October 11, 2009 | By Gerry Whitty
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No Room For Compromise

Despite challenges from an uneven economy, difficult times in the dairy and livestock sectors and space limitations, Madison, WI-based Vita Plus Corp. relies on its set of fundamental values to help both its customers and business grow.

You won’t find it written on plaques hanging on the wall. Nor will it be emblazoned on letterhead or notepads lying on a desk. However “it” makes all the difference in how Vita Plus Corp. goes to market and is the key driver to its success.

“It” is the simple phrase “employee-owned,” that appears underneath the company logo. Although it holds a subordinate position in the graphic sense, it is the dominant point of light which guides the company and is the bedrock of its operating principles.

“As an employee-owned company we direct our focus not so heavily on monthly, quarterly or yearly results, rather our business view is based on three- to five-year outlooks,” says Robert Tramburg, president/CEO, Vita Plus Corp. “When looking at the big picture and concentrating on our key focus areas, managing for the long-term success of our customer base typically results in short-term successes.”

Focus areas

There are key focus areas which direct Vita Plus’ management teams at its seven primary manufacturing locations and 75 dealers. These areas are safety (including food safety), quality, service, efficiency and growth.

As employee-owners, anyone working for Vita Plus comes to work each day knowing their efforts must serve these areas in some way, shape or form. They also know the best way to serve these operating ideals; both begin and endswith the end user/customer.

“This approach works for us because we start at the farm and work backward,” says Tramburg. “That is why it is critical to our success that we have decentralized the management and decision-making functions of our company, putting those tasks in the hands of those closest to the marketplace.

“We can’t really make effective management decisions for our customers in northern Wisconsin or Michigan from here in Madison,” he notes. “That is why we hire knowledgeable, talented managers who know the marketplace and the specific needs of the end user.”

Ask some of the facility managers and each will tell you a main reason for their facilities’ success and growth comes from the de-centralized operating structure.

“Serving a diversified customer base with operations of all sizes, having the ability to react quickly to a customer’s needs without having to run decisions by a group of people a couple hundred miles away is the key,” says John Every, general manager, Vita Plus, Loyal, WI. “Our staff of nutritionists, agronomists, drivers, millers and office staff are deeply vested in our customers and have intimate knowledge of their goals and needs. Keeping the decision making with those who know the customer best ensures our meeting the expectations set by our focus areas.”

Working from the inside out

While the focus areas provide a solid foundation for their operating platform, Vita Plus earns its stripes on the day-to-day mission of delivering optimum quality and customer service.

Since most of the manufacturing facilities were purchased as existing mill operations, Vita Plus, in many cases, had to play the hand they were dealt in terms of the size, capabilities and customer base. In following true to form, Vita Plus worked from the “inside out” which entailed getting to know the customers, gauging the potential for growth and putting the pieces in place to deliver a high-quality feed product that helps boost performance and profitability.

“Success is no accident, it comes from a strategic approach to making sure that customer is doing what’s best in terms of what they’re feeding, how they are feeding it and our understanding of the goals set for their operation,” says Craig Gerritsen, general manager, Vita Plus, Columbus, WI. “That’s accomplished not by pushing computer keys but by getting out of the chair and onto that customer’s farm and seeing firsthand, what’s going on. That’s how we start adding value, by knowing their operation as deeply and completely as they do.”

Gerritsen says this approach works because the trust built between the producer and the nutritionist ensures that if you meet the customer’s goals and make them successful, Vita Plus will be successful too. A prime example of that trust is seen as customers begin feeding all their animals according to Vita Plus nutritionist recommendations — including dry cows, heifers and calves — in addition to the milking herd.

“Another equally significant part of the equation is how we develop a feeding program that’s right for the producer,” says Matt Jorgensen, assistant manager, Vita Plus, Loyal, WI. “A team approach, which includes our nutritionist, the producer and their veterinarian, the local banker and, in our case, an agronomist, helps us work smarter with the customers, and provide them all the relevant information necessary to make the best management decision.

“Especially in these trying times, having as much information available and a team working on your behalf can make the difference between survival and selling out,” adds Jorgensen.

Challenges abound

From its humble beginnings in a barn outside of Madison in 1948, Vita Plus as grown to become a thriving company which today includes 12 manufacturing and warehousing facilities, and more than 75 dealers that serve thousands of customers in seven states.

During that time Vita Plus dealt with many changes to their business — shifting from poultry to focus on the dairy, swine and beef markets, expanding their service area outside of Wisconsin, and shifting to an employee-owned company in the ‘80s — and the challenges they face today are no less daunting.

Nevertheless, Vita Plus has relied upon its belief that by serving the core focus areas — along with keeping an open line of communication at all times — allows them to weather challenges better than other companies.

“If you look at the areas that pose real threats to our industry, issues such as maintaining high customer satisfaction, keeping operating costs in check, building efficiencies into production, and training and retaining a qualified workforce, these are not a problem for us,” says Jeff Winkler, operations leader, Vita Plus, Madison, WI. “Our customer focus, the employee-ownership and drive for manufacturing and delivering the best quality product takes care of many of those issues.”

