This is the story of Agri-Fab®, Inc., a thriving company located in a small town in mid-America. A company that exists today solely because a few people had the faith to believe a miracle could happen.
In 1975, when an absentee employer closed the doors of a lawn and garden business that had been an institution in Sullivan, Illinois, many individuals pooled their resources to build a new company. In doing so, they continued not only a community tradition, but also a family one.
Building a Better Lawn Sweeper
The success of the manufacturing business launched in 1975 exceeded the founders’ wildest expectations. The story began with the idea of developing a new and improved lawn sweeper. Soon, Agri-Fab® went on to redesign and manufacture a product that outperformed any lawn sweeper on the market. The result attracted the attention of a major retailer and, ultimately, catapulted Agri-Fab® into the position of an industry leader of lawn and garden attachments.
Agri-Fab® expanded its manufacturing facilities to meet its customers’ potential needs, with the addition of a 12,500-square-foot building. The building was finished early in 1987, just in time for the lawn and garden season. The expansion proved necessary. Orders for the new lawn sweeper poured in, and overall company sales doubled.
The success story was followed by others. The objective was to serve all of Agri-Fab®’s customers’ needs in the lawn and garden attachment market. Agri-Fab®’s business model included the development of a complete product line, ranging from lawn carts, lawn sweepers, aerators, fertilizer sprayers and spreaders to snowblades.
Not everything the company produced was attached to a tractor. For instance, the company was ahead of its time in producing environmentally friendly products that relied on muscle power. In addition to standard wheelbarrows, its precision-balanced poly wheelbarrow allowed someone to push several times his or her weight. Its silent push reel mower, with blades that were precision ground to the point where the blade and the cutter bar did not touch, was the best in the business.
Even as Agri-Fab® continued to add new products, the lawn sweeper presided over the line. Gradually, Agri-Fab® became the dominant source in the lawn sweeper business.
After its successful re-entry into the lawn and garden manufacturing arena, Agri-Fab®’s exponential growth continued. Through the period of the early 1990s, the business, which was founded on faith, had doubled in size from what it was in the late 1980s and doubled in size again by 1999.
Secret to Success
The company’s key to success lay in its talented and loyal people, superior products, sound operating principles and a leap of faith. Building a better product may have been an old-fashioned notion, but Agri-Fab® always took the approach that its products would not only endure, but also would bring value to the customer.
One reason that Agri-Fab® could provide good value for its customers was that it consistently upgraded its operation to run more efficiently. For example, three years after going into business, the company invested in its first computer. Early on, using its previous experience with a larger organization, the company purchased software with the capability of taking data from the shop floor—from part numbers to costs to labor distribution—and entering the data automatically into the general ledger. Having such up-to-the-minute data allowed the company to react to customer needs and make better business decisions, and provided a basis for a future conversion to completely integrated manufacturing and management systems.
Agri-Fab® gained huge rewards by complying with the strict EPA regulations on paint usage. In the late 1980s, the regulations on liquid-paint spraying required all large manufacturing companies to convert to a high-solids paint, causing Agri-Fab® much expense and trouble.
After much investigation the company arrived at an alternate solution, and in 1993, purchased and installed four powder-coating spray booths in a newly constructed paint building. This eliminated all air pollution and hazardous waste. Plus, it increased customer satisfaction because of the improved quality of its product’s appearance.
One of the challenges it faced in the early 1990s was drawing enough workers from the surrounding area to keep up with the growth. Automation was the answer. The company built a new 110,000-square-foot building and modernized its operations with computer-controlled assembly lines that monitored each unit by weight to determine if any parts were missing.
The use of robot technology was implemented in areas such as welding, drilling and strapping to help streamline the process. Agri-Fab® also installed sophisticated laser equipment, which eliminated the high cost of precision tooling for lower-volume work.
Strong fiscal practices were another important facet of Agri-Fab®’s success. Even with its phenomenal growth, the company still followed a philosophy of reinvestment into the business so it could continue to grow.
At peak season, the company employs nearly 400 employees in a town of 4,700 and the surrounding 40-mile area, while Hydro-Gear®, a division of AF Holding, employs nearly 700.
Agri-Fab® operates an on-site subsidized daycare center for the children of its employees, enabling families to better balance home and work. And Agri-Fab® continually donates funds to the community through many charitable organizations including area churches, hospitals, schools and foundations.
Its product line has expanded to include many innovative and feature-rich attachments for the lawn and garden industry as well as the UTV/ATV market. From lawn sweepers and spreaders to mowers and snow throwers and everything in between, there’s an Agri-Fab® product suitable for the task.
In looking back over Agri-Fab®’s 42 years of contributions to the community and its partnerships with foundering or start-up companies, it is apparent that Agri-Fab® has fulfilled its original mission: to provide employment for the people of Sullivan, Illinois, and the surrounding area. Some might say the mission has been exceeded.