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10-Mar-2015

TL Irrigation: Like no other in the field

PHOTO COURTESY TL IRRIGATION

Dave Thom worked on his family’s farm during the summers of his youth. It was there he realized how irrigation systems really made an impact in the agricultural sector. He was inspired by the fact that on the farm, they actually used the equipment his father’s business was making. Dave became aware of the benefit of offering customers products that they not only built but used themselves. This allowed him to truly understand the importance of a well-engineered irrigation system and the value it brings.

T-L Irrigation originated 60 years ago in Hastings, Nebraska. LeRoy Thom, the company's founder, grew up on a farm near Minden. LeRoy was an agricultural engineer and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was a Navy pilot in World War II and afterwards worked for the U.S. Conservation Service for several years. He then managed a ranch in Montana for a period of time.

LeRoy always had a strong interest in irrigation. He decided it was time to pursue his passion. He returned to Nebraska and started his own business.

LeRoy had the innovation and Gilmore Love, funeral home director, had the financing to launch T-L Irrigation, hence the name. Approximately eight years after the start, LeRoy bought out Love’s share of the company.

Gravity irrigation or flood irrigation in the 1930s resulted in a great deal of water waste.  According to Dave Thom, center pivot usage results in 40 percent less water and 80 percent less labor.

There was a patent on the original center pivot technology, issued to Frank Zybach in 1952. The rights to this patent were sold and many companies began developing improved versions of the technology. At that time, there were many companies manufacturing some type of center pivot mechanism, according to Ryan Weber, T-L Marketing Manager. These included electric, water and hydraulic drive systems.

LeRoy Thom developed a hydraulic powered option that farmers could understand. Hydraulic power is something very common on the American farm. It is a mechanism that most people raised on a farm understand and can fix on their own.

Today, T-L is one of the top manufacturers of pivot irrigation systems worldwide. LeRoy and his wife Jean had four sons and the youngest two— Dave and Jim— currently operate T-L Irrigation. LeRoy and his son Tom, are now retired. The oldest son, Mike, still works the family farm near Minden. Today, there is another generation entering the business with Mike’s son Chris and Jim’s son John.

Over the last 60 years,T-L has established itself as a leader in the irrigation industry. T-L has remained a leader and is one of the top four center pivot manufacturers in the world. According to the 2013 U.S. Census data, agricultural irrigation is a $48 billion industry.

T-L is currently the only company that has a hydrostatically powered irrigation system. The other three major companies (also located in Nebraska), Zimmatic by Lindsey Corporation, Valmont Industries (Valley) and Reinke Irrigation are all electrically powered systems. According to T-L U.S. Sales Manager Jim Kostal, due to the location over the Ogallala Aquifer farmers sought to take advantage of the ripe land and water source. Today, there are 80,000 to 90,000 pivots in Nebraska,  making it the most heavily populated irrigation state.

Each T-L pivot system is specifically designed for its application purpose. There are many variables such as terrain, soil composition, climate and crop selection. The dealers are trained to evaluate the situation and assist with the engineering of the system. For each installation, T-L sends an in-house technician to the site and works with the dealer to make sure the initial process is completed to the T-L standard.


The culture at T-L is one of family. They employ 250 to 300 people, including seven district managers, throughout the United States. These employees are trained and many come from an agricultural background, often being raised on farms.

“We may have a shortage of labor in Nebraska, but what we have is very good,” said Dave Thom. “That has been a key to our success. A lot of our employees came from the farm. The farm can give you an education that you can’t buy.”

The “lifeblood” (as Kostal puts it) of T-L’s business model is the dealer network. This has been one of most challenging but important elements of having a successful company. They put a great deal of effort into vetting and recruiting the right dealers to represent the T-L product line. There are many steps to establish a good working relationship, one that reaps benefits for all stakeholders and for the future of T-L.

“Water and electricity just don’t mix. My customers want a hydraulic driven pivot with continuous drive. With T-L Irrigation we can sell a complete irrigation package; from pivot to engine or pumps,” said Derek Wagner of Wagner Irrigation in Holdrege. “T-L has been very good to work with and together we make a good team. We wanted to expand our existing irrigation business and we knew that pivots were becoming the way of watering for farming practices. We have been a T-L dealer for 23 years.”

