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Unverfehrt Family Firm Thrives Over Three Generations

Tue March 05, 2013 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

When Gus Unverfehrt and his wife, Irene, started farming their own land in 1954, the thought of owning a farm-supply business wasn’t on their minds. The couple raised hogs and cattle on several acres near Centralia, Ill.

“I was just trying to get by raising livestock,” said Gus. “During those early years, the market was in East St. Louis, so I’d take livestock there once a week or every couple of weeks. While I was there, I’d pick up supplies. Neighbors started asking me to pick up items for them too, and that’s really how I got into the farm-supply business. It just continued to grow from there, and in 1961, we named it Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply.”

Today, Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply is a third-generation family business where Gus’ sons Larry and Kevin now take care of day-to-day operations. Larry’s wife, Kathy, works for the company, as do their sons, Matthew and Tyler, who work in sales, and their daughter, Jennifer, works in the office. Mathew’s wife, Katie, also works in the office and Kevin’s son, Adam, oversees electrical work and runs service calls.

Although the business came about by chance, once it was established, Gus was active in building it. In addition to supplies, such as feeding and watering systems for livestock, he began offering other services.

“For the most part, we were geared toward livestock farmers like me,” said Gus. “Much of our business came from selling feeding equipment to dairy farms, which we still do. In addition, I began selling silo unloaders and became a feed dealer, which I really enjoyed. We started branching out with equipment and services geared toward grain in the late seventies, and things really snowballed.”

Grain Bin Side Expands

The first step in that direction was selling grain bins to area farmers. At the time, those individuals would erect bins themselves. As the grain market grew with increased yields, so did the need for larger bins.

“In the late 1980s, I put my first crew together to set up grain bins,” said Larry, who joined his father full time in the business nearly 20 years earlier and oversees the grain side of the business, which includes grain bin construction. “It’s now one of the major drivers of our business. We’ve continued to expand and offer commercial work erecting bins for elevators.”

“Farmers and commercial customers can have vastly different needs,” said Matthew, who often works with customers on their grain bin needs. “Farmers only deal with the trucks that come from their fields, bringing grain to their bins. Commercial businesses deal with a larger volume that comes from numerous farms, often handling hundreds of trucks a day. Farmers are generally looking for a bin system that handles about 6,000 bushels per hour, whereas an elevator may need to accommodate 20,000.”

The size of the bins needed to handle those varying volumes also is vastly different, as farmers typically put up 60,000-bushel storage units. Commercial bins are often big enough to store 750,000 bushels or more. Private, individual projects generally require about a month to complete, while larger commercial set-ups can take as long as three months. The Unverfehrts can have as many as 10 to 12 projects going at once.

“It all depends on the size and scope of the set-up as to how long it will take to complete; we’re basically a turnkey operation,” said Larry, adding that he subs out very large concrete pours. “Our own staff does more than 90 percent of our jobs, and that number continues to increase as we have started doing our own electrical work. To increase efficiency, we have multiple crews and each focuses on a particular aspect of the project: concrete, building the grain bins, building the augers, assembly of the grain legs, etc. That way, once the concrete crew is done with its work, it can move on to another project while the other crews come in and do their work.”

The bulk of the company’s work comes after the planting season, during the summer and early fall, to ensure bins are ready for harvest season. The company also works throughout the winter, stopping only when the temperatures are cold enough that concrete can’t be poured. According to Matthew, however, a project starts well before Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply crews ever begin working.

“We sit down with customers to get details of their needs and their budget and work to tailor a system that fits. Sometimes that may involve incorporating existing bins into a new system or it may be a totally new construction. Then we start from the ground up, from initial site prep and concrete bases to the finished bins and grain legs. Most cases now involve automated systems that are electrically wired, and we’ll run the wiring. We work closely with another contractor to do the automation set-up. Ultimately, the goal is to make our customers as efficient as possible.”

Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply also takes care of customers’ service needs. The company offers round-the-clock service, with a goal of getting a breakdown or other problem fixed the same day.

“From a service standpoint, we’re available any time because our customers can often be working at all hours of the day and night, especially during harvest,” said Larry. “We’ve taken calls at two in the morning on a Sunday. We make ourselves available because we understand how crucial it is to have their equipment back up and running as quickly as possible.”

