybody else was on their tractor with purple cheeks and hands because it was so cold, Gary Vermeer was riding nicely along in his cab on his tractor.” And I said to him once, “Dad, did other people have cabs on their tractors?,” and he said, “No. Nobody had cabs on tractors.”
Jason Andringa: I don't think anybody thought about it. He would tinker for comfort. I mean, we know that when we were in Canada, that he would tinker with things to make it more comfortable.
Mary Andringa: Whether it be the seats on the—
Bob Vermeer: On the boat.
Mindi Vandenbosch: And one thing ... I started working with our forage dealers in the last year and I always like to tell our new dealers that what I think is exciting is a lot of times, his first inventions after the wagon hoist and a few others, are actually our industrial side of the product. But a lot of them were because he was trying to make it easier on the farm. So, at the end of the day, he still had the farm, kind of in the background of his mind all the time. And then those first inventions or second, third, fourth, whatever, were more of, “hey, let's make it easier on the farm.”
Mike Lessiter: What would some of those be — those inventions?
Mindi Vandenbosch: His machine, the stump cutter.
Jason Andringa: Really, the entire business can trace its heritage back to the farm. Even though more than 80% of the business today is the industrial side of the business, and less than 20% is the board side of the business, the entire industrial side of the business can trace its heritage back to innovations on the farm. So about 50% of the business traces its heritage back to PTO-driven tilling trenchers to drain low-lying farm fuels. And then about 30% of the business traces its heritage back to the invention of the stump cutter, which was invented to clear land to be put in to agriculture.
Mindi Vandenbosch: Yeah, and he always seemed to, I think, buy the river bottom land at times, and so it was neeting some way to drain, you know, the water off that land. The original trencher kinda came from that.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah, and that stump cutter story, there was some serendipity in that one as I understand…
Jason Andringa: So, the idea came from a local area farmer who brought it to Vermeer. And they developed a prototype and they had a prototype that they assumed would be most effective cutting forward and backward across the stump. And, as the story goes, someone hit the wrong lever and it swung side to side, and they realized it was five times more effective cutting a stump that way.
To this day, that is how a stump cutter works. It sweeps back and forth across the stump. It’s quite interesting in the history of the company that the heritage of our industrial side of the business actually predates the invention of the round baler, which is the single most iconic invention in Vermeer's history.
Bob Vermeer: Regarding the round baler, my dad was out walking with a friend one morning who was putting up square bales and said, “There has to be a better way,” and basically decided he was gonna sell his heard of cattle, because he thought it was too much work. And, from that, dad went to engineering with a gentleman called Arnie Mathis, who had a sixth grade education, but he was a brilliant person. And together, they started developing the large round hay baler. And basically, I started Vermeer in 1974 but the balers started in ‘71 or ’72. And in the 70s, it's interesting because I think probably 75% of our sales were from the baler production at that time. So, that was a really exciting time. And you kind of asked about how we financed that. Basically, dad required a $500 deposit on every baler. So that money all came in when the orders were placed, and those were the funds that helped finance, you know, basically all the production material that was needed for the baler.
Jason Andringa: The business had been in existence for 23 years before the invention of the baler. And my grandfather, their father, Mindi's grandfather, had experience from the depression and that always stuck with him. So the business was always financially conservatively operated. The business had a strong financial foundation to begin with. And then, as Bob said, by expecting a deposit for every order, really it was well-financed for the growth that the baler brought.
Mary Andringa: One of the biggest common themes in the whole growth and new products at Vermeer has always been looking for an opportunity to take waste out of a present system.
Mindi Vandenbosch: Yeah, fix a process or a problem with a product.
Mary Andringa: With a solution. Particularly, Dad said — and Bob and I heard this lots and lots of times and I think Jason and Mindi did too— you know, you don't go and just redo what somebody else has done. His premise, his thought... Now, today, we have to continually enhance products, but his premise was to design something new that's not out in the market now.
Mike Lessiter: That large round bale story is amazing to me. There can't be all that many single revolutions like that one. Prior to your neighbor who he had had that conversation with, he probably needed four or five people to put up his hay, prior to that.
