In this bonus interview, Vermeer Manufacturing leaders share the incredible story of how they worked on a 30-day timeline to recover their full manufacturing capabilities after a devastating tornado hit their facility in Pella, Iowa.
Mike Lessiter, Editor/Publisher of Farm Equipment, sat down with Bob Vermeer, Mary Andringa, Mindi Vandenbosch and Jason Andringa, as they shared their story, and their most recent feat of revolution and resilience. To find out more about the company’s history and present-day, read the full original interview here.
Mike Lessiter: I would like to briefly talk about the tornado, and what I think has got to be a near record accomplishment of getting the plant back up to going. So if we could talk about that for a little, what happened and how you got through that?
Jason Andringa: Absolutely. Hope I never have to go through it again, but it's been absolutely remarkable, the performance of the business since the tornado. So it occurred on July 19 and we had 400 customers here celebrating our 70th anniversary. And in fact, I was right in this building, I was in the Founder's House in the garage, talking with customers and dealers about my grandparents' outdoor hobbies, etc., when we were told there was a tornado warning.
At first they said, “Hey, we're just going to see what happens with it.” And then a few minutes later they said, “We're going to bring everyone back into the tornado shelters.” I was convinced for 45 minutes that the tornado was going to miss us to the north, and I assumed that the tornado shelters in the Global Pavilion would be fairly crowded because we had so many people here. But yet, sufficient, which proved to be the case. We had sufficient shelter space, not only for our team members but those hundreds of customers and dealers that were here as well.
I went back to the Plant One Corporate tornado shelter. And I was in there and the tornado struck and came from the north and completely demolished— you could see the path of it very clearly. It was on its way down and took out a bunch of oak trees to the farm to the north of Vermeer and was on the way down and completely demolished what's called our Ecocenter. And then touched down fully between Plants Five and Plants Six which were completely destroyed and are now completely demolished. And then was on the way up and basically spun 250 vehicles on top of each other like they were matchbox cars in a bucket that someone had just spilled on the ground.
I was in the tornado shelter in Plant One and we did not feel the pressure like lots of other people did in their ears. In our tornado shelter, the lights flickered twice between the main lights and the backup lights and we kind of looked at each other like, maybe something happened. I was standing next to the security person and her radio started becoming very active with other security people, talking about, the roof is off, windows are off, people are hurt.
Right about that same time, we got the all clear and came out of the tornado shelter and my first two visual memories. One was that I looked to the west, the sky was blue, so the tornado was, you know, a very localized event that came from the north and cut a gash through the middle of the mile from north to south and started driving along the back, and of the mile because I was already see the other thing that I noticed was that I was already seeing lots of emergency vehicles arriving, so police cars, ambulances, fire trucks. Amazing how quickly our emergency responders were here.
So I decided to go along the back of the Vermeer mile and assess the damage and see what I started to see. I will never forget what I saw on that first drive along the back of the mile. To see the Ecocenter completely destroyed, it was a pile of rubble. The north walls of Plants Five and Six were caved in, I could see into the plants and I could see geysers of water going off in each of the plants as, you know, water infrastructure had been ruptured. I got over to the pavilion, which is the other side of the Vermeer Mile and then went to the guard shack, which we were thinking we would set up as our command center and emergency responders said they would like that as their command center. So went back to the pavilion, found out the water didn't work and the lights didn't work and then we came back to plant one and set up a conference room as our initial command center where the initial priorities were determining what injuries there were and worse, could there have been any fatalities, which thankfully the greatest blessing is that there were no fatalities, but at the time, we didn't know that. We started already within hours, we were putting out our first communication to our team members and within hours we were already doing press briefings, and we were very happy to be able to utilize the media who did a tremendous job of helping to get our message out as well.
The combination of us communicating directly to our team members and the more broad communication that the media provided was extremely important to inform our team members of what was going on and that evening, we were already able to say that we were very confident that we had no serious injuries, and minor injuries had already been treated and released and that we had no fatalities and the next morning, we came back with our operations leadership team and we had three priorities that we wanted to assess. We wanted to determine if there were any of our facilities that we could have back in production as of Monday morning — this was on a Friday morning. We wanted to know whether there were some of our facilities that were damaged but could be repaired, and then what facilities were maybe completely destroyed and what would we do with those product lines and that very first day, we actually accomplished all of that, which to this day, I am blown away by the fact that we were able to do that in that first day.
We determined in the morning that on Monday morning we would bring two thirds of our team back to work because we determined that we could get plants one through three and the parts center back up and going on Monday, and in fact we ended up bringing people in for the parts center that very first day on Friday, and so that included the the team members that were based in those facilities plus the additional team members that we brought back for the cleanup effort and the moving effort and the effort of moving lines. We brought two thirds of our team back that very next Monday, and then that same day we determined that plants four and seven were damaged but could be repaired and we already started developing our plans for how we were going to repair those facilities and the front offices in front of plant six and plant seven, that those could be repaired and in fact those are now completely…Those two front offices and plants four and seven are now completely repaired from the tornado damage.
And then the final thing that they, the operations team figured out that very first day in the afternoon is they figured out what space we could free up in plants one through three, four and seven so that we could move the product lines from plant five and six to our other facilities. So we decided to move our engineering prototype efforts off site. We moved our tooling efforts off site. We moved a lot of storage off site and by doing that over the next month and a half, we were able to relocate all of our production lines from plants five and six to our other locations. By the time it was all said and done, we got all of our team back to work within 30 days and we recovered all of our production within 45 days and by the time our fiscal year was finished, we lost very few sales. We probably lost a few sales for those products that were relocated from plants five and six, but for the most part, we have heard from our dealers and from our customers that we were able to recover our production to a point that for a lot of our customers and a lot of our dealers, if they hadn't heard about the tornado, they would not have known it happened based on Vermeer's performance. Just an incredible, incredible story and likely will be the thing I'm most proud of in my entire career at Vermeer by the time it's all said and done that we were able to do that.
