WATERLOO — What weighs as much as four top-line pickup trucks and has a gas tank the size of a compact car?
If you live in Waterloo, or more particularly work for John Deere in Waterloo, you know the answer to that question.
It’s one — just one — of those big-boy John Deere tractors that roll out of the assembly plant on East Donald Street. That’s more or less common knowledge. What may not be is the “big-boy” investment Deere has made in new-product research and development and physical facilities improvements over the past three years.
“I would say from 2013 to 2016, at least a quarter of a billion dollars worth of modernizations and changes,” said Dave DeVault, general manager of Deere’s Waterloo operations.
That’s on top of the $1 billion invested in the 10 years before that.
Much of the physical improvements over the past year has involved reconfiguring operations at the East Donald Street plant for the production of the new models, DeVault said.
“Over the last two years we were introducing the ‘9 RX,’” a new four-track version of the company’s 9000 series tractor. The 9000 is “the most varied model we offer today,” with four-wheel, two-track and four-track models. “We have to be able to build all three of these down the same line. What we’ve been doing the last two years is getting ready to introduce these varied models.”
Changes also were made to meet “Tier 4” emissions control standards.
Modernizations also were finished at the Product Engineering Center in Cedar Falls. “Of course there’s smaller incremental changes on a continual basis happening inside the shop,” he said.
“We are continuously modernizing and upgrading our equipment to keep in front of the technology curves,” he said. “It’s a different game than it was a decade ago.
“We’re going to continue to reinvest according to what product program we’ve got going on. We are continuously updating and upgrading the tractor models,” DeVault added. “In any industry, if you’re not growing and continue to enhance your products through technology, you’re not going to be around long. Think about your car today. Even an ‘inexpensive’ car is decked out with all kinds of electronics. Used to be a heated seat was an unthought-of thing and now it’s commonplace in a car.
There’s a parallel to be drawn there. “Our customers getting out of a $55,000 pickup truck that’s got all these bells and whistles on it and they get into one of our tractors. And there’s a little difference in price, so you want to make sure the experience is at least as good, if not better.” The days of the steel-seat tractors are gone, he suggested.
Deere support figures in to the future of the Cedar Valley TechWorks, where the company plans to locate a training center, and the continued development of downtown Waterloo and the entire metro area. “We’re there to help,” he said. “If you think about 15 years ago what downtown looked like and what it looks like today, people wouldn’t have believed that could be possible.”
That development includes the cooperation between Waterloo and Cedar Falls.
“It’s really nice to see,” he said. “When I left 10-12 years ago (on another Deere assignment) and came back, to see the lines blurred between what Cedar Falls and Waterloo have become, that, to me, is a testimonial of the community recognizing that growing together and thriving together is the way to have a prosperous community.
“It’s amazing the transformation that’s happened,” DeVault said, particularly the TechWorks campus, located on a former portion of Deere’s downtown facilities where he previously worked. The adjacent Grand Crossing housing development “is awesome the way that’s transformed,” he said. “Downtown on Fourth Street, Hawkeye (Community College) coming out and building right there, the SportsPlex , that whole area in five years will look totally different than it is. Than it ever has been,” along with other downtown improvements such as SingleSpeed Brewing Co. setting up in the old Wonder Bread building.
He expected some Deere employees will take advantage of the housing downtown, particularly if they work in that area. “I’d be suprised. Pretty short commute if they’re working downtown,” he quipped, “if they want to walk, ride a bike or skip their way to work.”
Deere continues to partner with HCC, the University of Northern Iowa and Wartburg College in Waverly for employees and 40 to 50 different colleges from around the country for summer interns.
“As we continue to reinvest in our community through the employees, they come from many, many places. And we have been very fortunate to continue to benefit from some very talented individuals,” including locally.
That includes an attention to diversity and inclusion in Deere’s 5,000-plus employee Waterloo workforce, as well as companywide. “We have the data on the demographics of our employees,” he said, but it’s more than a numbers game; a variety of contributions to the end product are the key in a global marketplace. “We recognize that the more diverse of a thinking process you can have, or the more diverse of thoughts and experiences you can have as you’re working to bring the greatest tractors in the world to the marketplace, the better everything is. When you think through the dynamics of the world you serve, that’s where that diversity of thought really helps out.”
The metro area has continued to meet the challenge then-Deere Waterloo operations general manager Mike Triplett issued to the metro area some 15 years ago to make substantial improvements to justify Deere’s redevelopment of its facilities and reinvestment in the community, beginning with the “renaissance of downtown Cedar Falls” that spread to downtown Waterloo and the rest of the community.
Deere and its employees continue to give back to the community, ranging from charitable contributions to volunteer work. “This last year we had almost a 50 percent in our increase in volunteer hours, over 21,000 hours,” he said, not all of which is counted.
It includes sitting on community committees and involvment with service agencies, including, for example, packaging meals for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. “That’s become a blast for everybody,” he said, and a friendly competition among work shifts and facilities. More than 127,000 meals were packaged in one day. Deere personnel also help with local robotics teams and competitions through the schools, as well Junior Achievement and Partners in Education programs.
Some of the areas John Deere Waterloo Operations’ employees participate include:
Support for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education and career path outreach.
Support for the Leader in Me.
Engineers Week classroom visits in February.
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, also in February.
STEM Day at the Deere Engine Works in March.
Support for Project Lead the Way programs in both Waterloo and Cedar Falls schools.
The Cedar Valley STEM Festival in November.
Student elementary mentoring, including Women in STEM.
Partnering with UNI on several initiatives.
Cedar Valley United Way contributions.
In 2018, Deere will mark the 100th anniversary of its coming to Waterloo with the purchase of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., maker of the “Waterloo Boy” tractor. “It’s not early” to plan that celebration, DeVault said. “We plan on celebrating with the community,” and hope to cultivate community participation in that celebration. The company plans an “internal celebration” with employees and families within the various plants starting in March 2018 with a communitywide celebration anticipated in June 2018.
Deere plans to draw from some of its activities during the 90th anniversary celebration in 2008, but one asset available now that was not present then is the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum adjacent to the TechWorks site — where DeVault notes, the original check Deere issued to purchase the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. is displayed.
“We are extremely proud to be part of the Cedar Valley,” DeVault said. “That heritage and history of what we collectively have gone through over that 100 years is pretty humbling. And we all have learned a lot in that century. It means the world to us to be part of this community. We’re very, very thankful that we’re here.”