By Steve Woodhouse
Pella — Not long after Sen. Tom Harkin visited Vermeer in Pella, one of the people interested in succeeding him in office also paid a visit. Rep. Bruce Braley was at the facility on Oct. 31.
Vermeer CEO Mary Andringa opened the visit by welcoming Braley and sharing some of the company's history. She shared the importance the company places on continuous improvement and showing respect for everyone associated with the company.
One of the ways Vermeer has been working to improve its operations begins with its people. The company's wellness program includes an on-site health center and pharmacy. As a result of its proactive approach to the health of its employees, Vermeer has seen increases in premiums that are lower than the market average. Last year, the company saved $2 million in health care costs. $1 million has been saved through the company's pharmaceutical partnership with Walgreens.
Since 2009, the percentage of Vermeer employees in the low-risk insurance group has increased to 56 percent. Company President Jason Andringa said that the availability of health care, including the clinic, is second only to salaries offered, among reasons why people choose to work for Vermeer.
Locally, Vermeer employs 2,400 and overall, the company employs 3,200. Braley was impressed with the number of people working in Pella and the economic impact the company has on southern Iowa.
In response to a question from Braley, Mary Andringa said the company trucks everything. The Highway 63 bypass has been helpful, but direct access to Interstate 80 would be beneficial. In addition to shipping products out, Vermeer's employee base expands to a 70-mile radius. Good roads are needed to get workers to the plant safely.
Braley went on to tour Vermeer's health care facility and one of the plants along the mile. Following the tours, he sat down with Vermeer leaders, who shared information regarding the company's products and markets.
Today, 80 percent of Vermeer's business is 80 percent industrial and 20 percent forage. All of the work ties back to the farm.
Jason Andringa discussed how he was inspired to research ways Vermeer could contribute to the renewable fuels market after hearing President George W. Bush say, in Bush's 2006 State of the Union address, that the future of energy was in wood chips and switchgrass. These are two items with which Vermeer has long been associated. The company continues to research ways to improve the renewable fuels market.
Braley asked what job skills Vermeer was looking for when seeking employees. Mary Andringa said it has been difficult to find engineers and information technology professionals. Machinists and welders are also hard to find. Regardless of the position, there is a need for employees to understand basic math and technology. Vermeer has offered training on site, and has reached out to educational institutions to broaden science, technology, engineering and math learning opportunities.
The discussion rolled in to one regarding challenges to getting veterans back into the civilian workforce. Skills learned while in the military, including equipment maintenance, can be easily transferred to a job at Vermeer. Braley was impressed with Vermeer's willingness to recruit and hire veterans, when some of them suffer from health issues following their deployments.
"Some employers can't cope with those challenges," Braley said.
Braley's discussion concluded by asking what was needed from Washington, D.C., to help Vermeer continue to succeed and grow. The top priority for Vermeer, its dealers and customers, is stability. They would like to see the federal government get the deficit and debt under control.
In a post-discussion interview, Braley shared his thoughts on Vermeer and its health care work. (Video of the remarks accompany this article.)
"It's been a great experience to get to see all of the exciting product lines that are being built at Vermeer," Braley said. He also complimented the global reach of Vermeer and discussed the importance of manufacturing to the economies of Iowa and the nation.
Braley added that he would like to establish a national manufacturing strategy. He believes this would help America compete better with Europe, the Pacific rim and China. Improved educational opportunities would also help.
Regarding health care, Braley was impressed with what Vermeer is doing. He said many of the things being done were ideas that arose during discussions to improve America's health care system, given the costs of paying for chronic illnesses.
"Employers like Vermeer, who adopt wellness programs...you can actually track the improvements in the health care, and the health of their employees," Braley said. "All of those things will help reduce the amount we spend on health care in this country, but will also help the bottom line of companies like Vermeer."