Third-generation family business Merz Farm Equipment and Falls City’s industrial crown jewel, WASP Inc., were presented with the EDGE Investors of the Year Awards last Wednesday night at the organization’s annual banquet and business meeting held at the Grand Weaver Hotel.
Both companies invested a bounty of capital in 2014, enhancing and expanding their respective operations on a grand scale – much to the delight of Falls City Economic Development and Growth Enterprise, whose stated mission is “to encourage economic development and growth and improve the business conditions of the greater Falls City/Richardson County area.”
Few local businesses can boast of better conditions than WASP (Watkins Aircraft Support Products). The producer of airline ground support equipment and package handling conveyor equipment last May celebrated its 25th anniversary by making more money and employing more people (92) at higher wages (the minimum wage paid: $11.50/hour) than ever before. The hourly wage comes with full health benefits and stock ownership, which has skyrocketed from $97 per share in 1997 to around $800 today. Consequently, while the average employee turnover rate of U.S. manufacturing companies fluxuates between 20 and 30 percent, at WASP, it’s an outstanding 3.5 percent.
The choice of vender of United and American Airlines, UPS and FedEx, WASP, managed by Jerry Koopman, also inked deals overseas, namely with Air France, spent about $200,000 on a building expansion and another $300,000 or so in equipment upgrades.
Not to be outdone, Merz Farm Equipment dropped a half million, too, on a modernizing upgrade more than a year in the making. In August, some 400 people toured the 4,000 square foot expansion, complete with a new showroom, new offices, plush conference room, customer lounge and service office. The former building, too, was remodeled to maintain the new look throughout the facility.
In 2015, the company that Nelson Merz founded in 1953 celebrates it’s 30th year at its current location at 35th Street and Hwy. 75. Nelson, a one-time State Senator, got it going, his sons Dennis, Gale and Bruce kept it going and his grandson, Mitch, launched it into well the future, upgrading the brand and proving, as he put it, “we are willing to invest in our customers’ futures and partner with them for the long-term.”
Merz, fittingly, Wednesday night was also elected to the EDGE Board of Directors.
Both companies’ bright futures were hard-earned.
In the early-1980s, the farm sector experienced its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — farmland value dropped by nearly 60 percent in some parts of the Midwest between 1981 and 1985 — yet Merz Farm Equipment endured and the farm economy rebounded.
WASP and the airline industry’s crisis came in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 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.”
And now, both companies held on to EDGE Awards. It’s because of places like WASP and Merz Farm Equipment, EDGE acknowledged, that Falls City continues to hold on.