Mike Lessiter: I think you're, you'll be remembered for that. I've heard the story from Mark that there was an early meeting with the leadership team and it was said we will be fully up, operational in 45 days and 20, we'll be back—
Jason Andringa: That was the goal. That very first night at the press briefing, I said that you know, we were going to rebuild and we were going to come back better and stronger than ever before and so early that next day when we had those three goals, you know, I put those three goals in the context of you know, frankly skilled workforce is very difficult to find, so the last thing we wanted was for our people to be out of work for an extended period of time and go find jobs someplace else. So we were strongly driven by the desire to get our people back to work as quickly as possible so that they didn't go look for jobs other places. That was a major drive, and then also our business, the business segments that we serve are very strong right now, and so we didn't want to miss out on business that would go to our competitors and therefore, that relationship would start with our competitors. So we were very driven by the desire to get our people back to work and not lose the incredible business momentum that we have out there. So we set a goal just based on those two factors of wanting to have our people back to work and recover our production within a month and a half.
We felt that that was achievable, and yet at the same time the kind of timeline we needed so that we, we wouldn't have attrition from the tornado and that we wouldn't lose sales from the tornado and we exceeded the goal with regards to getting the people back to work. We got that done in two thirds of the goal, in 30 days, and we did recover our production within 45 days. So we did it and just recently we had our dealer year-end meeting and lots and lots of dealers said to me that if I didn't know about the tornado just from the perspective of customer perspective and my own inventory and my own sales, I wouldn't even know you guys got hit by a tornado. That's how effective we were at recovering.
Mike Lessiter: Outstanding.
Mary Andringa: And to be honest with you, our lean mentality really helped. It was like a two week, mile long kaizen. A lot of leaders took on a new role for those two or three weeks. Mark Cooper, who's head of our quality initiative, he was in charge with a small team of finding space to go bring these prototyping machines and central receiving where we needed space and when he went and looked at dozens and dozens of places — where could we move things? One of our legal folks was in charge if figuring out how to return those 250 cars to everybody that had been, you know, piled up on top of each other. How to organize that, how to communicate it. Our communication team and our HR team I think were splendid. Engineering, all of industrial engineering was committed to helping get lines moved for the first month. So I mean, it was like an all hands on deck working, small groups working and reporting back a couple times a day on what do you need, what are the barriers, how can we help? Since we didn't lose any lives, we'd have to say it was just one of some of our proudest moments. Seeing how people, how people dug in, worked together, did phenomenal things in a short amount of time.
Mike Lessiter: You must have learned something about the character and caliber of your people through that process.
Jason Andringa: For sure. I mean, right away, that very first evening when I said we're certainly gonna rebuild, better and stronger than ever, one of our creative team members immediately came up with the graphic and the motto “Vermeer strong,” which became our rallying cry right off the bat and you could still see Vermeer strong branding up and down the mile and it is amazing. I'll always be amazed by the tenacity and the resolve of the Vermeer team to come back more thoroughly and more quickly than what any external person would think would be possible and that's what we were able to do just because of that Vermeer strong, tenacious commitment to coming back.
Mike Lessiter: That's an outstanding story and accomplishment. The team element, it's awe inspiring.
Mary Andringa: We do think Gary would have been proud. I think he himself would have been amazed at how quickly we could move, we could retrieve, we could go through, we could check, two, two, three thousand jigs. You know, make the quality checks, make the changes, some things were not gonna be repaired, but 90% of things could be repaired.
Mike Lessiter: He's been gone about 10 years? If you had had the ability to talk with him after the 45 days, what would he have said to each of you about what happened here?
Bob Vermeer: I really think he would have said well done. He wasn't one to give a lot of compliments. I just think he would have been very proud of the family and all the people at Vermeer that were involved.
Jason Andringa: My grandfather was very metric driven. When I would fish with him, we would talk about how quickly we got to our limit and how many fish we would catch per hour and those type of things, and so I think my grandfather, if he could have observed our entire recovery from the tornado, he would have just been amazed by those daily and weekly metrics that we were tracking. We had two thirds of our people back the very first Monday. The next week, we brought plant four back online and were over 80% of our team back. Every day we were bringing higher and higher percentage back until a month after the tornado, we had brought everybody back and every week we were talking about this week we have moved the small and medium navigator line to plant seven and they're starting to ramp up. We're moving the small tractor line to plant one. We're moving the large tractor line to plant three. We're clearing out the high bay and we're moving the horizontal grinder line into that location and all of those milestones which were victories for us every day, to have the first machine come off one of our assembly lines already the Monday after the tornado and we took a picture of that and we sent it out to our dealers and said, “We're already back up producing machines.” I think my grandfather would have seen all those milestones and, like Bob said, would have been extremely proud to, to see that happen.
Mindi Vandenbosch: The other thing I always noticed, he was always, we talked about inquisitive, but he always wanted to know strategy. So my story, I played basketball through high school and college and after a game, he'd always want to know why we'd call a play. So I could see him asking why'd you move it there? Why'd you make this decision?
Mary Andringa: How did you decide that?
Mindi Vandenbosch: What went into that strategy Maybe back to the metric and the data, but he always kind of asked those “why”s, you know? If he was sitting back watching it, it'd be, “Why'd you put that one in that plant,” or, “Why'd you move this to here?” And I think that would have intrigued him to understand the strategy behind it all.