Stormy Weather and Sunshine

Robert Carpenter Editor Underground Constructionby Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief

It was a cloudy September day with steady rainfall, yet bright smiles filled the faces of virtually all employees at the Vermeer facilities in Pella, Iowa. There was a lot to smile about. After the trauma the Vermeer community had experienced last summer, they were now back to work, and all equipment lines were in full production mode.

Late in the day on July 19, a powerful tornado ripped through several buildings of the so-called Vermeer Mile – the seven manufacturing plants and other assorted buildings that comprise the company’s main campus. While the human toll was incredibly, and thankfully, minor (only seven treated-and-released injuries), two key manufacturing plants lay in ruins while another suffered major damage. Several other areas of the campus also suffered minor damage.

On that day, there were many doubts and concerns about how quickly the company could put people back to work and minimize negative impacts to customers. But by the day after the disaster, there was hope emerging from the long meetings as the Vermeer leadership team started planning not only the recovery, but the future of the company.

In early September, Vermeer officials hosted a small media tour of the recovery efforts. President and CEO Jason Andringa was pleased to provide details of the event – and quite a tale it was. Yet it was so much more than a disaster tale. It was story of dedication and spirit.

“Aug. 19 was a Sunday so on Aug. 20, essentially one month after the tornado, we had 100 percent of our team back to work,” Andringa stressed. “There is no way I would have imagined on July 19 that would be possible. On July 20, I started getting rapidly optimistic about the plans being made. But still, being able to achieve that goal of getting 100 percent of our team back to work in a month is something I’m incredibly proud of. And then, within 45 days we have recovered our full production.”

Andringa and Doug Hundt, Vermeer president of industrial solutions, used the celebratory event to announce the imminent construction of a new facility that will consolidate Vermeer’s engineering programs, currently scattered over three locations. The building will be constructed on land near the manufacturing plants.

“Shop 48” as the building will be called, is named for the traditional shop where Gary Vermeer designed his many inventions combined with the year he founded the company – 1948.

During a tour of the destruction and then the repaired, relocated and reorganized production facilities, I was asked a couple of times what I thought of the repurposed Plant 7. The only answer I could think of was, “It looks like a manufacturing plant.” But that’s a good thing, I explained. This did not look like a temporary facility held together with baling wire, duct tape and bubblegum; rather, just the opposite. The plants were fully functional, people whizzing around with supplies, floors clear of debris or trash, welders hard at work, robotic equipment performing dozens of tasks, equipment being assembled or carted off for painting – basically a quality plant operation hard and productively at work. That, to its credit, is what Vermeer was striving for.

As the tour returned outside, threatening rain clouds let loose with a heavy downpour. About 10 people were crowded under a small tent as the intense rain started blowing sidewise. Suddenly, cell phones erupted simultaneously with a warning tone. All heads immediately snapped to their phones as if expecting the worse – another tornado. Relief spread quickly over the faces as the warning was for possible flash flooding in the area – not another tornado. While the weather alert was important, clearly the Vermeer crew felt that, after surviving a tornado, they could deal with rain.

And on this day of dark skies and hard rain, one couldn’t help but notice a positive bounce in the stride of employees. They had survived the worst Mother Nature had thrown at them, responded quickly and were justifiably proud of how they had navigated through an amazing recovery effort. The sun was shining again on the employees and facilities along the Vermeer Mile.

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