By Steve Woodhouse
Pella — United States Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker visited Vermeer Corporation in Pella on Thursday, just weeks after being sworn in to the position.
Pritzker was confirmed by the Senate with 97 votes and sworn in to her post on June 26. She is currently on a listening tour to see what American companies need from the Obama Administration to help them succeed. Prior stops on her tour before Pella included Denver, Colo., and Nashville, Tenn.
She toured plants and the parts supply area of the Pella-based corporation, all of which were more quiet than usual as the facility was on shutdown Thursday and Friday. According to one of the plant managers, Kevin Van Engelenhoven, Vermeer chose to do this to allow its employees to enjoy festivities such as the Knoxville Nationals and Iowa State Fair. The shutdown also gives the factory time to perform preventative maintenance.
Vermeer employs approximately 3,500 people worldwide. Of those, 2,500 are employed in Pella. The number of product models made at Vermeer number at 150, and 30 percent of the company's sales are shipped overseas.
That number is growing as well, which is why Vermeer CEO Mary Andringa believes one of the government's largest roles in manufacturing is keeping markets open to American products. Panama is one such market the government has worked to expand exportation to, which has worked out for Vermeer. Andringa is a member of the President's Export Council to advise on the needs of American companies.
The United States Government is looking to expand the role it plays in manufacturing. Sen. Tom Harkin, who took part in Thursday's tour, said that the country is looking into opening a series of manufacturing innovation centers. One is already open in Ohio. Harkin said part of the inspiration comes from Germany, which controls 600 centers and employs 20,000 people.
"We've got some catching up to do on that," Harkin said. He added that he would like to see one open in Iowa, based on the bioeconomy.
"This bioeconomy produces a lot of manufacturing," Harkin said. When asked why the government needs to play a role in manufacturing, Harkin said it would be a public-private partnership. Major innovation, according to Harkin, requires bringing businesses together with local governments and the community. The idea is to "pool intellectual capital," and that the kind of innovations the centers would strive for are too expensive for a single company to manage.
"It's something we need to do," Harkin added.
Andringa said she supports some of the government's involvement in manufacturing, such as the research and development. Sometimes, the government is able to "flesh out" ideas that private companies cannot.
"We're certainly supportive of an innovation center," Andringa said. "We need one in Iowa."
Harkin points to the Human Genome Project as a success story for government involvement in the economy. Harkin, who worked to pour approximately $6 billion of taxpayer money into the project over 10 years, said the project has resulted in $700 billion of private capital investment.
"There are some things government can do (to set up business)," Harkin said.
"They're enormous catalysts," Pritzker said of government investment in industry.
Harkin was also asked about how much longer the government can afford to continue to make investments, when the national debt is nearly $17 trillion. He believes that America needs to dig itself out of the hole and taxpayer investment is necessary.
Harkin was also asked about the fact that 97 percent of jobs created in 2013 are considered part-time. He replied, "That's why we need manufacturing jobs."
"We can do things really well in this country," Harkin said. "We've got the greatest workers in the world."
Harkin referred to Vermeer as "one of the premiere manufacturing plants in Iowa." VanEngelenhoven led a tour for reporters, separate from the Harkin-Pritzker tour. VanEngelenhoven said that Vermeer is willing to do "anything and everything" for its customers. That includes keeping parts in its warehouse that will fit equipment that was made 60 years ago.
Videos of Vermeer equipment in action were played on screens during the tour. They are made at job sites, and provide employees the opportunity to see the products of their labor working.
Vermeer left a strong impression with Pritzker. She praised the family-owned company's history and commitment to excellence. (Video of a portion of Pritzker's comments accompany this story.)
Following the tour, a roundtable discussion, closed to the public, was held at the Vermeer Global Pavilion.