Like most manufacturers across the Cornhusker State, Brehmer Manufacturing in Lyons needs skilled workers, but that hasn't slowed the growth trajectory of the Burt County manufacturer, which has an expansion worth more than $550,000 in the works.
The project is scheduled for completion by mid- to late summer and will add 10,000 square feet of manufacturing space along with 10 employees.
“We keep pushing the walls out, you might say,” President and CEO Joe Brehmer said.
Brehmer oversees one of the largest employers in the county, with 49 employees producing six to nine distinct product lines at any given time. The next-largest manufacturer in Burt County employs about half as many workers. Lyons is a community of fewer than 900.
“When you're a little community like Lyons,” Mayor Andy Fuston said, “any time you have a major employer decide to expand, that's adding stability. Small towns need all the help they can get.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognizes that, too, and awarded $255,000 in the form of a Community Development Block Grant to the City of Lyons to aid in the expansion.
Jeff Christensen, business loan specialist at the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District, said the grants have been integral to numerous improvements throughout the area.
Laurel BioComposite LLC, located about 60 miles northwest of Lyons, received more than $500,000 in CDBG funding in 2010 for an infrastructure project. Natura Pet Products Inc. in Fremont used more than $500,000 that same year for an expansion.
“There's this old phrase that says 'cash is king,' and most businesses need to have it to make expansions,” Christensen said.
Businesses also need qualified labor, however, and Lyons' population has dropped 14 percent since 2000, prompting Brehmer to find employees from communities including Fremont, Howells, West Point and Tekamah.
“We work with area agencies to find employees, but word-of-mouth has been our best source, honestly,” said Dennis Metz, Brehmer's industrial consultant.
The HUD grant is Brehmer's third through the CDBG program. The grants have been used for upgrades to help further diversify the company's manufacturing operations to, among other things, production of stainless steel hog feeders, a line of equipment used to recycle giant tires and truck equipment.
That diversity helped the company “sail right through” the economic downturn, Brehmer said. He also credited the company's presence in 23 global markets as helping put Lyons on the map.
Customers from Chile visited town in early December to glimpse the company's latest product, a nearly 40-ton machine that rips steel belts out of giant tires used in the mining industry. The Eagle OTR Debeader is marketed and sold by Eagle International LLC in Dakota Dunes, S.D.
“The reception of this machine has been pretty phenomenal,” said Julie Prochello, president and owner of Eagle International.
Having dedicated sales and marketing teams like Prochello's allows space for Brehmer and his team to focus on improving, designing and developing other products.
Still, Brehmer and Metz said they've traveled to Omaha to take some international business development courses to stay abreast of various rules and regulations. And Brehmer uses Skype to communicate with a development partner in Australia.
Brehmer said he's aware of just an Italian company that is working on a product similar to the Eagle machine; that's the only one he considers a competitor in this niche.
That exclusivity has drawn prospects from as far away as Japan, South Africa and Australia to see the machine in action.
“We like niche markets,” Brehmer said.
The company's line of hog feeders is marketed and sold by another Dakota Dunes-based company, A.J. O'Mara Group LLC.
John O'Mara, president and co-owner of the company, said 2013 was a record year for O'Mara Group, which reported growth of around 30 percent over 2012. Consolidation of U.S.-based pork producers has helped drive demand for O'Mara's Brehmer-built feeders, in particular.
The feeders allow food and water to be mixed together and fed to animals at the same time, which encourages quicker growth, O'Mara said.
“The industry is accepting and moving toward the design and productivity of our product, and we're blessed to have some big companies that like our product,” O'Mara said.
Additional space in Lyons will allow for more workers to turn out more feeders, a segment Brehmer expects to grow an additional 30 percent to 40 percent through 2014.
Brehmer employees presently produce 30 to 35 feeders a day, or about one every 15 minutes, Metz said.
In another wing across the manufacturing floor, it takes about 15 weeks for workers to piece together the new tire recycling machine.
Carl Nolting, a 12-year Brehmer employee from nearby Bancroft, leads the division that produces the Eagle machinery. He said it's surreal to consider a product he's helped put together in Lyons can end up on a 30-day boat ride to Chile. “It's pretty cool.”