Buhler Versatile USA: Canadian manufacturer brings farm sprayer production to Willmar
Willmar is the only location in North America where farm implement and tractor maker Buhler Industries Inc. of Winnipeg, also known as Buhler Versatile USA in Willmar, is manufacturing the company's line of sprayer applicator products.
The Willmar plant, located at 2500 Airport Dr. S.W., is the former site of Willmar Fabrication. Willmar Fabrication had been producing product for Buhler Industries. Buhler Industries bought the factory and transitioned operations to Buhler in April 2011.
Rick Fernstrom is operations manager for Buhler Versatile USA and has been working since June 2011 to grow the manufacturing, engineering and supervision team. The Willmar site began 12 months ago with 46 salaried and hourly employees and now has 97 salaried and hourly employees.
Fernstrom attributes the employment increase to a strong export market. He said more than 60 percent of the different sprayers and applicators produced in Willmar over the past few months have been exported to Australia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia.
He said European demand is due to Buhler Versatile's connection with Combine Factory Rostselmash Ltd., in Russia, which owns 80 percent of Buhler Industries.
"They've got dealerships and there is a need for the product, and part of their effort was to buy businesses like Buhler Industries and different components of it to have a one-stop shop so you could go to Buhler Industries and say you need a sprayer, a row-crop tractor and need an auger for the grain, seeding equipment,'' said Fernstrom.
Buhler Versatile also sells product in Mexico, the United States and Canada. Demand in the domestic farm market has been level, said Fernstrom.
"We're a small player market-share-wise, but part of our effort is to penetrate that market and expand our market share,'' he said.
The company has a research and development office here where engineers will be designing new products and work hand-in-hand with manufacturing as products are developed.
"We'll design it and we'll make it in this plant to be able to expand our product offering and grow the business,'' Fernstrom said.
Buhler Versatile has two other factories in the U.S.: one in Salem, S.D., that makes grain handling equipment, and a factory in Fargo, N.D., that makes implement attachments and tractor loader arms.
Buhler Versatile also has factories in Canada, where the headquarters are located, that make the Versatile and Farm King row-crop tractors and four-wheel-drive tractors.
Versatile, a division of Buhler Industries, is the only Canadian manufacturer of agricultural tractors. The factory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, covers almost 700,000 square feet with complete manufacturing and research capabilities and full research and development facilities.
Versatile was founded in 1966 and was sold to Comat Industries in 1977. Ford New Holland bought the company in 1987 and Ford New Holland became New Holland in 1993. Versatile was sold to Buhler Industries Inc. in 2000 and sold to Rostselmash Ltd. in 2007. The Versatile name returned in October 2008.
Fernstrom said the future for the Willmar facility looks strong.
"Obviously it's farm-economy driven. If the farm economy doesn't improve or drops off, then people aren't going to buy new sprayers or expand. It's going to be with respect to the way the economy goes,'' he said.
"The export business is critical for us. If we were just looking at North America, we wouldn't have hired all those people we did. It's good to have that diversity. We can weigh our resources if one part of the world economy is strong but another is weaker. It depends on the economy.''
Fernstrom said there's a lot of local interest in what's happening at the Willmar plant. The company has had some tours and made presentations to local groups such as the Kiwanis and Lions.
"It's been a very pleasant welcome,'' he said. "People are very excited about us being here.''
Fernstrom said one of the company's goals is to be a local employer of choice. The company has been pleasantly surprised at the number of qualified and skilled applicants.
"There hasn't been a real lack of resources or people interested and some of that may be because of unemployment and there are people looking for jobs,'' said Fernstrom.
"But the other thing that we hear is people through word of mouth from current employees have said, 'Go work there. They're doing good things. It's a good place to work.' Our goal is to be one of the employers of choice in Willmar and our aspect of making it a pleasant, safe, enjoyable place to work a part of our goal because then you attract those people.''