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Vermeer ZR5 production model
PRODUCTION MODEL: The Vermeer ZR5 is going into production, and this model at Husker Harvest Days no longer carries the “prototype” badge. The company is getting back on its feet after a July tornado that hit Pella.

Life goes on after devastation

The Pella tornado hit Vermeer hard, industry and company response shows the nature of farm country

The farm equipment industry has a rich history with stories of innovation and change. There are also the stories of events that impact a company too. Residents of Pella, Iowa, won’t soon forget July 19 when a tornado ripped through town and hardest hit in the path was Vermeer.

We caught up with Mark Core, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Vermeer, in a familiar place – an alfalfa field. This one was at Husker Harvest Days, where Core and I talked about that July incident and where the company is now.

Many have heard the story of the 400-plus visitors that were on site for a 70th anniversary celebration. The rapid response. The fact that only a few were hurt and as Core said, they were extremely lucky no one was killed. The pictures and video show the devastation from buildings collapsed to cars stacked up like a giant kid’s bedroom game.

But this is a company that employs 2,700 people worldwide, and eventually life must go on. And it is. Industry response to the event makes members of the farm community proud. “We heard offers of help from eight competitors in the first 24 hours,” Core said.

Earlier this year at a Kinze event, Jon Kinzebaw, shared that his firm sent employees down to help with cleanup. That’s just one example. But in the farm equipment business, while everyone competes it’s also a community of leaders who can support each other.

A return to work

The cleanup has started in earnest. Core shared that a new engineering facility called Shop 48 should be finished early in 2019. The company had discussed pulling engineering and design into a single facility, but after the tornado, it was decided this would be the first big move forward.  “That’s going to be up relatively quickly,” Core said. “We will also replace two manufacturing buildings, and that will take longer.”

Replacing those two buildings gives the company an opportunity to start with a clean sheet design and create a new world class facility. “There are three things that can make big changes at a company,” Core said. “The first is financial difficulties. The second is acquisition or being acquired. The third, apparently, is a tornado.”

LOOKING AHEAD: Mark Core, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Vermeer, shared an update on the company’s return to production. He noted that within 24 hours of the tornado he’d gotten offers of help from several competitors.

As for getting back to work, he shared that the company is back up to 90% capacity to keep up with orders, but that production is spread out across a range of facilities the company has access to. That makes for a kind of manufacturing challenge (there are other words to fill in for “challenge”) that few have to deal with.

Core shared that one issue in the redesign to consider is that in a new single plant key functions would all be in one place – from welding to paint to assembly. The fact that those things weren’t together before the tornado has helped, but it shows how an event like that can color your design thinking. Will Vermeer pull that all together into a single location? The details are still in the works.

Innovation on track

As for keeping up, Vermeer issued a press release recently that it was building the first five ZR5-1200 self-propelled balers. “We’ve got two built,” said Core. “We assembled them in an engineering bay. There’s a lot of interest in this product.” Building a new machine in an engineering bay is one of those tornado-derived challenges.

The first five machines will be ready for fall stalk baling season, which will be a popular use for this fast-moving machine. First introduced at Husker Harvest Days in 2017, the baler has done more than get attention for innovation.

“I figured we might have to burn a little diesel fuel to get some attention,” Core jokes about the first farm machine the company has ever made with an engine. “But this machine has done more that bring interest. It has customers looking at our other products.”

When disaster strikes, it can test a company. Vermeer is a strong family brand that’s taking a hit, but already back on its feet, the firm is moving forward toward its new future.

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