It’s taken years for the Vermeer family to find their secret sauce. As owners of one the most well-known family businesses in Iowa — Vermeer Corp. in Pella — the Vermeer family has seen three generations come through the business. Jason Andringa, the grandson of Gary Vermeer, who founded the business in 1948, is president and CEO.

But the family ties weren’t without hard work and proactive communication. That was the message the Vermeer family gave during a sold-out event on April 30, put on by UNI’s Advance Iowa’s Family Business Forum program. The event brought other Iowa family-owned businesses to Pella to spend a day at Vermeer Corp., which manufactures farm and outdoor equipment.

The Vermeer family was honest about its journey. There was a lot of hard work to find the perfect chemistry, and despite the company’s success, it wasn’t all happiness — there were some lows.

“They did a good job showcasing that it’s not all mountaintops, and there are a few valleys as well,” said Dan Beenken, director of Advance Iowa. “If you think about a typical family and the conflict that can happen, now imagine working together all day with each other, there’s no wonder there is a potential for issues to pop up.”

Those in attendance learned the importance of intentional communication. The Vermeer family stressed that as a unit, families aren’t unanimous in their thinking. That means the majority opinion should rule, but all voices need to be heard.

And in order to move a company forward in the face of conflict, communication is essential, even if it seems trivial at times.

“If the only time you’re getting together as a family is because of a crisis, then you’re already in trouble,” Beenken said when recalling the main takeaways. “I heard families say that things are going well for us right now, but that doesn’t mean problems couldn’t come along. We should be setting up proactive communication so that when these things happen, we have a good foundation and have a good base to work from with each other.”

Another key message from Vermeer was the importance of setting up a soft landing spot for outgoing generations. For Vermeer Corp., that soft landing spot is a position on the board of directors. Bob Vermeer, a past CEO, is the chair emeritus of the board. Mary Andringa, another past CEO, is the chair of the board.

A soft landing spot allows family members to comfortably exit companies without micromanaging, Beenken said.

“What we mean by that is if the founder is ready to turn the company over to their child, sometimes it can be hard for the founder to give up the reins,” he said. “Oftentimes, it can help if the current owner has new ways to be involved. Being proactive when that generation leaves the business is as important as the transition plan into the business.”

At the end of the day, Beenken said the attendees were more than pleased with the lessons and experience. So was the Vermeer family, which relished the opportunity to help other family-owned business around the state.

“I think they were pretty ecstatic,” Beenken said. “They were really excited to talk to Iowa companies, their peers from the state. I think they are cognizant of how important these companies are to the fabric of Iowa’s economy and how it’s important to be a good trustee of ownership and hand it down to the next generation.”

An advancing program

Participants discuss the importance of communication and setting up a soft landing spot for outgoing generations at Avance Iowa’s Family Business Forum.

The all-day event with the Vermeer family was another successful chapter in the beginning stages of the Family Business Forum program. Launched last year, the program kick-started with a three-part Breakfast Series event in the fall and winter months of 2018 and ‘19. The events almost tripled in size by the last breakfast.

Beenken has attributed the growth to word-of-mouth marketing.

“It seems like family-owned businesses know each other and seek out each other,” Beenken said. “If you’re a fly fisherman, you know other fly fishermen. Family-owned businesses have been one of our biggest referrals to our growth. They are finding value in telling other families to come and see what it’s all about. That’s a big thing for us.”

That strong start has Advance Iowa expanding and planning much more for the program.

This summer, Advance Iowa launched a Family Business Reunion Tour, which brought family business lessons to cities across the state, including Swisher, Mason City, Edgewood and Des Moines. Each city featured a unique topic. Guests, who owned family businesses themselves, also spoke and doled out advice.

“Summer is when people used to have their family reunions; that’s what summer is all about,” Beenken said. “That’s what we modeled the reunion tour after. We brought together family-owned companies, and they shared stories with each other.”

Another new initiative is the Next Generation Leadership program, which prepares eventual family business owners for executive-level responsibilities and ownership. The class will help develop skills in new generations so they can effectively lead a company. The first class will be held in the fall.

So far, Beenken said the interest in these classes is extremely strong.

“We’re excited to get this going,” he said. “We are trying to create a peer group with next-generation members from separate companies to help them function together, lean on each other and learn from each other. This one has taken off for us in a way that we didn’t anticipate.”

Continuing into the fall and 2020 is the Breakfast Series, which will begin in late September with five parts instead of three. Because of the excitement generated by the Vermeer event, the event has seen more than five times the number of signups relative to last year.

There are more plans to be formally announced, like a potential awards gala for Iowa family-owned businesses. Companies will be honored and recognized; keynote speakers will be invited. Beenken said it’ll be more of a fun, evening gathering.

The growth of the Family Business Forum has truly been staggering for Beenken. He likes to glance at a couple of photos he took at the first and last breakfast series events in 2018 and ‘19. The first one shows about 35 people in attendance. The last one features more than 100. That was in the course of about five months.

It’s growth that Beenken himself didn’t quite anticipate when launching this idea last year. And there’s much more in the works to capitalize on the interest.

“We’re continuing to expand — big time,” Beenken said. “It really has blown up in a way that our other programming hasn’t. This has been really, really strong.”

Join the next breakfast series, Keeping Innovation Alive in a Family Business on Fri Nov 15, 2019. All Breakfast Family Business Forum events are scheduled from 8-10 AM at Ankeny, Courtyard by Marriott, 2405 SE Creekview Drive.