Winkler certainly knows something about meeting challenges. Part of a legion of Vita Plus employee-owners with 20+ years of service under their belt, Winkler and the rest of the Madison team managed through probably the most significant challenge.

Like many of its sister facilities, Madison’s mixing plant is fairly old (other plants run anywhere from 20 to nearly 70 years of service) and was built before Madison became a city of nearly 300,000. Vita Plus housed its corporate offices, manufacturing and distribution facilities all on a parcel of land just a shade over 1.6 acres in size. Trucks rolling in and out at a dizzying pace created distribution bottlenecks at the location, and more importantly, safety concerns.

Being land-locked by main city thoroughfares on two sides and the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum on another, meant expansion was out. But a fortunate deal on available warehouse space on Madison’s east side, allowed Vita Plus to move its distribution center (DC) four miles away from the original location, which delivered a threefold benefit.

“The move eased our congestion issues at the manufacturing facility, got our distribution closer to the Interstate and other highway corridors, and opened up the space we needed to safely store and disperse product,” says Winkler. “Efficiency skyrocketed after the move and our DC serves as the hub of our wholesale business. With products coming from other Vita Plus locations, the DC location allows us to get great turnaround times for product delivery.”

Space concerns weren’t limited to the Madison location. Both the Columbus and Lake Mills, WI sites are somewhat squeezed into their locations, with Amtrak, city streets and private property bordering the plants.

The Lake Mills location is bordered on all four sides by a private property, state highway, a state bike trail and more wooded private acreage. For Tony Newton, general manager of the Lake Mills location, the lack of flexibility for expansion outside the plant meant some changes needed to occur inside in order to grow the business.

“We serve mostly dairy and beef operators in our retail business and do custom pelleted feeds and fill other DC wholesale orders,” says Newton. “As our business kept growing we looked at our operation and learned that our mixing process was not keeping up.

“We moved from two tumble mixers to one Hayes and Stoltz 5-ton mixer, and we cut our mix times and run times by 35 minutes, which helped us gain efficiency and add roughly 500 tons/month in additional output with that simple change,” Newton adds. “Four years ago we added a feed finisher to enhance our pellet consistency, which resulted in virtually no plugs in the dies. So while searching for improving the quality of our products, we were able to gain both quality and efficiency.”

Utilizing assets, seizing opportunity

Part of the Vita Plus success story is found in its ability to put its collective assets to their best use.

For example, both the Columbus and Lake Mills plants produce bulk and pelleted feed products. Both plants have become so efficient at pelleting that they satisfy 85% of the company’s pelleted feed needs, including specialized feeds for equine, poultry, pheasant, swine and dairy products and can switch out dies in less than 20 minutes and be ready to produce the next batch.

Loyal features an agronomic division and as Loyal’s management team of Every and Jorgensen will attest, having the agronomic team and a fertilizer plant helps deliver a well-rounded benefit to the customer base. In addition, Loyal is also home to the SF Transport, Vita Plus’ transportation arm, where full-service bays and dedicated technicians keep Vita Plus’ fleet on the go.

Madison originates orders and creates the logistics flow to keep the timely delivery of products to the wholesale customers, served by all the locations, running smoothly.

Other assets featured in the Vita Plus vault include ABC Consulting which provides essential business and planning services to livestock producers across the Midwest. The aforementioned SF Transport in addition to VP Transport provides the timely and secure delivery to customers throughout the Midwest. They do not carry prohibited ruminant products, nor do they work with facilities that handle these products, to further minimize risks of cross contamination.

Vita Builders, the construction arm of Vita Plus, works to ensure projects are done quickly, correctly and cost-effectively, from design and planning to project completion, in addition to assistance in sourcing new and used equipment through its VitaBin program.

Food for thought

When asked, all the plant managers interviewed mentioned that the future can be a little scary at times, especially with a clientele so tied to the struggling dairy industry. However, it’s that fear that motivates these managers to help guide their customers through these troubled times.

“For me, that’s part of the satisfaction I get from this job,” says Newton. “I work with customers who are committed to staying in business and my challenge is to work even more closely with them, bringing all the resources we have to the table to make them successful. It’s a challenge for all of us, but we have faced difficult times before and continued to grow.”

For Tramburg, in addition to all of their employee-owner and their adherence to their focus areas, future successes will likely revolve around harnessing new technologies for success on both a local and global scale.

“While it is difficult to predict the future with any certainty, I am certain that feed and nutrient products will need to adapt to perform in synchrony with whatever new technology avails itself to the industry,” Tramburg says. “With a global population that’s growing at a staggering pace, and until other nations demonstrate their ability to feed them, it is incumbent on production agriculture here in the Midwestern United States to deliver those food products. The other thing I feel pretty certain about is Vita Plus and our customers will play a role in that discussion.”

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