Business

Many Independence businesses are homegrown

Agriculture has played major role in community

Dawn Dawson, press operator, works at the controls of the 9” press at Pries Enterprises in Independence on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Dawn Dawson, press operator, works at the controls of the 9” press at Pries Enterprises in Independence on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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INDEPENDENCE — Whether you are enjoying a slice of cheese on a sandwich, sitting on aluminum bleachers watching your child play ball or giving your dog a treat, chances are your life has been touched by an Independence business.

Many of the larger employers started as “mom and pop” businesses, according to George Lake, executive director of the Buchanan County Economic Development Commission,“Like so many county seat communities, there has always been an industrial base in Independence — small machine shops employing 10 or 15 people,” Lake said. “The largest employers have always been agricultural-related businesses.

“At one time in the 1960s, there were three creameries in a town of 6,000. The remaining creamery, Wapsie Valley Creamery, has about 100 employees.”

Food production

The creamery, which produces cheddar, colby, monterey jack and curd cheeses, purchases milk from nearly 300 dairy farms in northeast Iowa, northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin.

“Geater Machining and Manufacturing, which employs about 230 people, started out as a small machine shop,” Lake said. “The company has grown over the years, become highly professional, and works with Rockwell Collins and a variety of aviation industry businesses.”

Food processing also has been a staple of Independence’s industrial base.

“Corn Blossom Foods processed live chickens,” Lake said. “Over the years, the plant was sold to a number of owners including Iowa Ham Canning and Tyson Foods.

“Tyson shut down production of chopped ham and sliced luncheon meats in 2006. Four years later, Tyson reopened the plant to make pet treats under the True Chews, Nudges and Top Chews brands.”

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The Tyson plant employs more than 330 people and is the largest private employer in Buchanan County, according to Lake.

Aluminum windows and doors

If you are working in an office cubicle or have purchased an aluminum-framed door or window, you likely have come in contact with products manufactured by Pries Enterprises. The family-owned company, founded in 1975, moved in 1986 from Waterloo to the Larson Industrial Park on the northern edge of Independence.

“We were landlocked in Waterloo, so we couldn’t expand,” said Matt McMahon, Pries president and CEO.

Pries kept both locations operating for a time, but it eventually became obvious that operating two plants within 25 miles did not make good business sense.

“We focused on the Independence plant, and that’s when the company really took off,” McMahon said. “We do a lot of work for window and door manufacturers. We are fortunate that Iowa and the Midwest have a lot of companies producing aluminum windows and doors.

“We also make products for many office furniture manufacturers. We supply parts for products that Iowans use every day, but they will never see our name on a product.”

The Independence plant was expanded by 60,000 square feet in 2000 to accommodate a new aluminum extrusion press. McMahon said a large extrusion press added in 2014 within the company’s 155,000-square-foot plant has doubled manufacturing capacity.

Large aluminum logs are heated to near 1,000 degrees. The softened metal “billets” are pushed under high pressure through molds or extruded — think Play-Doh through a plastic mold — to create specific shapes. Parts are checked at random with a computerized scan to determine whether they meet the customer’s exact specifications.

Pries employs about 100 people. Fifty percent of the employees are women and they make up 60 percent of the company’s team leaders. The area labor market remains tight, although it is improving with recent layoffs at Deere and other employers in Waterloo, he said.

“One-third of our employees have been here over 10 years,” McMahon said. “Another third has been here two to 10 years. The remaining third tend to move around a lot.”

Most of plastics sales from outside Iowa

East Iowa Plastics manufactures thermoformed plastic decorative house shutters as well as ventilation doors and other products for the poultry industry. The Independence plant, which employs nine, has been operated by a succession of owners since 1983.

Bret and Jean Kivell bought the company in 1997 from ABT Building Products of Neenah, Wis. Ninety-eight percent of the company’s sales come from outside Iowa.

“For a small company, we are surprisingly diversified in terms of products,” Bret Kivell said. “That’s bad because it’s a lot of little products to market and support, but that diversity has really helped us through tough times when one sector has suffered more than another.”

Jean Kivell said East Iowa Plastics is cautious about adding employees, making sure it has the long-term sales to support more workers. The company has not laid off an employee for 15 years, she said.

Corncobs re-imagined

One of the “greenest” employers in Independence also probably is one of the least known to local residents.

Best Cob has been grinding and sifting corncobs since 1966 to make a variety of biodegradable products.

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“We buy our corncobs from seed companies like Pioneer,” said Kelly Bordewick, general manager of production. “They extract the kernels off the cob, and it becomes a byproduct.

“We provide the loaders to get them out of their plants. Everything comes in by truck and leaves here by truck, so having access to Highway 20 is a real asset.”

Best Cob, which was bought by an investor group in 2007, is based in Rock Falls, Ill. The Independence plant is the company’s only processing and shipping operation.

Bordewick said Best Cob’s customers include those needing either an abrasive or an absorbent product. The plant is capable of grinding 45,000 tons of corncobs annually.

“We prefer to source corncobs from as close to this plant as possible,” he said. “We are primarily getting corncobs from seed corn companies in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.

“We ship product in bulk as well as 1-ton totes and small bags of 40 pounds or less.”

Most of Best Cob’s sales are domestic, but the company also supplies a veterinary pharmaceutical company that ships its finished products internationally.

Bordewick said Best Cob is exploring additional uses for its product, but the availability of corncobs will play a major role in growing the business.

“We employ about 32 people in Independence,” he said. “We are the largest electricity user in the city, and we’ve had a good relationship with the city over the years.

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“The abrasive nature of our product means we have to periodically replace equipment. Our new owners have been willing to invest in new technology, which is helping us automate the process.”

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