Bob Vermeer: I remember that personally because when I was growing up, we were expected to help in the summer. So he had one person driving the tractor… Well, first of all, you raked the hay. Then the actual putting up the square bales, you had someone drive the tractor that made the square bales. Then you had someone on the wagon who was stacking the bales. Then, when that wagon was full, you took that wagon to where the barn was and you took the bales off, put 'em in an elevator, and they went up in the elevator into the barn. So and then you got someone in the barn...
Mary Andringa: And then somebody has to stack, right and I think—
Bob Vermeer: That was always the worst job, beccause it was really…
Mary Andringa: At least four people.
Bob Vermeer: Because, see, that was when people were still using the barns with the second level where the hay was stored, 'cause quite often they had cattle or livestock down below that. Over the years that has changed, but, certainly, at that time, you know, I still remember the days when, you know, they put up hay with the fork. I mean, it was loose hay. You put a fork in and then you put it up and put it in the barn. That was a very difficult to feed, because it was all…
Mike Lessiter: That's a great story. What are your earliest memories of dad and the company, the earliest memories you remember from back then?
Bob Vermeer: Well, I remember sitting in this house and I remember dad going out and milking cows in the morning. We had two Holstein cows and he would go out and milk them. And, in fact, I had one myself later on. Why? I do not know. But anyway, so I remember that and meals around the table. And when the company started, Mary and I would both go with him to work sometimes, because he wore many hats.
I remember when the company started, some fun trips. The fact that dad loved to fly, so he had the Bonanza and we would go visit customers and the family would go along. So a lot of our vacation time was spent visiting customers. So I think the family in that plane was another great experience.
Mary Andringa: I don't remember Dad milking a cow. When I was growing up, Bob was the one milking the cow, but I definitely remember walking the plants with him. It was the plant that we had on the west side of Pella and it was usually... I remember going in the evenings and so it would be after a meeting or something. Maybe it was after church. I don't remember. And we would go and I would walk with him through the plants and, you know, they were usually not that well-lit at that point. And then I also had a fascination in the office with all the carbon paper. I was sort of a teacher from way back and so I would gather carbon paper then put it in the waste basket. It wasn't gonna be reused...
Mindi Vandenbosch: It's a good reason.
Mary Andringa: But it was, you know, what they made multiple copies of at the time without a printer. And we would take some of those home and have a good time, you know, using those for whatever my projects were at home.
I also remember, as Bob did, those first 10 years of the business. We started a dealer organization for industrial at the end of that decade in the late '50s, '58/'59. So, when we went on family trips, dad was working through shortline manufacturing reps. And so, he would kinda go directly to customers.
One of my best memories was we when we flew to Alaska, in 1960 and I remember sitting through a dinner with my mom and dad. And I'm not sure where Bob and Stan were. They were maybe off doing something more fun. And I was sitting with a customer talking about a trencher. Not that dad brought work home a lot, but we certainly remember the stories. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and dad coming home and saying, “we found this way to be able to go around a tree and spade it so that we can pick it up and transplant it. Just think about that. If you can have a tree in your yard that's already 10 inches in diameter, wouldn't that be great.” And he got really excited about that. And then I remember him also, when I was home from college, talking about the round hay baler and throwing the fence post in, so…
Mike Lessiter: Did the articulating it at the dinner table—
Mary Andringa: Yeah. Well, and I think it was his excitement over it too. Something new. He was always excited about the something new and different and something that would make work easier.
Mike Lessiter: When the two of you were growing up, how big was this company and the size of the plants? Contrast it to today.
Bob Vermeer: Well, I remember, I think that was kind of another fun memory. I remember having Christmas parties with the employees and that was about 100 people. I don't know if I was 10 or 11, whatever I was. But I remember going to those Christmas parties and it was kind of like family. And the talent at those Christmas parties was basically employee's kids. I'll never forget, once they had a magician there, and there was a secretary who was basically a relative of my dad. And they put her in something and cut her in half. And I just remember as a kid I was just floored.
Mary Andringa: You were probably worried.
