Q & A: Mary and Jason Andringa, Vermeer Corporation
In its occasional series “View From the Top,” Top Producer explores business ideas from company leaders both within the ag industry and outside of agriculture.
Mary Vermeer Andringa
Education: B.A. Calvin College
Years at Vermeer: 32
One book every manager must read (and why): “The Innovator’s DNA,” by Clayton Christensen—because it is a great reminder of using skills such as associating, observing, questioning, networking and exploration to find new and better way for products and processes.
Business leader you admire most (and why): My father, Gary Vermeer—he had a few key metrics that he always wanted to know to gauge how we were doing in the business. He kept business simple. He also asked several times, “Are you having fun?” He realized that if you were going to succeed as a leader, you needed to have passion for what you were doing.
Favorite quote about leadership: Leadership starts with listening.
Jason Mark Andringa
Title: President & COO
Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering from Calvin College, M.S. in aerospace engineering from MIT,
MBA from University of Southern California (Marshall)
Years at Vermeer: 9
One book every manager must read (and why): I find the most value in reading history about a broad range of topics and understanding what we can learn from history.
Business leader you admire most (and why): George Washington is an under-appreciated leader. He did the right thing for his country as opposed to thinking about himself in many ways.
Favorite quote about leadership: I’m not sure if this is a quote, but I believe that an important leadership truism is that actions speak louder than words.
Vermeer recently announced your roles will be changing as part of your family’s succession plan. Can you describe the transitions ahead? Why is legacy planning important to the success of a business?
Mary: At Vermeer, we have been very intentional about effective family transitions. This started back in 1989 when my brother Bob Vermeer and I decided to work with a family consultant group to guide us in policy development designed to make positive family transitions. Many family businesses state that they want the business to stay in the family, but fewer people really plan ahead. The statistics say that only 30% of family businesses get to the second generation, 12% to the third and 4% to the fourth.
Jason Andringa admires George Washington as an example of selfless leadership.
Jason: I appreciated that we have a family employment policy when I was going through school. I probably would have worked outside the company anyway, but I am glad that I always knew that would be the case. That experience helped me build confidence and fully vet whether or not I would work for Vermeer.
What are the keys to effective leadership when multiple family members are involved in leadership roles? When your approaches to a business problem differ, how do you arrive at a solution?
Mary: This is a challenge. Working with my dad was not always easy. Communication is the key. That sounds trite, but it is true. When you disagree on a way forward with key issues, you really have to take the time to get all the opinions and thoughts on the table. And in some cases it might be necessary to include someone outside the family to help facilitate.
Jason: I agree with Mary that it is a challenge and that communication is the key. We are also fortunate to have an increasingly good shareholder governance structure in place and a board with strong outside directors in addition to family directors.
In light of the tight margins many crop producers will face in 2015, what lessons would you share that have helped you weather challenging economic conditions?
Mary: Through our lean journey, we have tried to keep costs in line by using continuous improvement methodology to take waste out of our processes. Examples include the ability to produce more without adding manufacturing floor space or capital equipment, or producing more without expanding the number of team members. It is essential for Vermeer as a private company wanting to grow in a very competitive world.
Jason: Lean and continuous improvement have been one of our core competencies for the past 15 years. We also strive to deliver products and solutions to our customers that give them a “productivity advantage”— better overall cost of operation in comparison to competitive offerings. When our customers are successful, we can be successful.
Vermeer is a company with specialties in multiple industries. Break down the sectors you are active in. What role does diversification play in the health of a company?
Mary: We have found that although our diversification makes our business more complex, it has helped us weather the ups and downs of some of our markets. We have found through the years that our forage and tree care markets are the most constant. We appreciate that consistency. On the other hand, we also are very pleased to be in the energy, recycling and specialty mining markets—even though they do tend to experience more volatility.
Jason: We are a niche manufacturing company. But we are also involved in numerous, and non-correlated, niche markets. And we have a global footprint. The breadth of our product offerings to different markets and geographical scale provide the diversification to weather market-specific volatility.
How far into the future do you try to anticipate new technologies or production practices that could influence your business? How do you foster innovation among your team to capitalize on whatever trends lie ahead?
Mary: This is a great question. We are just finishing the fifth year of our strategic plan. We are already starting to look at all of our markets and products and project where we want to add focus in the future.
We do several things to encourage innovation in all areas of Vermeer and especially in our engineering groups. We encourage the groups to take time to explore in days dedicated to new ideas and innovations. This has worked particularly well in the forage team. We also really celebrate our team members who have patents issued in their name. We give out plaques and hats with the patent number of their invention at a celebration in front of their peers. This seems to be an important way to recognize innovation and encourage others to constantly be looking for the new ideas that will propel our growth in the future.
What is one thing managers should do to maximize their productivity during the work day?
Mary: Managers need to appreciate the importance of each hour. All of our plant teams have start-up meetings to go over key metrics for their area and go over any issues or barriers that have been recognized and need to be addressed so that our team members can do their work productively. We have also tried to use this same approach in many areas of the company, including IT, finance and engineering.
Jason: Time management—constantly considering the meetings you need to be at, want to be at, should delegate, or can or should skip, knowing that it is a better fit for other people’s role and skills. It is also important to schedule time to get caught up on things like e-mail and giving yourself time to think and plan. I am convinced that it is certainly possible to accomplish more and be more effective for your company by saying no to certain meetings or other requests for your time.