WATERLOO --- To see the future of John Deere and Waterloo, walk inside the big L-shaped building at 300 Westfield Ave.
That’s the home of John Deere’s Drivetrain operations … just a long baseball line drive from where Deere began doing business in Waterloo when it bought the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. 101 years ago.
It’s where employees work who are the future of John Deere — employees like Katie Harn. The 1997 East High School graduate spent six years in the U.S. Army as a military police officer. It’s a job that took her all over the United States, and overseas, to Korea.
She found her future right back here in Waterloo. She’s been at Deere about seven years — first, as a contract employee and then on the Deere payroll, about five years ago. She attended school while working and obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees through night classes at Upper Iowa University’s Waterloo campus.
She’s a production supervisor, overseeing two departments of 15 employees in the Drivetrain plant. “Every day is different,” she said. She has a good crew. She plans to make Deere a career — for the congenial work environment as much as the compensation and benefits.
“I really like it … . It’s a very ‘small’ big company, “ she said. “It really is. Especially in Waterloo.”
It’s where Deere builds transmissions for its Waterloo-built large row-crop tractors. It’s just one plant within Deere’s Waterloo operations, the company’s largest manufacturing complex in all of North America.
Assembler Travis Stoner of Independence, an employee in Katie Harms’ department, said he can see the wide-ranging impact of his work.
“Not just locally but worldwide,” he said. “You get on the John Deere (web)page and you see places in Africa that are seeing tractors for the first time. Crazy stuff. The leadership, they’re open to us giving our opinions” and he receives good support from United Auto Workers Local 838.
LeRoy Gray of New Hampton has been at Deere for 38 years, 15 years at Drivetrain downtown. He’s hung with the company through a couple of layoffs. “It’s a good place to work and they treat you pretty good.” He worked at the now-defunct Sara Lee plant in New Hampton before hiring on at Deere. “I get along with everybody pretty good. They keep growing, too.”
Walk within the Drivetrain plant and you’ve unlocked the door to where the company and Waterloo are headed — up.
What’s just gone “up” is a 60,000 square foot expansion — small in size compared to the more than 1.1 million square feet under roof there. But it’s similar in size to a large grocery store. It’s the biggest expansion there in 10 years and figures to meet the company anticipated expansion in transmission production over the next decade.
The building construction was just recently completed and will soon be occupied, as will be a related office area still being finished, said Wayne Southall, manager of Drivertrain operations.
The building changes are part of the Moline, Ill.- headquartered company’s “next generation” of agricultural equipment, including its Waterloo-made large row-crop tractors.
“We’ve got the widest and broadest portfolio of any ag company in the world, and we spend a considerable amount of money refreshing it all,” Deere Waterloo Operations general manager Dave DeVault said. “We look on two-, four- and eight-year cycles and look at refreshing our product portfolio.
“That’s what we’re in the middle of doing — the same stuff we’ve been doing 18 years,” DeVault said, beginning with a massive redevelopment of the Waterloo operations in 2001 under one of DeVault’s predecessors, Mike Triplett. “We’ve kind of doubled down on it and been going ever since,” DeVault said. We right-sized it (after 2001) and now we’re taking on the future. And all products are getting bigger.”
That expansion is indicative of an expansion in employment — comparatively modest for Deere, but large enough to draw a brass band and a key to the city had it been a new single employer. There, and across the entire Waterloo operations, the company has been hiring — as a recent quarter-page display advertisement in recent editions of The Courier also indicate.
Total employment at Deere’s Waterloo operations now stands at about 5,400, according to DeVault. That’s a net increase of about 400 positions from about a year ago. It’s divided roughly equally between union-wage factory jobs, like assemblers represented by United Auto Workers Local 838, and nonunion salaried positions such as engineers.
“Our workforce is getting a little older. That’s what we’re really hiring for, is the attrition within our workforce, and skilled trades,” DeVault said, both in the engineering and production. We’ve been blessed so far, and continue to get the talent we need and bring it in,” both hiring locally and bringing in new talent from elsewhere when needed — like Southall, a native of Tennessee.
Production worker Stoner, also an Army veteran, encouraged those interested in working for Deere to continue their education.
“A lot of kids in high school, I tell them if you’re going to come to work here, you should go to school first, something after high school.” He said his military experience, for example, helped him develop a work ethic.
The company has been hiring not only to fill openings created by retirements and other attrition, DeVault said. It’s also to meet production demand, with farmers on the cusp of a replacement cycle — needing to replace equipment that has run its useful life.
To meet that demand, production changes also are in store. At the tractor cab assembly operations at the East Donald Street plant, one production line currently assembles both the Deere 7000 and 8000 model tractors. That single line now will become two — one line dedicated specifically for the 7000 model and one for the 8000.
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Another tractor, the 7030 model, in production since 2006-07, “went out of production this past December,” DeVault said. “ We’ve been running the 7000 and the 8000 on a mixed-model assembly line. And because of the changes coming at us with our (product) portfolio, we want to get those two models separated. That gave us the room out at Donald Street to do that separation. So I’m taking the 7000 right now and moving it over to where we used to make the 7030.
“We’ll actually stop producing the 7000 tractor for a couple of months to give us the chance to change over the line and then come back up this summer in production with it,” DeVault said. “We’re only halting production a couple of months. 7000 will have a dedicated line and the 8000 will have its own dedicated line. It’s going to make it much easier to manage having them on two different assembly lines.”