Bob Vermeer: Well, I was, yeah.
Mary Andringa: We were actually often part of the entertainment as well. Between Bob and Stan and I — we sang and played instruments and, you know, did Christmas carols or something. But there were other young people who did tap dancing and a variety of talent, homegrown talent.
Mike Lessiter: So, throughout the '60s, the employment and number of plants by the end of the '60s, what might it have been?
Mary Andringa: Well, at the end of the '60s was when — in the mid-'60s — we started building out here, on the east side. And the story goes, and I heard this not too long ago, that dad wanted to expand on the west side and so he tried to buy land from a farmer and that farmer jacked up the price pretty high. And he was offended by that, that someone would try to take advantage of him just, you know, jack the price. He said, “We're gonna go find land somewhere else,” and that's when he bought the farm, which is right where the campus is today. I do remember, and this was in the early '70s… probably 'bout the time you started, Bob, I mean the company was 15 million in volume.
Bob Vermeer: Right.
Mary Andringa: 'Cause we did have a buyer who wanted to buy us and we had a family meeting in this room, when it was the living room. Bob and Stan were both married and I was not yet. Maybe it was more like '60s. We talked about, this company came to us and would like to buy us. What do you think? And we, couple of us, said, no, we think we might wanna be involved in the business someday. So we decided not to sell.
Bob Vermeer: I think probably in the early '70s, I think when I transitioned to Vermeer, that was '74. I would just say in '73 we were about 15 million in sales but then we jumped to, like, 30 million in sales in 1974. I wanna say we had about 500 employees at that time.
Mindi Vandenbosch: And Plant Two was there by then, right, 'cause in the pictures of the baler I thought that Plant Two was already built.
Mary Andringa: I think '64 and '68 were when those two plants were built.
Bob Vermeer: Right.
Mike Lessiter: And fast forward to today where it's about a billion dollar company? What is the total number of employees and square footage?
Jason Andringa: More than 3,200 employees and—
Bob Vermeer: Worldwide.
Jason Andringa: Yeah, worldwide, we have about 2,800 that are based in Pella. And, before the tornado, we had about 1.5 million square feet of space. The tornado took 400,000 of that.
Mike Lessiter: Tremendous growth story here. In '74/'75 was when the round baler—
Jason Andringa: Invented in '71 and then immense growth through the 70s. We've had periods of really strong growth. The '70s being one of them, with the round baler. And then the '90s being the other real prominent one, which was horizontal directional drilling. We're a market share leader today in horizontal directional drilling, and one of the first to jump onboard with that technology. And that really fueled our growth in the '90s. So those were two very significant growth periods and then, post downturns of 2001, 2004 and then also the 2009 downturn we had significant periods of growth after both of those downturns.
Mary Andringa: Yeah, we've just about doubled since '99. And that was the beginning of our LEAN journey.
Jason Andringa: Well, we've actually more than doubled. Well, right at double.
Mike Lessiter: Question for Mindi and Jason. So we heard about their earliest memories. What were your earliest memories and how they were different from Mary and Bob here?
Jason Andringa: Sure, I was born in 1975. So my first memories kind of late '70s/early '80s with regards to Vermeer were definitely all around the round baler. If you had asked me in the late '70s or early '80s, you know, “What does Vermeer do? What do they make?” Round balers. That would've been what I would've said.
And I do remember growing up with four older cousins, two of whom were Bob's kids and two of whom were my Uncle Stan's kids. Then my sister and then two younger cousins. My earliest memories with regards to Vermeer were our family pride with regards to the round baler. And we have classic pictures from those times when all eight of us were on a round bale of hay. That is when Vermeer was growing dramatically.
At that point, Vermeer was already located here, right across the street from the founder's house. And my earliest memories, we had four production plants and we had covered storage, which is now our parts center and our clinic and pharmacy. There was still a field in between Plant Four and my grandparents' house. And, as time went on, we built more plants and eventually, when I was in college, we built the global pavilion, which is across the street from my grandparents' house.
