GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Fiery sparks pour out from under a welder's mask as he fuses grain tank sumps. Across the way, workers place the steel frame for a soon-to-be thrift store.
And at another Chief Industries location some 25 miles away in Hastings, Neb., ethanol production is under way at a plant that produces about 70 million gallons a year.
Meanwhile, in Kearney, Chief employees churn out grain bins; in Omaha, a Chief plant supplies the rail car industry with doors; and in Lincoln, a new Chief project rises in Lincoln's West Haymarket district.
Each distinct business is one of eight divisions that make up Grand Island-based Chief Industries. The company has doubled its sales volume during the past 10 years and celebrated a record year last year.
Last month, the company was named large manufacturer of the year by the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The award was based on Chief's eagerness to leap into new markets and its geographical reach, said Nebraska chamber spokesman Jamie Karl. Head down Interstate 80 and you'll see the company's impact on the state from Kearney through Grand Island, Hastings, Aurora, Lincoln and Omaha.
Chief also has plants in Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado and even overseas in the United Kingdom and France, too — not to mention the dozens of countries where the company supplies manufactured components to various companies.
Much of the company's success is driven by its diversification efforts, said DJ Eihusen, chairman and chief executive officer, with the company adding a new industry or two nearly every decade since its beginning in 1954.
“If you look at the industries we're involved in, we're not the biggest, but we aspire to be the best,” said Eihusen, a third-generation Eihusen to oversee the company. “In every industry we've gotten involved in, we've taken that mentality.”
Wading into new markets takes a perfect marriage of demand and expertise, Eihusen said. The company first looks for a need in the marketplace, then evaluates if it has the capabilities to perform the work. It listens to its customers.
But success, he said, is largely about giving the company's divisions freedom to make decisions on their own, and that's the kind of foundation that founder Virgil Eihusen — DJ Eihusen's grandfather — laid for the company.
“He had such insight,” said marketing manager Gary Werner of the elder Eihusen. “He could see the growth of things. He didn't know where things would end up, but he could see the value, and that's why and how Chief Industries diversified so much.”
Chief started as a one-man, homebuilding operation out of Virgil Eihusen's garage. Market demands in manufacturing led to the creation of a slew of businesses that go far beyond the construction industry.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, the company launched into steel manufacturing, farm building manufacturing, powder coating, electrostatic painting, ethanol production, metal fabrication and more.
The 2000s gave Chief the chance to reel in its diversification plan.
“We, at one time, had 14 divisions and subsidiaries,” Eihusen said. “We were too diversified, and we were trying to do too many things.”
So the company made some adjustments. It trimmed businesses, consolidated others and rebranded.
Cuts included a recreational vehicle manufacturer, an electronic display systems manufacturer and a Kansas City-based construction company. The consolidations helped to streamline business ventures that were similar.
The company tacked the Chief name and logo onto its ventures so that “people know you're part of the same operation,” Eihusen said. “Really, what it stands for us is a leader.”
Chief continues to grow, but under each of its eight major divisions. Today, those divisions and the years they were established are: Chief Construction Co. (1954); Chief Agri Group (1961); Chief Buildings (1966); Chief Custom Homes (1970); Chief Carriers (1973); Chief Custom Products (1986); Chief Ethanol Fuels (1990); and Chief Fabrication (1991).
Chief's solid business plan helped the company get through the recession in “overall good shape,” Eihusen said.
The company suffered a significant drop in its housing division and laid off about 100 workers in Grand Island, Kearney and its Indiana plant. A surge in business through Chief's agricultural products division helped the company offset the housing decline, and the company rehired those employees who lost their jobs.
“During times like that, our diversity truly comes through,” he said of the economic decline, adding that the company has about 25 more employees compared with pre-recession levels.
So far during the 2010s, the company has had strong export growth, hasn't been forced to outsource jobs overseas like other companies and currently has its largest number of back orders in six or seven years, Eihusen said. But economic uncertainty driven by the election has caused some problems.
“New business and quote activity over the last few months has really started to slow down,” he said.
Still, the company puts up a thousand buildings each year, continuing to lead the state's market share of pre-engineered metal buildings.
The company's overall financial stability has allowed it to invest in new equipment as the old ages and new, sleeker products hit the market. In its metal fabrication warehouse, the company has lasers and robots that can work 24 hours a day.
“We have consistently grown, and that is how we'll continue,” Eihusen said.
This year, the company moved into a 20,000-square-foot plant in Grand Island that specializes in building secondary containment systems for the oil industry. It falls under the Chief Agri division and employs 15 people.
And in a first venture into real estate development, Chief Buildings is partnering with real estate and development company WRK LLC of Lincoln on the Canopy Street redevelopment project near the $178 million Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. The Canopy Street plan, set to open next fall, includes apartments, condominiums, retail stores, offices and a hotel.
With its hand in so many industries, the Lincoln project is an opportunity for Chief to grow within its divisions. For example, Arrowhead Steel Fabricators, a department under Chief Buildings, is providing the structural steel for the overall construction efforts, Eihusen said.
Using in-house products and services also provides a competitive advantage, he said.
“As we continue to grow our development arm, we'll use our products and services we have as a company,” he said. “We're very vertically integrated in that regard. We can do electrical, construction and provide the product.”
With about 1,350 employees — 700 of them in Grand Island — Chief is Grand Island's second-largest employer, said Marlan Ferguson, president of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp.
“That number of employees is huge for the community,” he said “Most of them live in town or close by and own homes, and it's a huge impact on the community.”
But that isn't the only way Chief leads, Ferguson said. The company helps to sponsor the Nebraska State Fair, the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska State Chamber and various youth activities in and around the community. Chief is also part of the United Way's Pacesetter program.
“They get involved in a lot of volunteer organizations,” Ferguson said. “For a community this size, that's important.”
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