Assembly of the smaller 6000-series model is being moved to the company plant in Mannheim, Germany. However, “that’s assembly only,” DeVault emphasized. Parts for those tractors will still be produced here in Waterloo. “Wayne and the team down here (at Drivetrain) are still doing a lot of the components and assembly for that tractor.”
Deere’s 9000 series tractors and their “tracks” models also are still being made and assembled here. The overall trend in agriculture is toward larger tractor models, DeVault said, and the production changes here reflect that. The company also has brought in or “insourced” some work at Drivetrain and the Foundry that was being performed by suppliers outside the plant to meet internal production volume demands, and as some of those suppliers diversified their own customer base.
“We’re positioning this (Waterloo) business to become John Deere’s large tractor business,” DeVault said. “When you look at the journey into the next generation, the 6000 is going to become the versatile tractor. And we need the space to be able to make all the large tractors coming at us.”
There’ll be plenty of work. “It’s different work,” DeVault said. “It’ll be adding models in and changing things up. That’s some of the reason for the extra square footage, for new products coming through. We’ve seen the trend in the ag business, as far as implements getting bigger. Implements don’t motorize themselves across the field. Therefore, the tractors have to get bigger.”
Tarriff and trade war talk has had some impact. “Our customer sentiment is very unsure right now,” DeVault said, but farmers do need to replace equipment and “the net (farm ) is above where it was in 2010. It’s pretty stable.”
He also noted Deere took market share leadership in South America in the tractor industry the past year. The company does business in 140 different countries, including the Russian Federation.
Also, the company’s service parts operation at what’s known as the company’s 400,000 square foot “1020” building at Westfield and Fletcher avenues, adjacent to the John Deere Foundry has been rearranged and expanded within that building.
Consequently, production materials and supplies — the stockroom storage — has moved to the renovated adjacent 1010 building off River Drive along Black Hawk Creek. That building had been underutilized for many years. It was used to house temporarily production machines over the past 15-plus years as they were moved and reconfigured during the massive redevelopment of Deere’s Waterloo operations after 2001.
An adjacent 16,000 square foot, 60-foot-tall “high rise” storage building, state of the art when it was opened in 1981 but now outdated, was demolished to allow more room in the central materials handling operation.
In fact, DeVault said, some of the machines he installed during that redevelopment in the early 2000s are now being replaced.
Devault estimated Deere has invested $1.5 billion in Waterloo since 2000, in new and renovated facilities as well as new product research and development. That investment will continue.
That includes the company’s investment in the community, local company communications and visitor services manager Kelly Henderson said. Deere workers contribute 60,000 hours of volunteer time, she said, and donated more than $1.1 million to the Cedar Valley United Way, in a cooperative effort with UAW Local 838.
She also said Deere and its foundation have donated more than $500,000 to nonprofit organizations and initiatives, some significant ones being the Leader in Me and Leader Valley initiatives with young people, in cooperation with the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance economic development organization and local schools.
The Cedar Valley has made significant improvements in education and quality of life to cultivate, attract and retain a skilled work force — meeting, DeVault said, a commitment Deere required at the outset of the redevelopment which began in 2001. Hawkeye Community College’s recently completed metro campus, named for local entrepreneur and major donor Van G. Miller, and the University of Northern Iowa Metals Casting Center at The Cedar Valley TechWorks, are examples of that, as well as the general overall redevelopment of downtown Waterloo.
Henderson noted, for example, that some local Deere administrators live at developers Brent Dahlstrom’s and Jim Sulentic’s Grand Crossing condominium complex at West Mullan Avenue and Jefferson Street, across Mullan for HCC’s new metro camps and adjacent to TechWorks and the Drivetrain plant.
The new Courtyard by Mariott hotel in one of the TechWorks buildings – a converted Deere factory building — also is an asset. Deere plans to use a floor of that building for a conference and training center as a restaurant and other additional amenities at the hotel get up and running.
“The new hotel and conference center is a great addition to the community, and is in a great location for our partners coming to the Cedar Valley to do business with Deere,” Deere senior communications specialist Megan Zuniga said. “At the (Cedar Valley) TechWorks, there has been very good progress with projects like the UNI Additive Manufacturing Center, and the number of tenants in the facility continues to increase.”
“It’s all that we were hoping for when we started this journey: How do you make the Cedar Valley a more attractive and inviting place,” DeVault said, a challenge laid down by Triplett back in 2000 and 2001. “See what the Waterloo Development Corp. and the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance have been doing, and working with the two mayors. That division between Cedar Falls and Waterloo is pretty much gone now, as far as the politics, working more synergistically within the community. We couldn’t ask for better than that. They’re going after what the cities need in order to give that growth and opportunity.
“Just that streetscape with Jefferson and Commercial that’s coming on,” with the renovation of U.S. Highway 63 and adjacent developments, “is going to be huge,” DeVault said. “Just to invite, to have a place that physically invites people into the downtown community – the shopping, the restaurants, the entertainment.”
Deere has held up its end of the bargain in its investment in Waterloo. Even through a downturn a few years ago, “our focus has been delivering the best solution we can, and doubling down on better quality products,” DeVault said. “And we’ve done that. We haven’t been just sitting back and hoping for good times again. We actually really worked at our (product) portfolio and made sure we worked at what’s going to help our customer base the most.”