So, growing up, there was already, in my mind, this significant company that made round balers. And then it just kept growing and it kind of gradually dawned on me that we make a lot more than round balers and we make trenchers and we make stump cutters. And now we're involved in this new thing that's super exciting, horizontal directional drilling and we make horizontal wood grinders and we make terrain levelers. And it just sort of gradually dawned on me how broad the business was and how global it was.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to make a couple trips to Russia with my mom to visit customers that were putting in significant natural gas infrastructure. And those were impactful trips for me to recognize the incredible impact that Vermeer machinery can have. The work Vermeer machinery does can make a significant impact on the lives of people a long ways away. And it’s machines that came out of this factory that was doing that work. Those are some of my significant memories growing up with regards to Vermeer.
Mindi Vandenbosch: My stories are a little different than that, I think. For me growing up, one, I came a lot with my mom to work. So Jason was already in school and I was not in school yet. So I would get dropped off here at grandma's house and a lotta my memories were riding the bike around. She would go get baby pigs outta the barn for me so I could play with them, 'cause I loved animals. I remember jumping around bales of hay. He'd have 'em all stacked up and I'd start at one end and hop 'em all back and forth.
When it comes to Vermeer itself, again, going to work with my mom, I remember when Plant One, when you walked in the door, offices to the right. But, to the left, was a completely open space and I would roller skate all through there. I walked around and I talked to everyone. When I got a little older, I'd ride the bus to Vermeer after school and I'd go and get everyone's recycling 'cause, at the time, there was one shredder.
And so I'd go down and I'd shred everyone's papers. And so I think, for me, it's a very different... I'm pretty social so I'd go just kind of talk to everyone and see how everyone's doing. My first time really being employed I worked in marketing as a high schooler. But I think the one to talk about kinda the impact was I came back here the summer before my senior year of college and I worked out in Plant Six in the factory. And that's when we were really launching LEAN as a new way to manufacture.
Mike Lessiter: What year was that?
Mindi Vandenbosch: It was '99. I don't want to date me here. I think what I loved there was I loved the people. I love the product. I love being in manufacturing. I love seeing our team members hard at work problem solving, just kind of hearing more about the company. And so that's kinda what got me excited. I actually kind of changed my career path after that and went into manufacturing, just 'cause I loved seeing product being built, so—
Mary Andringa: You learned how to weld.
Mindi Vandenbosch: I learned how to weld that summer. I wasn't great, but I built racks to put jigs and fixtures on for our machine shop... I just had a lot of fun that summer. I used to file engineering prints for engineers, and so there's a handful of those people who are still around. So it's kinda fun to see them still as I'm back here on the day-to-day basis. I mean, as far as grandma goes and this house, uh, lots of memories, you heard from Bob and Mary. She loved to be hospitable. She loved people to come over. She liked to cook for people… And Jason has 'em too. Lots of memories of just getting into trouble around the farm kind of too and things we didn't get to do at our home. I have a lotta great memories of this house and, you know—
Jason Andringa: Me too.
Mindi Vandenbosch: This farm.
Jason Andringa: Yeah, I mean, my mom, as she was ramping up her career at Vermeer when we were young, we were here a lot. You know, weekends, when she was traveling with my dad for something. Once we had switched schools and we were going to school in Pella. We'd stay here for a whole week and, I have a lotta memories of this house and the proximity to Vermeer.
Mike Lessiter: A question about how you're all here today. We all have seen the statistics on family-run businesses. I'm second-generation. I'm going to learn from you today with free consulting, right? So, how are things set up that, so well, or the vision that was had to get to the third generation and have everybody working, keeping this a family-run business that's seen tremendous growth and innovation? Tell us a little bit about that.
Bob Vermeer: Through the years, we certainly went through some difficult times. And I think that, uh, we really felt that when we saw the third generation coming along and some of them were in college already, uh, we thought we should work with a family firm that would help us through some of these difficulties.
So, in '89 we worked with a group out of Minneapolis, a family succession group and basically, they along with us, and Mary was real involved in that also, and Mindi, and then my wife Lois, and daughter-in-law were real involved working with this group but also developing like a family employment policy, a family creed and just a group of different documents, you know, how we keep moving forward.
