January 28, 2014


Innovation: An average business reacts to industry changes - a market leader creates those industry changes.

At the 2014 Midwest Partnership Economic Development annual dinner meeting in Panora Thursday night, Ben Puck of Manning's Puck Custom Enterprises and Jim Ober of Scranton Manufacturing shared how their companies moved from 20th-century reactionaries to 21st-century innovators with international reach.

The Midwest Partnership Development Corporation is a non-profit economic-development organization that operates in Adair, Audubon, Greene and Guthrie counties.

Puck Custom Enterprises began as Puck Brothers Pumping in 1979, with a pair of vacuum trucks to haul manure for neighboring farmers. The company eventually expanded to include six trucks.

In the 1980s, pork production expanded rapidly, with 1,000- and 2,000-head hog barns operating by the early 1990s.

"I couldn't figure out how six trucks were going to pump all that," Puck recalled.

Puck said he needed "high-quality people" - smart, innovative, cunning and sharp - so he "suckered" his four children back into the "ma and pop" shop.

"The kids wanted to come back and have a job," he explained. "I couldn't find the products I wanted to buy. So we started building things."

Through their collegiate networking, Puck's sons were able to connect with Midwest Partnership and Des Moines Area Community College to address industry changes on the horizon.

The company now offers a variety of equipment, from agitation boats and 220-degree spinning reels, to floating pumps and wireless pump operations utilizing the latest tablet technology.

When he started in the industry, Puck could pump 6,000 gallons an hour -now he can pump 2,500 gallons a minute. This year's goal is to reach 4,000 gallons per minute.

"We've had great partnerships, and we're building things that outperform our competition two-to-one," he said.

Puck Custom Enterprises equipment can be found across the globe, in Russia, Croatia, Canada and across the U.S. But its home state of Iowa remains the top market, with 20 billion gallons of manure per year.

"It's the most applied to the soil anywhere in the world," he said, crediting Iowa farmers for their nutrient stewardship.

Scranton Manufacturing Company Inc. began in 1971 as a farm-equipment-repair shop and manufacturer of farm gates, with early innovations including the first round-bale feeder.

The farm crisis of the 1980s hit the company hard. As demand for its products dropped, "the company nearly went under," Ober said.

The company sought to diversify, purchasing the New Way garbage truck product line from Norm Bellows.

"He was mechanically smart but missing things marketing and business-wise," Ober said.

The smaller trucks filled a niche market, which could grow only so far. With the introduction of the Mammoth front-loading and the King Cobra rear-loading trucks, Scranton Manufacturing joined "the big leagues."

"It was a good time to be out there, the market was growing," Ober said.

But in 2007, new government emission standards hit the market, requiring new exhaust systems. The result was cleaner air, but the process was not easy, said Ober. Many of the new trucks cost up to $14,000 more, produced worse fuel mileage and broke down more often, resulting in a market downturn. The industry took a second hit when the economy fell into a recession in 2008.

Scranton Manufacturing responded with its Sidewinder - an automated truck capable of collecting garbage at 1,300 homes per day. A rear-loader with two or three workers would reach only 600 to 700 homes per day, Ober said.

He described the economic climate as a "window of opportunity." The company's competitors were already building this automated truck, but the wear and tear was significant, leading to a high repair cost. Scranton Manufacturing accounted for this abuse in its design. As a result, while the industry-wide market demand for the automated truck decreased 5 percent last year, Scranton Manufacturing's market share increased 27 percent.

"You can't be stagnant," Ober said.

Scranton Manufacturing purchased Bowie International in Lake City in 2007, opened a Carroll plant in 2011 and is currently planning a 56,000-square-foot addition to increase its welding and painting capabilities. Its trucks can be seen on the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, China and Mexico.

Ober agreed with Puck that people are a key variable in the equation for success.

"We talk about the Midwest ethics, taking care of these people, holding onto good people, keep them challenged," Ober said.

Puck also highlighted the importance of connecting with schools.

"We've got a lot of kids graduating every year, and we've got a talent drain," he said. "We send them to the finest schools in the nation, and they never come back."

It is up to local businesses to give them a reason to stay, he added.

"There is a lot of history here, and the opportunity to build something else," Puck said. "That is what our legacy should be built on. The future is bright to build a business in Iowa."