PELLA, Iowa -- Vermeer Corporation started in a small cinder block building in Pella in 1948 and by July 2018 it had expanded into multiple buildings stretching a mile long, employing thousands of people.
“We were having a record-breaking year. At that point we were a good seven to eight months into our full fiscal year and it was record-breaking by all means, profitability, from a revenue output standpoint. And you know we had this happen. We have a hot market. Our product is you know at the height of setting records for Vermeer,” Vermeer Corporation Vice President of Operations Bill Blackorby said.
The longstanding company manufactures iconic yellow farming and industrial equipment seen in fields and on job sites worldwide.
While celebrating that growth in 2018, Vermeer was forever changed in a matter of minutes when a tornado headed straight for the Vermeer mile.
“On July 19 we were celebrating with 400 of our customers and dealers for our 70th anniversary. So I was down at our Global Pavilion where a lot of our ongoing continuous education was happening for our dealers and I was in a classroom with our talent acquisition manager having conversations with our dealers around how to attract the workforce of the future when the sirens went off and we all took shelter,” Vermeer Corporation Senior Director of Human Resources Kate Guess said.
Taking shelter during unruly Midwestern weather was nothing new to employees of Vermeer, but it was new for hundreds of customers on site.
“We had a lot of international people on campus as well that didn’t know what a tornado was. So it took a little bit of extra effort to make sure that they understood what could happen and get them into those shelters safely,” Guess said.
Once in those shelters, it wasn’t long before employees and company leaders started to feel and hear the EF-3 tornado tear through the area.
“All the electricity went out and we felt like we were being pulled out of the room so it was very scary,” Vermeer Corporation Cahir of the Board Mary Andringa said.
The tornado created what looked like a war zone, turning three buildings that were once glowings signs of productivity into piles of rubble.
“I could see shell-shocked people looking at a pile of cars, looking at their facility that was heavily damaged, looking for each other trying to get ahold of their loved ones to tell them that they’re OK,” Vermeer Corporation Chief Marketing Officer Mark Core said.
Blackorby said the destruction was shocking.
“As you came around there’s water blowing from the top of the ceilings of buildings that were affected. You could smell natural gas in the air and people were almost walking around aimlessly like they didn’t have a purpose,” Blackorby said.
After entirely losing the Eco Center and Plants Five and Six company leaders say it was a miracle no one was seriously injured.
“When we knew just a few hours after the tornado that we had no serious physical injuries [and] no fatalities, we knew that we had everything we needed to rebuild,” Vermeer Corporation President and CEO Jason Andringa said.
Following the immediate effects of the tornado, it became about getting back to business.
“We were able to bring our entire team back to work within 30 days. We were able to recover essentially all of our production within 45 days,” Jason Andringa said.
After everyone was back to work, leaders turned this tragedy into an opportunity to build three new facilities: Shop 48, Plant Seven and a new Eco Center.
“In total, we are building back approximately 200,000 square feet beyond what we lost in the tornado. About 50 percent more than was lost in the tornado,” Jason Andringa said.
To remember the crisis and tragedy, plant numbers five and six have been retired and a monument will be constructed across from where the plants stood as a reminder of what ‘Vermeer Strong’ truly means.
“I see growth and I see another 71 years of Vermeer’s history and strength moving forward in a very progressive, exciting and vibrant way,” Core said.