A Need for

Larger Equipment

As the need for additional storage capacities became necessary, so did the Unverfehrts’ need for larger equipment. It began purchasing National boom truck cranes in the mid-1990s, and now has 28- and 40-ton (25 and 36 t) units.

“The most efficient way to assemble bins is on the ground, especially the smaller ones,” said Larry. “The truck crane can lift the pieces into place, and our crew can bolt them together. Our National cranes are great for that step, and the various sizes we have allow us to fit different needs most effectively. National has a good reputation for quality products, so when we were looking for cranes, that’s where I started. We bought a used one, and it performed well. That sold us on buying additional units. For smaller jobs, they work great.”

For larger jobs, Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply relies on two 110-ton (99.7 t) Grove TMS9000E truck-mounted cranes. The mobile units have a maximum tip height of 235 ft. (72 m), and the company added a hydraulic luffing jib that allows set-ups in tight areas. The company also chose the full counterweight package, which maxes out at 48,500 lbs. (21,999 kg).

“That size machine really fits our markets well,” said Matthew. “Larger bins mean heavier and higher picks, and the TMS9000 gives us the lifting capacity we need. The luffing jib will fold up to a 20-degree angle, giving us further reach. That’s important in an area where we have to keep a small footprint. We also like that they have one cylinder that pushes the boom out in stages. It gives us better capacity than other systems we’ve seen. The full counterweight package gives us flexibility to add capacity as needed.

“Mobility was also a factor in our decision to buy,” Matthew continued. “Both the National and Grove cranes allow us to drive from project to project, which saves time and is more efficient than moving a larger crane in pieces and taking hours or days to set it up. With these cranes, we can pull onto the site and be ready to pick in minutes.”

The Unverfehrts worked with Kirby-Smith Machinery St. Louis Branch Manager Ray Jost on the purchase of both the National and Grove products. “Like us, Kirby-Smith understands the importance of backing what they sell with exceptional service,” said Larry. “We’ve developed a great relationship with Kirby-Smith, working with Ray Jost and Dave Hoeft, before he retired. They’re knowledgeable in what the cranes will do, and Kirby-Smith service techs are well-trained to handle anything we’ve needed.”

Additional Services

In addition to grain bin services, Gus. C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply also carries machinery, including transport and unloading augers, as well as parts for the wide variety of equipment it sells.

On the livestock side of the business, Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply carries several products: gravity boxes for hauling feed, seed and fertilizer; liquid manure spreaders, mixers and silo unloaders. One of the company’s largest livestock offerings is its dairy equipment, which includes robotic and other types of milking machines.

“As with the grain bin business, we work with customers to find the right system to fit their particular needs,” said Kevin, who oversees that side of the business. “Robotic milking is an area that continues to grow, and a facet of the business where we’re looking to expand.”

In total, Gus C. Unverfehrt Farm Supply has 44 full-time employees and hires about 20 part-time workers during the summer. It has nearly 500 years of combined experience on staff.

“We have numerous longtime employees, including some that have been here 10, 15 and even 20 years or more, and that experience really pays off,” said Kevin. “They’re dedicated and they take ownership of a project, with an eye toward doing it right the first time while meeting a customer’s time and budget constraints. That, in turn, has helped us gain new business because our customers often recommend us to other people. Those same people who are spreading the word have also called us back many times to do repeat work for them.”

Forward-Looking Approach

Despite more than 50 years in business, Gus C. Unverfehrt isn’t satisfied with the status quo. In addition to expanding into robotic milking systems, the company is also looking to grow in the center-pivot irrigation market, something it started selling the past couple of years.

“We believe that staying static will lead to going backward, so we take a forward-looking approach,” said Larry. “That’s an ideal Kevin and I have worked to instill in our kids, and they’re taking it and running with it. I believe the future of the company is very bright with the third generation.”

Kevin agreed. “Our dad was willing to step out and take chances, and he taught us that doing that, along with hard work and an eye toward customer satisfaction, will take us a long way. It’s nice to see the kids taking an active interest in carrying on what our dad and we have built.”

“Much of the growth we’ve experienced is directly due to Larry, Kevin and their families’ efforts in seeing an opportunity and running with it,” said Gus. “Irene and I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve done and continue to do.”

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