Weber speaks to this process. “You can tell, you can see and hear who the best dealers are,” he said. “They are active in the marketplace. They are in magazines, publications, on the radio. They are constantly advertising. They go above and beyond for customer service. They are not only selling a machine, they are following up on that machine. In the off-season, they are performing maintenance on those machines to make sure that there are no problems. The [dealers] who understand that this is an investment are the ones that really make it.”

“In the Ag community, a powerful source of information is the coffee shop,” said Kostal. “We talk to the farmers in the area and ask who they recommend. They invariably tell you whom they do business with and who has been good to them, and that’s where we go. We find out who the performers are and that is where we get the ‘varsity’ dealers.”

For many years, Ed Reif served as the sales manager. He was in the fields and worked directly with the customers to establish this practice. Since then, the process has become more formal, but the concept has remained the same.

Once T-L identifies potential dealers that they want on their team, they work very hard to forge a working relationship. If that dealer is within 1,000 miles, T-L sends their private plane to bring the dealers to meet with two to three of their major customers and for a tour of the manufacturing facility located east of Hastings. This includes a personal lunch meeting with the leaders and ownership of the company.

According to Kostal, they have been highly successful in signing new dealers with this method. “They find out that we are real and that the manufacturing is done right here. They meet all of the people who are important to that relationship,” he said.

T-L Irrigation serves 45 states in the U.S. and 70 different countries. Currently, the company has more than 250 dealers nationwide.

T-L provides several services for the dealers in order to ensure success and that the best customer service is available to the end user. They have annual meetings where they offer training and development and roll out new product information.

In 2012, T-L unveiled their new online portal for product support, Dealer Point. This is a website for dealers, technicians, engineers and support teams to help with product questions, equipment instructions and support. The site has video tutorials and helpful tips.

Dealers can also use Dealer Point for marketing resources as T-L encourages the dealers to advertise and will co-op with dealers for this purpose.

One of the significant changes for T-L came nearly a decade ago when the company became ISO 9001 certified. This is a global recognition granted  by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Vice President of Operations Jim Thom, decided this was a necessary step in order to continue as a leader in the industry. It led to numerous improvements for the organizations and they take the certification process very seriously. They survey their customers in order to make sure they are meeting expectations. Process improvement has become a goal for T-L.

The company has recognized the benefits of this credential because much of their business is overseas. The company realized immediate results, especially with customer satisfaction, and they haven’t stopped measuring since. For more information on how to become ISO 9001 certified, visit our website.

One of the improvements made with the continual process of ISO 9001 was the turnaround time for leads. The potential customer information is received at T-L.  It is passed on to the district manager who directly contacts the customer, qualifies them and their needs, and then connects them with the proper dealer in their area. Having a same-day turnaround on the customer leads is a standard for the company.

T-L has established a tool for farmers to become efficient and increase agricultural production. This has certainly been a positive for the economy of central Nebraska. The community recognizes the company as a “hometown” success story.

“T-L Irrigation has been a consistently strong employer in our community. They are known nationally for their high quality irrigation products and service, and also have a growing international presence,” said Terry Anstine, President of Five Points Bank of Hastings. 

“The Thom Family has been a solid supporter of community organizations for many, many years. Their philanthropic efforts are generally not publicized, but their unselfishness has greatly benefited many organizations in Hastings and throughout Nebraska.”

Dave Thom recognizes the need for irrigation and predicts an even bigger demand in the future.

“We have to feed the world,” he said. “There is no product out there better to do that than what we build right here. The efficient use of water; water is critical and water is valuable. We have to stretch every drop as far as we can with proper efficiency. We are going to see center pivots continue to be the preferred irrigation method in the world today and it will only expand.”

He was taught by his father to have a firm foundation in their business. He passes that advice on to other Ag-focused businesses. “Ag is up and down. You have to have a firm foundation underneath you that can handle that. As my dad said, ‘You have to walk before you run.’ That is how you will withstand those ups and downs in an Ag business.”

TL Irrigation, VP of Sales Dave ThomForming steel sheets into pipe.TL Irrigation National Marketing Manager Jim Kostal during our tour of the plant.
Custom materials are made in-house.


About the Author

Staff
Open for Business, Central Nebraska
The Open for Business Staff strives to create the most useful content possible for businesses. Whether it's tips and tools available for owners to work smarter, not harder, a feature story highlighting amazing things happening with a Central Nebraska business or a fun tip here and there, you will find something that helps your business thrive at openforbusinessmagazine.com 

    

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