TEUTOPOLIS, Ill. — When Frank Brummer was 21 years old, with experience working on a family pig farm in Effingham County, Illinois, a college education and welding skills, he started mending pig feeders.
He had a big dream: to create a national agricultural business.
Brummer started out welding and repairing a variety of pig feeders for others in 1979, and he saw common faults in the product. He decided to make a better pig feeder.
Now, 40 years later, the president of Farmweld talks about how the company he founded in his hometown of Teutopolis, Illinois, has grown to be an international business.
Brummer, who has visions to grow the business further, said that in his early days, he may have looked towards a competitor or a trend to help determine his direction, but that often didn’t work as well as simply listening to customer feedback.
“The best thing I have learned is to listen closely. They will give you the answers,” said Brummer, who sold the company to an investor in 2006 but remains active in its planning. “A customer will show you the way if you are really receptive.”
He says even today if a farmer calls with a concern or an idea about a product, the company’s sales manager, Aaron Niebrugge, often goes out to visit and listen.
Both Niebrugge and Brummer attribute part of the company’s success to specialization and innovation. Brummer said he wanted to be the best at one thing and chose pig equipment.
His brother is a pork producer, so it seems a natural fit, he said.
Farmweld focuses on flooring, feeding, farrowing and gestation products for pigs. One of the latest, innovations, the A-Crate, was developed with pig welfare and worker safety in mind, making it easier for workers to reach animals while maintaining their space. The new products are also easier to clean, said Niebrugge, who started working at the company in 2006.
While the company has focused on mechanical products most of the time, it doesn’t shy away from technology, using robotic welders and powder-coating with an optic laser while still employing skilled welders for hand welding, Niebrugge said.
The technology helps produce the quantity needed today — some orders are in the thousands — but the factory can sell to a customer who may only require one, Niebrugge said.
Adjusting to change
“A lot of our products are customer specific,” Brummer said. Larger integrators can request something that they need for their system to be most efficient, he said.
Farmweld’s research design teams focus on the needs of specific clients.
“You didn’t see that 10 to 20 years ago,” Brummer said.
“As the pork industry restructured, we changed with it. We went from working primarily with independent producers to also working with integrators and contract growers,” Niebrugge said.
What they produce also changes to suit needs. In the ’90s, Farmweld expanded from pig feeders to flooring, gating, gestation, farrowing and waterers.
The pork industry is cyclical, so its suppliers must be able to weather the ups and downs of the business along with the pork producers themselves, Niebrugge said.
“Our customers are in the same boat. When they feel pain, we feel pain. When they do good, we do good,” he said.
Pig producers must compete globally, said Brummer, and so must his company. One successful trade mission to Japan with Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar in the 1990s brought him a new market.
Brummer, who has travelled to 56 countries on seven continents, said it is important to end the current tariff war.
“I am a firm believer in open borders and free trade,” he said.
While meeting global needs is part of the company’s focus, their future also includes some expansion to their operation in Teutopolis including “a state-of-the-art office,” said Geri Wohltman, marketing director.
It will include a showroom for customers and a conference room and other staff facilities “to attract and retain the best employees,” she said.
The first 10 years “we were humbly small,” Brummer said of the company that now has 43 full-time employees and one part-time employee based at the Teutopolis factory.
“The company’s culture and size allow it to be nimble to adjust to the market,” Niebrugge said.
They have products in almost every state in the U.S., with Illinois the No. 1 destination, followed by Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota in the Midwest. They have sales staff based in Sioux City, Iowa, and Portland, Ind.