At Van Diest Supply Co., Lt. Gov. Gregg’s conversation turns to jobs

-Messenger photo by Jane Curtis
Bob Van Diest, founder of Van Diest Supply Co., is seated at the far end of the conference table in the board room of the company he founded 68 years ago. Pictured with him, from left, are Anna Woodward, Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce director; Iowa Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg; Van Diest; John Harrenstein, Webster City's interim city manager (standing); Ottie Maxey, Business Retention & Expansion director, Ames Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development; Jake Van Diest, president and CEO of Van Diest Supply Co.; Cindy Im, Hamilton County Economic Development director; and John Hawkins, mayor of Webster City. The group toured the company's campus Tuesday morning.

WEBSTER CITY — There used to be a white corn crib where the iconic “Van Diest green” campus sprawls across the even greener farmland just west of Webster City along old Highway 20.

Bob Van Diest first stored his farm chemicals in the alley of that corn crib. A kitchen table in his nearby home was his office.

Sixty-eight years later, Van Diest welcomed Iowa’s Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg to the 55-building campus that has grown into a vast facility guided by three generations of Van Diests: Bob, his son John, and his grandson Jake Van Diest.

Van Diest Supply Co., with its roughly 400 employees, is one of Hamilton County’s biggest employers.

After a mobile tour of the Van Diest Supply campus which encompasses roughly 1.3 million square feet of interior space, Gregg sat down in a conference room with Bob and Jake Van Diest and a handful of other visitors. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to jobs.

Van Diest has jobs, but it faces the same challenge so many other companies in Hamilton County and Iowa experience: Few workers.

Gregg, who had just seen examples of cutting edge automation in one of Van Diest’s newest buildings, observed, “We had a great conversation around the balance of investing in automation in light of the fact that it can be hard to attract folks in rural Iowa, but also just more so it’s a generational impact.

“Our baby boomers are approaching retirement,” he said. “We have this challenge, basically, in every industry and so you know, we saw some of the investments in automation.”

He added, “It’s interesting how the narrative on those types of investments has really changed over the years. It used to be that automation is going to take everyone’s job, but there’s nobody walking through the door in a lot of these situations.”

Hamilton County Supervisor Rick Young, who joined the tour in the boardroom, said, “So we just had an annual report from the Extension Service and one of the great things they provide is population. So the last 70 years we’ve only had an increase in population in two decades; one was post World War II. The other one was in the 90’s, because in the 80’s everybody left the state. So anybody who came back was an increase in population.

“But still, rural counties are losing 1% a year.”

Bob Van Diest commented, “We’ve been short people for the last two or three years.”

Gregg, at the beginning of the post-tour sit-down had directly asked Bob Van Diest how the state could help. Now he said, “It’s a complex thing. One of the biggest ones though, is just the generational impact that I mentioned earlier of baby boomers retiring and subsequent generations aren’t large enough to fully replace them in the workforce. That’s something that was embedded into our culture now for decades that I think has been a looming challenge that we’re now really starting to feel.

“I would say that one of the things that actually we’re kind of fortunate in Iowa is we have tended to be a top 10 state in terms of workforce participation rate. There aren’t a lot of people that are totally sitting on the sidelines and we’ve also made some recent reforms to our unemployment system that have gotten folks back into the workforce more quickly.

“The Governor has kind of phrased it as training our unemployment system into a re-employment system.”

He added, “We do pride ourselves on balancing the budget every year and trying to ease the tax burden. And make the regulatory environment a little more healthy and easier to operate. And I think the people of Iowa have benefited from that.”

Bob Van Diest responded, “Well keep it up.”


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