Summers Manufacturing is an employee-owned business in Devils Lake, ND, with a passion for strong and durable equipment. They have been producing farm equipment like tillers, land rollers, and sprayers since 1965 and see their slow and steady growth continuing well into the future. Territory sales managers John Helgaas and Ben Idland took some time to discuss exports, manufacturing in ND, and how Summers has continued to excel.
The company’s backbone is its consistent workforce with many years of experience who are fiercely loyal. For many businesses across the country, workforce shortages have become an issue, but with dedicated employees, Summers can also focus on farmers’ hardships too. “We have to adapt to what the farmer’s challenges are,” says Helgaas, “if they have labor shortages, we can adapt our products to use fewer laborers.” He goes on to talk about how this industry (manufacturing and farming) was born out of adaptability. Farmers have been adjusting to the environment, labor needs, and with or without the pandemic, they have a strong history of being creative, innovative, and forward-thinking to overcome challenges. “Summers is made up of farmers,” says Helgaas, and they strive for creative solutions.
Summers primarily exports their products to Canada, Russia, and more recently, Australia with growing success. “We are a pretty small company to have a global impact,” says Idland, with about fifty employees in Devis Lake and four in Aberdeen, SD. “But, once a country gets their first taste of how tough our equipment is, they keep coming back. For example, we have had such a huge surge in Russia, and our equipment has to be tough for their environment,” touts Idland. The company has found a niche where their products work well, and to continue the momentum, maintaining their relationships and ongoing support in those markets is necessary. They have had an employee in Russia for several years to cement their relationships in the country.
Helgaas had three pieces of advice to share with new exporters as they get into new markets:
- Align yourself with people already doing business in that country. There are a lot of challenges, but an ally can provide vital information and requirements you may not have considered.
- Make sure you are in a growth market. Don’t go into a market that is on the downturn of expansion.
- Take exporting slow and steady. Take the time to get your feet wet.
Taking the initiative to find reliable resources, good market data, and a measured approach will help new exporters maintain scalability and lasting growth. Summers has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the two explained their slow but steady expansion has paid off. The company has gradually scaled up over time. Idland explains how manufacturing facilities like Summers are harder to scale up or down quickly. It makes more sense to grow slowly. Working on engaging businesses with longer contract life has been essential to ensure that an investment in new facilities and new equipment for expansion will pay off.
Technology is infiltrating many aspects of life for manufacturers like Summers. With opportunities to increase production speed and accuracy, the company embraces new technology both on the manufacturing floor and in its global relationships. Robotics have been incorporated into the manufacturing facility with robotic welders and CNC press breaks that allow precision sheet metal bending. These upgrades have been welcomed by many of the workers. Idland explains that the robots save the employees time, increase efficiency, and make work a little easier, so they are happy to have them.
For the sales and service team, the capability to have virtual meetings with contacts overseas has been an essential part of the business over the last year and a half. It has helped the company maintain relationships, make deals, and keep the dialog going. “Getting real-time feedback from potential customers overseas has been crucial. You can see their expressions, hear the vitality in the conversations, and hopefully detect any unsureness before it becomes an issue,” says Helgaas. Inland also says the opportunity to keep connecting with their overseas customers has been great. “It is now possible for us to hop on a video call and show them how something works in real-time instead of talking over the phone to try and understand each other’s needs.” YouTube and other platforms have also played a role in showing the customers how to utilize Summers products effectively, with more people having access to quick answers and visual information.
Both Helgass and Idland note that supply chains have been an ongoing issue on several fronts, like so many businesses and consumers, products, and parts are running way behind.”When it comes down to it,” Helgaas says, “we [manufacturing companies] are all competing for the same thing, we all use the same steel, hoses, and parts to manufacture our products, so this becomes difficult to ensure everything is acquired.” As so many manufacturers are waiting on parts for their products, the media’s magnification on shipping issues has provided transparency from customers. “Everybody is frustrated with shipping. At least with real-time information, some of the pain can be transferred off of businesses like us, as it is a global issue,” says Helgaas. The team remains hopeful that many of these issues will resolve over the next few months.
Summers has built their reputation for building rugged equipment that meets farmers’ needs and has continued to expand its products globally. And despite the global pandemic, they have found bright spots in communication and technology that have served them well. The innovative spirit of a farmer is embraced by this team of hard-working individuals. At the end of our conversation, Helgaas couldn’t help but add that “this is a proud North Dakota company, it is made up of farmers, and that is something I will stand behind.”