And also during that time, as I mentioned, some of the third generation in college and some were still in junior high, but we went through a whole evaluation process. Each one met with someone from this firm and they had to put together a five year plan and I remember very well my youngest daughter, who was in junior high, couldn't quite figure out what her five year plan would be.
But I think for some of those, like Jason, who was in high school, and some of the college students, that was very valuable. So and then we rotated to other, you know, family succession type groups. But I really believe starting that was very important. Because there's a lot of emphasis on communication. And I think also the fact that we put, you know, some, I guess, rules and regulations together, on if you want to be involved in the business, what you needed to do was helpful.
Mary Andringa: Yeah, I think we put a lot, really started working on governance for the family. And realizing that you've got the family and you've got the business and you have shareholders. And the shareholders and family aren't necessarily the same, so a lot of processes we've been through. And as Bob said, we started with a small group. We called it our Family Council. And that evolved over the years, where now what we have is an Ownership Council and so Mindi's chair of the Ownership Council and she followed Bob's daughter who was the first chair of the Ownership Council. But there's a lot of guidelines around that — how you serve, what the roles are, what you have to work on. And to be honest with you, the family ownership council deals with a lot of hard stuff.
Bob Vermeer: And maybe another thing we've started more recently is the fact that we do have shareholder directors on the Board. But if they want to be a shareholder director, they have to go through an evaluation process, we put together a plan on areas of—
Mindi Vandenbosch: A development plan, yep.
Bob Vermeer: Strengths and weaknesses, the development plan. And I think that's invaluable too because I think for a period of time, you know, there were some people who were on the board, family members, there were really no requirements. And I think we're in a much better place right now, whereby people have to apply and have to be approved.
Mary Andringa: So the whole idea that, we didn't want entitlement. Whether it's family members in the business or, as Bob said, family members on the Board as shareholder directors, it's not an entitlement that it's your turn now. And so Jason and Mindi can talk about the fact that they had to follow the family employment policy which has certain requirements, it's not an entitlement.
Mindi Vandenbosch: Yeah, and what I was going to say, I think the most important thing, back even in those early discussions was there were expectations set. So to the point, it wasn't just I get to show up here and you're going to let me be this role or let me be on the Board, it was, early on — junior high for me — there was expectations of how you needed to get there. And if you wanted to put the work in, you could come back to Vermeer. So, I think it was really good, and, yeah, setting the expectations so we all kind of knew what we were getting into versus being surprised — well, I don't know that I had to do this.
Mary Andringa: And I think we also made, tried to make a real point, and that was part of the family constitution that we did early on, is that we wanted to support each person in the family wherever their passions were. And if they had a true passion and they had a skillset to come to the business, that was great and then we'd have a way to do that. But it was not expected that everybody had to come into the business either. So I think, you know, it's that balance.
Bob Vermeer: Well, I think you certainly want to keep the business open to non-family. And that they have an incentive to come here and a desire to have a very important part of the development of the company and the future of it. So, I don't know if it's mentioned, but we had three of the third generation who required we get a college degree, worked somewhere else and get an MBA. And I think that kind of set the bar if you want to be part of management in the future.
Jason Andringa: Yeah, for me it was very helpful that we already had the family employment policy in place before I went to college. I selected my major thinking that it would be a good major to eventually go back at Vermeer with. But right off the bat, I was already thinking, well what would be an interesting thing to do for a period of time before I eventually go back to work for the company. And, you know, I'm just glad that that was my mental expectation from the beginning. I never thought, “Well, maybe I'll go straight to the company,” because in my mind, it wasn't an option. I knew right from the beginning that I would do something else first. Mindi and Allison have done the same thing, we all worked outside of the business for a period of time before coming to work for the business.
Mike Lessiter: So were there guidelines that said five years or…?
Mary Andringa: At first it was a range, but I think most of you, you all did at least four.
Mindi Vandenbosch: Yeah.
Bob Vermeer: And I think we learned from the fact that when they worked for another company we would have liked to see them have had a promotion there.
Mary Andringa: Right.