Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman presented the 2014 Nebraska Diplomats Business of the Year Award to WASP (Watkins Aircraft Support Products) Friday, Sept. 5, at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln.
The award presentation was part of the “Nebraska Diplomats Passport Weekend” and CEO Roundtable, with 320 people attending the evening banquet at The Cornhusker. Nebraska Diplomats is a non-profit group, comprised of more than 280 business executives and community leaders, whose mission is to help build the Nebraska economy and promote the state by personally reaching out to executives from elsewhere. The group works in tandem with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to assist the growth and expansion of existing business, attract new business to the State and improve Nebraska’s business climate and competitiveness. Nebraska Diplomats are appointed for a period of three years. The Diplomats named Falls City “Community of the Year” in 2009.
Nebraka Diplomats from Falls City — Kevin Malone, Executive Vice President of F&M Bank, and Steve Kottich, of Miller-Monroe Co. — endorsed the selection of WASP as Business of the Year. The producer of airline ground support equipment and package handling conveyor equipment last spring celebrated its 25th anniversary and is currently employing more people at higher wages than perhaps any private enterprise in Falls City. 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 last May. Now there’s hardware to prove it.
“I’ve had the pleasure to work with WASP on several levels,” Kottich, who led the recruitment of WASP as Falls City Mayor in 1989, wrote in his nomination letter to the Diplomats. “From the very beginning, WASP has been a good fit for the City of Falls City. To this day, WASP continues to provide excellent jobs and monetary support to Southeast Nebraska. They are a model of what a positive company can do for a community. We could not have found a better partner to do business with.”
WASP’s contributions are vast. For starters, the company pays 92 people (as of May) well above-average wages at more than 150 percent of the Average Median Income at $14.16 per hour. That comes with a full health benefit package and a notable stock ownership component — which since 1997 has increased in value from $97 per share to $800 per share this year.
Higher wages not only contribute to a quality family life but also the health and well-being of Main Street business throughout the region. Another leading economic development indicator, and a key to their success, is lack of employee turnover. The average employee turnover rate of U.S. manufacturing companies fluctuates between 20 and 30 percent. At WASP it is a mere 3.5 percent which indicates a combination of a quality workforce and good paying, highly skilled jobs.
This year the company’s projected annual sales will reach $100 million.
“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 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.
Like Kottich, Malone offered “unconditional endorsement of WASP…for the 2014 “Business of the Year” Award” in a letter to Diplomats Executive Director Lori Shall. “This nomination exemplifies what an outstanding corporate citizen they are to Falls City. We are very fortunate that the site location efforts of their company founder, Jim Watkins, landed them in Falls City 25 years ago.
“WASP markets its product world-wide and prides itself on customizing existing designs or developing new ones for their customers. Their business plan prides itself on calculated and steady growth in the areas of job creation and capital investment. This strategy has been a great success as they have grown to be one of Falls City’s largest premier employers,” Malone said.
One of my Nebraska Diplomat responsibilities includes representing the State of Nebraska by personally contacting business leaders in order to interest them in expanding their business in our state. In April of 2014, I was one of three representatives of our local economic development group that conducted a corporate visit to WASP headquarters and toured their impressive facilities and met with corporate officials. I am pleased to report they have future plans for company growth and development in Nebraska, and I foresee more good things to come from this company,” Malone concluded.
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.
Koopman is one of five (Dennis Auffert, Bruce Brown, Tom Carpenter and Brad Faller) who have been with the company from the very beginning. Jerry, Dennis and Brad were in attendance at the Cornhusker to accept the award, along with their wives Laura, Laurie and Regina, respectively. 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. There are plans to reach 100 employees in Falls City by the end of 2014, bringing their job creation numbers to 76.
In addition to the Koopmans, Fallers, and Aufferts, WASP employees Nick Cromer, Margaret Fisher and Gary Fisher were also on hand to help accept the award.