Vermeer Strong: How the Pella-based Company Recovered, Rebuilt in the Face of Destruction

November 9, 2018 | Vermeer strong Luke Manderfeld, Business Record,

On July 19, 2018, the Vermeer Co. headquarters was full of hustle and bustle. The company had invited more than 400 customers and dealers from around the world to visit its mile-long strip of factories, buildings and history to celebrate Vermeer’s 70-year anniversary.

But what was supposed to be a day of celebration and joy turned into a frightening day for the company’s leadership, team members and visitors. An EF3 tornado ripped through the campus during the afternoon hours, causing massive damage to some of the company’s plants.

Looking back at that day and the events afterward, though, July 19 also serves as a reminder of how powerful dedication and resiliency can be.

“We had a tremendous amount of people doing very heroic things,” said Bob Vermeer, former chief executive officer of Vermeer and current chair emeritus of the company. “And it took a team to get it done.”

Fearing the worst

News and alerts started to trickle in during the early afternoon hours that day: There were storms capable of producing tornadoes entering the Central Iowa area.

“We took it seriously and were monitoring it, but we’ve been in a lot of tornado warnings and shelters,” said Mary Andringa, chair of the board at Vermeer. Mary was inside Vermeer’s Global Pavilion on campus at the time, helping lead the 70-year anniversary celebration.

But as the afternoon progressed, the messages started to become more serious.

The storms became more dangerous as they entered the Des Moines metro, and alerts started to go off on people’s phones. At the time, CEO Jason Andringa was hosting tours in the Vermeer Founders’ House, the house where his grandparents and Vermeer founders, Gary and Matilda Vermeer, had lived.

When a tornado warning went into effect just before 4 p.m., Jason quickly drove to the shelters in plant one. Vermeer had strict disaster and tornado drills in place, which likely helped save lives, Jason said later.

While huddled in the shelter with team members, Jason kept checking his phone and was convinced the storm was going to miss the campus to the north. Those in the shelter, including Jason, were receiving text messages that warned the tornado was getting closer — 13 miles away, eight miles away, three miles away. As the storm hit at around 4 p.m., the lights flickered inside the plant one shelter.

“We all stood there looking at each other,” Jason said. “After the craziness passed, the security guard’s radio became very active. People were saying the roof was off, windows were out and there were injuries. At that point, we knew something bad had happened.”

In the pavilion just before the storm, the building’s alarms started to blare and Mary instructed everyone to move to the downstairs shelter. Mary and the rest of Vermeer’s team members at the pavilion were making sure everyone was safe when the tornado hit.

“The doors swung out and the electricity went out,” Mary said. “We were in the dark for a little while except for everyone with their phones. And when we were given the all-clear, there was no electricity. We started hearing reports that roofs were off and glass was broken.”

As soon as the all-clear call came, Jason rushed out of the shelter. He hopped in the car with two of his leadership team members and his pastor from a nearby church to survey the damage. They drove along the back of the campus, and about halfway through the drive they realized the extent of what had happened.

Walls were caved in on plants five and six. Water systems had ruptured, leading to geysers shooting into the air. Cars in the parking lots were piled four or five high. Looking at the rubble, Jason thought there must have been major injuries or even fatalities.

But for Jason and his team, there wasn’t time to ponder. It was time to act.

Emergency responders were on the scene quickly, tending to the threats and minor injuries across the mile-long campus.

The leadership team moved to plant one to set up a command center. From there, it was about receiving and distributing essential information.

A select team was on the phones with the hospitals, who reported seven minor injuries. They also coordinated releases to the press to get more information out. They made hundreds of calls to team members to make sure all were safe.

At 1 a.m. the next morning, about nine hours after the tornado hit, the team went home, happy that all employees were safe, but knowing there was much more to be done.

