WASP stands test of time – and business is booming

    From left: Aaron Dorste, Robert Phroper and Amy Meyers are three of an all-time high workforce of 92 at WASP (Watkins Aircraft Support Products), producer of airline support and UPS and FedEx package handling equipment in Falls City since 1989. They’re not just employees – Dorste, Phroper, Meyers and 89 others (photographed below) also share in ownership of the business through the Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Owner Jim Watkins sold the business to his employees in 1997 through the ESOP transaction at $97 per share. A share of WASP stock today is worth about $800 and the company is scheduled to hit $100 million in sales within the next two years. “All the profits come back to us,” Plant Manager Jerry Koopman said. “And the future looks very good.” Photos by Jason Schock.

No one would argue that EDGE has an easy gig. Encouraging economic development is one thing – convincing people to part with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in a Falls City business venture is quite another. The fact that private and public investors dig into their own pockets to create such a business recruitment entity in itself says something about both the difficulty of the job and it’s importance.

All that said, when it comes to industry and manufacturing, the folks of EDGE can enter into any discussion or negotiation confidently, as they’re holding a fairly strong hand. Ames is high because they’re sticking around, but the trump card for EDGE and Falls City is clearly WASP (Watkins Aircraft Support Products). The producer of airline ground support equipment and package handling conveyor equipment is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary and kicking butt in the process, making more money and employing more people at higher wages than ever before. The choice of vender of United and American Airlines, UPS and FedEx, WASP also recently inked deals overseas, namely with Air France, spent about $200,000 on a building expansion and expects to drop another $300,000 or so this year in equipment upgrades.

“The future looks very good right now,” WASP Plant Manager Jerry Koopman said.

Indeed, so let’s eat! EDGE will host a BBQ Thursday from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at WASP to celebrate the company’s success. The public is invited to eat lunch and tour the facility.

“In this increasingly global marketplace, growing business and industry is important to the economic health of Falls City,” EDGE President and Thursday’s Master Chef Bart Keller said. “We want to thank WASP for providing quality jobs and contributing to the local economy. This BBQ is an excellent opportunity to recognize the achievements and outstanding contributions that WASP has made to the local area.”

The contributions are vast. The company currently employs an all-time high 92 people (and seeking at least another five, according to Koopman) and paying competitive wages. A welder starts at $14.16 per hour and the minimum wage paid is $11.50/hour. That comes with a full health benefit package, in addition to stock ownership. In 1997, owner Jim Watkins sold the business to his employees through an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) transaction. At that time, a share was worth $97 – today, it’s $800.

“The greatest thing is all the profits come back to us, not some five lawyers living somewhere else, taking big bonus checks,” Koopman said. “It all comes back to the employees.”

Founded in 1979, WASP is headquartered in Glenwood, MN, about two hours outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Of the four WASP plants, Falls City is the only one located outside of Glenwood.

Koopman, who took over as Falls City plant manager in 2008 upon the retirement of Brad Albu, said the company’s projected annual sales will reach $100 million by 2016. Business grew 7.9 percent last year and the Falls City plant alone typically churns out $300,000-$450,000 in sales on a weekly basis.

Jeanne Kramer, Employee Owner and VP of Finance, said continued success is likely.

“We will continue to see employment growth and a greater market share in our industry,” she said. “We continue to strategically invest in new equipment and to improve efficiences and process improvements for our employee owners.” This year, they’ve added a press brake and air compressor, in addition to the building expansion.

“We’re upgrading to keep up with sales,” Koopman said. “We’re trying to work smarter and more efficiently.”

Key to that efficiency is employee turnover, or lack thereof in WASP’s case. The average employee turnover rate of U.S. manufacturing companies fluxuates between 20 and 30 percent. At WASP? 3.5 percent. Koopman credited Staffing Services, Inc., with providing good candidates, and WASP is providing those folks good jobs.

Koopman is one of five (Dennis Auffert, Bruce Brown, Tom Carpenter and Brad Faller) who have been with the company from the very beginning. When Watkins chose to locate in Falls City (he considered Nebraska City) in 1989, he did so because of the centralized location and the quality of the people. In a Falls City Journal story printed March 29, 1989, then-plant manager Albu said the company’s success would inevitably be traced to “its committment to quality and a reputation earned through the efforts of its employees.”

WASP, Albu said, “is regarded as No. 1 on our equipment standing up and meeting delivery dates. That all goes back to our employees…employees make the company. I don’t believe we have one bad employee in the bunch.” Twenty-three employees did $22 million in business for WASP that first year.

Not all the 25 years were viewed through rose-colored safety goggles. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hurt the entire airline industry, WASP included. Manpower was reduced to 24 and plant operation fell to four days on, three off, with no night shift for three years. The night shift didn’t return until five years had passed.

“There was big concern there for a while,” Koopman said. “We didn’t know what the future would hold. But WASP people think long-term and they put money away in case something like that happened. We were able to hold on.”

A handful of WASP competitors didn’t hold on during the downturn and things gradually improved in Falls City and Glenwood. The local plant now operates 20 hours per day, five days a week, with 51 full-time daytime employees and 41 at night. WASP employs more than 300 company-wide.

WASP has shipped products or done conveyor installations in all 50 states, as well as Canada, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Norway, Iceland, England, Spain, Germany, Russia, Guam, China, Singapore, Micronesia, Africa, Australia, Korea and many Middle East countries, including Israel, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Upon bringing WASP to Falls City, Watkins said, “It’s my hope that someday WASP will be a major local employer and a firm that offers some of the best employment opportunities in the area.”

A quarter century later, that hope has been realized, not not mention parlayed, into one chief selling point for EDGE.     

WASP’s 92 employees photographed by Jason Schock last Thursday and the 23 original employees from a Journal file photo in March of 1989. 

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