From the magazine, Rehabilitation, Tunnelling

In search of a better way

In the early 1940s, Gary Vermeer designed and built the first mechanical hoist for his grain wagon, an invention that transformed the backbreaking chore of unloading harvested crops into a simple task that could be completed with minimal effort in half the time. At that stage starting a manufacturing company was the furthest thing from his mind, but when other farmers saw the device in action Gary was inundated with requests to build one for them. So in 1948, Vermeer Manufacturing Company officially took root in a modest one-room cinderblock building that Gary and his cousin built on the west edge of the small rural farming community of Pella, Iowa.

Over the past 60 years, product innovation – or “finding a better way” – has defined the Vermeer Corporation and is at the root of everything the company does. The wagon hoist was just one of the many “firsts” developed by visionary inventor and ideas man Gary Vermeer. Other notable inventions include a PTO-powered hammermill, stump cutter, tree spade and hydrostatic-driven trencher. Today that list continues to grow with the development of niche products. While the same approach could describe almost any manufacturer that consistently develops a better product, at Vermeer it is just the beginning of the story.

Gary stepped away from managing day-to-day operations in 1989, and under the capable leadership of the current management team – led by second-generation Vermeer family members, son, Bob Vermeer and daughter, Mary Vermeer Andringa – Vermeer employment numbers have nearly doubled. The brother-and-sister team also remains steadfast in carrying on the traditions established by patriarch founder Gary.

Not only is Vermeer recognised worldwide as being among the most innovative equipment manufacturers, but the processes by which it does so are equally impressive. Bob and Mary have discovered better ways not only for developing new products that ultimately better serve the needs of customers, but also internally, to streamline the manufacturing process.

Continuous improvement

CEO Bob Vermeer says “Vermeer has always been driven by change and a relentless search for a better way of doing things and that’s the type of culture we strive to instill into every Vermeer employee. It’s a process of continuous improvement and it takes place in every facet of our business – in every department, with every employee and in every corner of our world. To compete in the global marketplace, we must constantly improve and change.

“Whenever Dad talked about products, he always used this phrase: “÷There’s got to be a better way’Éa better way of installing underground services in rock, or drilling horizontally, for example, under rivers, roads and entire cities. Now we’ve taken it several steps further right here on the Vermeer mile.”

What the Vermeer CEO is referring to by the “Vermeer mile” is the 1.2 million square foot Vermeer manufacturing facility, which lies directly across the road from the modest four-bedroom/one-bath farmhouse where Gary and wife, Matilda, raised the kids and remained until Gary’s death in 2009. The facility is composed of six individual plants that collectively stretch an entire mile from west to east, encompassing some 330 acres. And it doesn’t stop there.

Across the Atlantic, Vermeer established European operations in Goes, the Netherlands, to serve the needs of Europe and the Asian markets in the early 1970s. On the other side of the world, the company also has a joint manufacturing venture in Beijing, China – an expansion that has provided closer proximity to customers and market equipment in support of the huge infrastructure needs in China and other developing countries. Vermeer also has regional offices located in Singapore and Brazil. ‰ Õ

Back in Pella at the Vermeer mile, the final installment of the array of production facilities is the Vermeer Museum and Global Pavilion; a shrine to Gary’s entrepreneurial spirit that documents the history and importance of Vermeer’s many contributions to the equipment industry. Here visitors can view a number of artefacts – including many of Gary’s first inventions – and learn more about the growth of the company.

The facility is also home to Vermeer University, the company’s in-house training department that offers numerous opportunities for employees to enhance skills at no cost to the individual. Manufacturing and technical skills, professional skills, sales and service, and leadership training programs are just a few of these educational opportunities. An auditorium within the facility is used for new product walk-arounds and equipment training, and also serves as a site for many local community events.

The Lean initiative

Since implementing the Lean growth strategy in 1997, Vermeer has been able to eliminate waste in most areas of the business. The focus is to provide maximum value to all stakeholders in the organisation, an initiative that has directly impacted key performance indicators including lead times, plant safety, quality and reliability, inventory control, profit and cash. The result has been a shift toward increased productivity and efficiency that puts recent years among the most dynamic periods in the company’s history.

“It’s a culture that empowers people,” explains Vermeer Chief Executive Officer and President Mary Vermeer Andringa, “and encourages them to be a part of the process. The most important responsibility I have in my role within the company is to engage, empower and reward the contributions and efforts of everyone involved. To see people grow in their positions and become better in what they do every day gives me a lot of satisfaction. This means giving managers more leeway to try new things and take calculated risks.”

“It’s a tremendous entrepreneurial environment,” says Marketing and Forage Solutions Vice President Mark Core. “It has given me opportunities to develop skills at a much higher managerial level than I ever thought possible, and on a much grander and more global scale than I ever imagined when I first joined the company in 1991.”

Employees have come to embrace and facilitate change. As a result, Vermeer can state proudly that employees truly are their most valuable asset. In the first decade since adopting the Lean growth strategy, Vermeer conducted 1,600 different Kaizen events. Seventy per cent of Vermeer employees have participated in at least one Kaizen event and the executive team has logged an average of 20 events per member during the same timeframe.

Glenda Vander Wilt, who heads up marketing for the industrial equipment division, says, “The ideas come from everywhere: Vermeer employees, dealers, customers and suppliers, from every corner of the world and for all market segments.”

Ms Vander Wilt spent several years as the manager of Vermeer’s market-based strategy team, spending hundreds of hours each month visiting dealers and customers either in person or by phone. “It’s also a great way to build strong customer relationships on a global scale.”

Going underground

Among the many inventions of founder Gary Vermeer’s “firsts” was a hydrostatic trencher. This greatly minimised the manual labour necessary for installing the tile drainage systems that prepared farmland for production. It wasn’t long before Gary’s trencher concept evolved into a line of utility and track trenchers that soon became a mainstay of the company’s line of construction installation equipment.

In 1991, Vermeer introduced the D-7T NAVIGATOR, the first Vermeer horizontal directional drill (HDD), and the trenchless segment was off and running. The power and features packed into every Vermeer directional drill model help customers improve efficiencies and complete complicated jobs with less guesswork.

In 2007, with the market for maxi drill rigs growing globally, Vermeer saw opportunity within the gas, oil and major water and sewer work areas. Vermeer acquired the HDD operating assets of Horizontal Rig & Equipment, a prominent manufacturer of maxi HDD rigs.

Today Vermeer offers a variety of horizontal directional drills. Whether the project involves energy pipelines, utilities, sewers, geothermal or high-speed communications lines, Vermeer HDD equipment has become a mainstay for contractors looking for equipment that can help improve productivity. Each one includes advanced technologies based on customer input, and customers know they can count on receiving expert service and support from the vast Vermeer worldwide network of factory-trained dealers and service technicians.

“Our dealers are professional spokespersons for the Vermeer brands,” Vermeer says. “Many of them are sizeable enough to have rental fleets and work with customers on whatever their needs are. We encourage our dealers to be part of our planning process and to align their own planning with where we want to take the company overall.”

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