A “huge hurdle”

In contrast to the hectic nature of the storm, Vermeer’s response in the days and weeks afterward was organized, coordinated and calculated. On a simple whiteboard in the crisis control headquarters, duties were split and assigned to various team members.

At 7 a.m. on July 20, the day after the tornado, a select team was already back to work. They had two main tasks: resume operations and get team members back to work.

To accomplish those goals, Vermeer had to assess the total damage to its campus. It became clear early in the process that plants five and six were totaled. But plants one through three could be back in commission a couple of days later. And plants four and seven could be back in the near future.

Some team members assisted with the rebuilding, which helped them earn steady paychecks even when their old production lines were out of commission. Engineers also worked to move products from damaged facilities to other locations on- and off-site, including the Global Pavilion. All told, in the first day and over the weekend, the team went into overdrive. Leadership spent many hours alerting employees of Vermeer’s plans while employees worked hard to clean and re-commission plants.

By the end of Monday, just four days after the tornado, the initial recovery process was done. More than half of the company’s 2,700 employees were back to work along with more than half of the company’s production. For the employees who weren’t working, leadership ensured they knew what would happen moving forward.

“It was a huge hurdle to pass,” Jason said about those first four days. “There was a lot to do yet, but all of our people knew what the plan was, and we had a plan to build Vermeer equipment again.”

In the weeks since, Vermeer has focused on coming back stronger than ever. In the direct aftermath of the tornado, the “Vermeer Strong” tagline helped fuel the quick recovery process. That mantra has continued to push the team over the past few months.

Mindi VandenBosch, a third-generation member of the family business, serves on Vermeer’s committee aimed toward the rebuilding efforts. The committee has pulled employees from many differing disciplines to come together and find a solution for plants five and six.

VandenBosch fits perfectly into her role on the committee. She specializes in lean manufacturing, which is the practice of making processes faster and more efficient. Vermeer as a whole actually started a lean manufacturing initiative 20 years ago with the goal of being flexible and forward-thinking.

VandenBosch views this rebuilding effort as a way to review processes that have been in place for many years. In October, the company sent out a survey to its employees asking for ways to improve. The responses have been insightful and helpful.

“Reaching out to employees and valuing their input is a part of our culture,” VandenBosch said. “We want to understand their bottlenecks, and that helps us understand how to better push a product through our facilities.”

With the exception of two product lines, all of Vermeer’s production has returned, a remarkable turnaround considering the circumstances directly after the tornado. Vermeer currently has plans to build Shop 48, an engineering hub, just north of campus. The name references the year the company was founded, in 1948.

There are also plans to rebuild in the place of plants five and six in the next few years, but nothing is definite. Vermeer hopes to have a clearer plan by the spring.

“We think we have the look and feel of the building, so it’s now looking at the flow and how you set up every step,” VandenBosch said. “We’ve heard from a lot of people, and we’re very proud of the team and how they’ve helped us get to this point.”

Community prevails

It took many people working together for Vermeer to come back as strongly and quickly as it did.

In the days after the storm, the Pella community, Iowa, fellow manufacturing companies, customers and many more partners of Vermeer reached out to offer support. Many, including the Iowa State University football team, even offered to help with the cleanup. But Vermeer had to refuse because of the potential hazards. The company also wanted to give the work to its team members.

“There was just a huge outpouring of support from the community,” Bob Vermeer said. “Many offers of help. That was great, and it was very, very impressive.”

Vermeer is also thankful for those who came to its aid in the direct aftermath, including the quick first responders, who were on the scene before many people were out of the storm shelters. Looking back at the four days following the tornado, Jason can hardly believe how well the company responded. He’s thankful for the agile team members, who were willing to do anything it took, and the Vermeer Strong mindset, which helped the company stay focused even in the face of tough circumstances.

“I will probably never believe that we were able to do it,” Jason said. “That Friday night, I would have said there is no way we can get all of our people back to work within 30 days, and there is no way we can recover all of our production within 40 days.

“That’s what we did.”