Puck Custom Enterprises displays one of its manure management machines in Croatia. The company opened its first retail store overseas last fall.
Puck Custom Enterprises displays one of its manure management machines in Croatia. The company opened its first retail store overseas last fall.

May 21, 2015

MANNING

Puck Custom Enterprises is poised to take advantage of the growing Eastern European market for swine technology.

The manure management system manufacturing company opened its first retail storefront in Osik, Croatia. Floor models hit the shore in the fall, general manager Jeremy Puck said.

The credit goes to the two Croatian entrepreneurs who operate the store, Puck said. PCE wasn’t looking to go international — it has already expanded to keep up with domestic demand — but Robert Spajic and Darko Bilic saw a niche. They took the risk of switching jobs and opening a store — a relatively new retail concept, Puck explained — in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent, according to the Croatian Bureau of Statistics.

“People are the only reason anything ever really happens,” he said. “The right people wanted to do something out of the ordinary.”

Puck met Spajic five years ago when Spajic was studying swine and swine technology at Iowa State University. Farmers in Croatia were — and many still are — using hunting wagons to transport manure. Spajic was looking for a more-effective way. A friend introduced him to Puck, who sold him a PCE system.

“He wasn’t going to let it fail,” Puck said.

PCE currently has four systems operating in Croatia, which is roughly the size of Iowa, three systems in Russia and one system in Ukraine.

And Puck sees a large demand.

Eastern Europe has similarly sized farms as the Midwest, making the PCE machines a great fit requiring very little customization, Puck said. Russia in particular is simply a huge landmass, he said.

The European Union is also increasing its focus on manure management — and backing its talk with economic subsidies.

But the region’s technology and farming practices are a full 20 years behind those of the U.S., Puck said.

“It stems from the Soviet legacy,” he said.

They’re also just beginning to learn the value of manure, Puck said.

“We take it for granted in Iowa, but it isn’t utilized elsewhere,” Puck said. “You can get rid of commercial fertilizers if you use liquid manure more efficiently. Swine manure will grow a good crop.”

Where the U.S. grows many crops for exports, the mission of Eastern European agriculture is to feed itself, he said. Farmers are looking for strong returns — and PCE machines provide an easier way to adopt new practices, Puck said.

Another side of the changing swine industry is the introduction of barbecue to PCE’s Croatian business partners, he said.

The most obvious difference in cuisine between Croatia and the U.S. is that the food is cooler, and the drink warmer, Puck said.

Meats are cured and salted — delicious, but cured bacon is not all similar to the fried bacon showcased in the U.S., he said. But the Croatian people have shown an interest in learning how to cut and grade different parts of meat, similar to the U.S., Puck said.

Though PCE entered the region around 2011 and 2012, its business interests in Eastern Europe have not been upended by the ongoing conflict in Russia and Ukraine. Puck credits the smooth business to the large European companies PCE deals with — Russian companies in particular are vertically integrated, running the swine industry from grain to plate.

The Croatian store is a sales center with a small warehouse for inventory. Puck hopes the demand will swamp the company, but there are no plans to manufacture overseas, he said. Some assembly may eventually be done in Croatia, but PCE’s goal is to keep welding and fabrication in Manning.

The company currently has 38 full-time and eight part-time employees and has spots open in assembly and fabrication. Owners are considering adding a second shift to keep up with demand. The move would create another five to 10 jobs this summer.

Spajic and Bilic are salaried contractors for PCE. If the Croatia store is successful, the company could use the model to open sales stores across the Midwest and northeast U.S., Puck said.