EF-3 Tornado Damage is Overcome Quickly to Restore Operations
After suffering a devastating tornado in July, Vermeer Corp. officers announced that, as of early September, the company had restored its full manufacturing capabilities, and was actively building and shipping products for the underground construction, farming and environmental industries. Vermeer also was able to return all 2,700 employees to full-time work.
The EF-3 tornado ripped through the Vermeer campus just outside of Pella, Iowa, at about 4 p.m. on July 19. Thanks to advanced warning, superior training and quick reaction by the company’s security and safety force, no one was seriously injured. However, three of the seven manufacturing plants sustained heavy damage. Plants 5 and 6 were eventually declared total losses while Plant 7, with some immediate and innovative repairs, was expedited back into operation within a few days.
Vermeer President and CEO Jason Andringa recently provided an update regarding the well-structured, yet aggressive approach company personnel instigated to restore jobs and operations in an amazingly short period time, especially in lieu of the massive damage incurred.
“After determining that there were no serious injuries, we realized we’ve got our people – that’s everything we need to rebuild,” Andringa recalled.
The storm struck on a Thursday afternoon, but a whirlwind of activity and planning was immediately launched.
“On that following Monday, I was part of, and our chaplains and operations leadership were part of 19 different meetings, 14 of which were at Vermeer to welcome folks back,” Andringa explained. “Then there were five offsite meetings, where we met with employees in local communities to inform them what was going on at Vermeer, and that our hopes and aspirations were to get people back as soon as possible. That was just the first Monday after the tornado.”
As employees and experts began sifting through the destroyed plants and salvaging assets, incredibly, the return to productivity took shape quickly.
“The following Monday, we were able to bring Plant 4 back,” he continued. “That was a huge win for us because Plant 4 produces a lot of volume equipment that is extremely important to our customers and dealers. Getting Plant 4 back online just one week after the tornado was phenomenal.”
Andringa pointed out that within two weeks Plant 7 was also brought back online. “We moved the entire Navigator line – all of our horizontal directional drilling rigs, from our smallest drill, up to the largest D100 – back online and full production. The fact that we were able to get that going just two to four weeks after the tornado was a huge win.”
Vermeer’s Doug Hundt, president of industrial solutions, stressed that while the company has been intent on returning to full employment and production, it’s not content to settle for the pre-tornado status quo.
“We will continue to lead the industry with innovation in our products, and I believe you’ll see that over the next year,” Hundt said.
Of course, with several product lines being temporarily incapacitated immediately after the tornado, many customers were concerned about the company’s capacity to meet supply needs for a busy underground construction market. But that was not the case, Hundt assured.
“We feel like we lost very little sales volume since the tornado. Between our existing inventory and our dealers working together, we were able to meet customer needs. Then, with our return to full production, there has been virtually no interruption in supply.”
Mark Core, Vermeer executive vice president of lifecycle and forage/chief marketing officer, said that department did not miss a day of shipping vital supplies and equipment, including the day of the tornado.
“I had been at the hospital checking on people with minor injuries. When I got back to the plant, Gerry (Van Dyke, customer support manager, lifecycle solutions), found me and asked if there was any way we can get the emergency parts out – we’ve got them ready. That’s his mentality: 24-hours a day, is there any way to get in there and get the items out? We got approval to get back into the facility and loaded his personal vehicle as tightly as possible to get as much as we could into it. He took off for Cedar Rapids to be able to hit the cutoff time that night (for shipping).”
Another notable development, Core said, was that dealers were rarely calling corporate Vermeer. “They started working among themselves. From what we understand, several of our dealers’ mandate was they weren’t going to call us. They were going to figure out their service questions and figure out their parts questions internally. Quite frankly, it was daunting initially when we had no idea our capabilities and if we were going to be able to get parts out.
“But we were able to get back up to full operations very quickly.” Another piece of good news, Core reported, was that key dealers reported virtually no impact on customers.
Damage and safety
A tour of the damaged areas revealed just how seriously the company’s manufacturing facilities had been compromised and made the quick rebound to production even more impressive. Bill Blackorby, vice president of operations (who had only moved to Pella, Iowa, from Atlanta a few months earlier) was thrust into an incredibly challenging situation, as the rebuild and restructuring fell under his direct oversight.
“It was overwhelming to see the destruction. But it was also amazing to see how our team has come together and accomplished so much, so quickly,” he said.
Another break that enabled the production lines to be relocated and restarted, Blackorby reported, was that his crews were able to “rescue about 90 percent of the assets from the destroyed plants.”
Steve Flann, senior director of environmental health and safety, was tasked with quickly establishing a safe work environment so assessment and rebuilding efforts could begin as soon as possible.
“It’s all about the safety of our team members,” said Flann. “We established the red area, which was the facilities and area that incurred damage. We then set up a command center where safety training and personal protective equipment could be given before anyone was allowed into the red zone. That also allowed us to have full accountability of all our team members. I’m happy to say since the day of the tornado, we’ve had zero accidents.”
Andringa was understandably proud of what company personnel had accomplished: rebounding from a near-catastrophic event to rebuild one of the industry’s leading companies almost overnight.
“As of Aug. 20 – essentially one month after the tornado – we had 100 percent of our team back to work. There is no way I would have imagined on July 19 that would have been possible,” Andringa recalled.
“That first day after the tornado, on July 20, we wanted to be able to get the team back to work and recover our production within 30 to 45 days, and we have achieved that goal. I’m really proud of that.”
Jason Andringa, Vermeer president and CEO; and Doug Hundt, president of industrial solutions, also took advantage of the celebratory nature of the press conference to announce the imminent construction of a new facility. Consolidating 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 both the traditional shop that company founder Gary Vermeer used to design his many inventions, and the year the company was founded – 1948.