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Mar 04, 2016 | Wheelift

Waverly-based Doerfer Cos. continues its global approach to growth

WAVERLY — Doerfer Cos., a Waverly-based designer, manufacturer and integrator of factory automation systems and related equipment, has gone global, and the company structure is starting to look that way.

David Takes, who purchased the company in 1995, has seen to that. Just in the last few months, he has altered much of the company’s leadership. Newcomers include Kathryn Nuss, chief human resources officer; Megan Anderson, corporate human resources manager; Kyle Henderson, chief financial officer; and Troy Miller, vice president of operations.

“We’re definitely amping it up,” Takes said.

The change in approach to personnel issues is a sign of that change, he said.

“We were looking for a new chief human resources officer, and I wanted somebody who could really help us make sure we had our act together, starting with U.S. coverage first.”

Nuss came from Donaldson Co. Inc. in Bloomington, Minn., and Anderon arrived from several HR roles at the University of Northern Iowa.

“When Kathryn came in, I asked her to take a look at what we needed, and we created a position for Megan because we thought it would be cool to have a team in place to hit the ground running.”

HR evolves with company

The team approach to HR fits a global corporate structure, Takes said.

“Prior to this, we were doing HR on a locational basis,” he said. “We had an HR director, but it was really one step down from the CHRO. I’ve been telling everybody for years where we were going to go and where we were were two different places. Where we were was an American company that worked internationally; now, we’re an international company that is based in America.”

Indeed, Doerfer Cos. — the parent of TDS Automation in Waverly, Waterloo and Cedar Falls, and six other branded companies in 12 locations worldwide — has been thinking globally for some time, Takes said.

“All our customers are multi-national companies, and you need a multinational team that deploys pretty seamlessly, and we need an HR program that facilitates that, and we couldn’t do that before,” he said.

Most recently, Doerfer acquired a majority interest in Fabricom Systemes D’Assemblage, a France-based firm, April 1, 2015, from GDF Suez SES.

FSA is a provider of custom-designed automation equipment for a variety of industries in Europe and beyond and maintains business locations and factories in Paris, Besancon and Valence, France, as well as Cluj, Romania; Pune, India; and Beijing.

The acquisition fit Doerfer’s goal to grow globally and established “a significant European presence and adds to the group’s multinational resources and presence in response to continued demand from its global customer base,” Takes said.

Keeping busy

The company’s global reach may be longer than ever, but it also has tangible benefits to the home base, Takes said.

“We’ve got a lot of working going on in France, and they’ve been asked to ramp up efforts on behalf of several customers, but they don’t have capacity to do it,” he said. “So, we’re likely going to be building some equipment for Europe right here in Iowa, because their customer base has reacted really favorably to the fact that they’re now part of this large multinational corporation that does this same thing.”

A bigger Doerfer is an advantage for everyone, Takes noted.

“To be honest, the customers like being part of a large organization, but they knew that organization didn’t have additional resources; now, they know they have both — a larger organization and technological resources to back up them up and expand their activities,” he said.

Nuss said the company’s breadth keeps work flow steady everywhere.

If the workload lightens in any of the Cedar Valley, she said, there might be tasks that can be shifted from plants in Nashville, Tenn.; or Greenville, S.C., for example, she said.

“We can move that work back and forth and therefore retain a really talented workforce by keeping that work in front of them,” she said.

Doerfer has gained attention in recent years with its work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has contracted the company’s Wheelift transporters that can carry objects as heavy as 150 tons – such as rocket boosters that NASA uses.

NASA bets on Doerfer success

Takes said Doerfer’s relationship with NASA is a sign of its strength – not just now, but for the long term.

“NASA wants to know that you’re making money,” Takes said. “The reason is that program is supposed to be multi-decades, so they don’t want us to provide all this hardware and not be here 20 years from now, because they’re going to need us 20-40 years from now.”

Diversification also is a key to the company’s success, Takes said, noting that the company has a hand in agriculture, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals and other fields.

“Nobody can be recession-proof, but because of our flexibility and our mix-and-match capability, we’re very recession-resistant, and that’s a big deal when you need to employ the talent pool that we need to employ,” he said.

Enhancing that portfolio was the acquisition two years ago of SteelMation in Del Rio, Texas, and Acuna, Mexico.

It was Doerfer’s entry into the oil and gas industry.

SteelMation uses Doerfer-developed proprietary business systems and technology to manufacture cylindrical and wellhead process equipment for the oil and gas markets.

“That’s a whole new business segment; in fact, TDS is doing a bunch of work for that operation,” Takes said.

The company is even resistant to the current slump in the oil/gas business, since its designs are focused on cost efficiencies, Takes said.

“There’s a huge opportunity for companies like us to bring new technical approaches to what they do because they’re now in the mode to be more efficient and cut costs to do what they do,” Takes said. “We try to follow an opportunity that presents itself because of a change in conditions. Much of what we do is because of changing conditions in all these different diverse markets.”

The company, which employs 1,000 people in all 12 locations, is working toward a new generation of workers, Nuss aid.

“Our first challenge is how to replace that aging workforce,” she said.

Doerfer has developed a four-year apprenticeship program and already is training some of its future workforce, Nuss said.

“We’re really going to be exploring how to get creative about not only recruiting that talent but retaining that talent through new ideas of how the workplace looks and how it functions.”

Originally published on the Cedar Valley Business Monthly.

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