Bob Weerts – 2006 Business Person of the YearBy Daniel Vance • Jan 2006 • Category: Cover Story
Faribault County native has a “Quick Draw McGraw” business mind and entrepreneurial talent derived mostly from the school of hard knocks
Photo by Jeff Silker
In Bob Weerts exist all the trappings of a folk legend.
Like Minnesota’s homegrown Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan, Weerts at times seems much larger than real-life. In a regional business climate often preferring quiet parentheses, he’s an entrepreneur with an exclamation point after his name.
He doesn’t mince words. If he were writing this Business Person of the Year article, it would be only two sentences long, if that, and HE’D LIKELY SPELL EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS AND END IT WITH THIS!!!
Be advised this 53-year-old six-shooter arrives with basic instructions. When you see him squeezing the trigger also known as his mouth, rest assured he isn’t aiming to maim–he just wants to get the job done. From difficulties he had walking due to polio, Weerts discovered early on in business that his powerful tongue was a much faster way than his feet to “gitter done!”
As for his businesses, Weerts has done remarkably well. He has invested heavily in five U.S. ethanol plants, co-owns six southern Minnesota Shell convenience stores and an Albert Lea bulk oil distributor, and he owns a North Mankato sod, tree and peat business, a recently downsized Winnebago construction business, a 12,600 sq. ft. Blue Earth office building, an eight-unit Winnebago apartment building, and 2,500 acres of Minnesota farmland. Exhibiting an international flair, he has co-owned an orange juice operation in the Ukraine.
Larger than life, yes, like Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan—except that with Weerts, most of the amazing stories you hear about him are true. The tales usually revolve around his larger-than-life heart, his caring actions toward everyday people, and his especially notable service to city, county, state, and—with President Bush—his nation.
As for Blue Valley Sod, the business you’re most known for, isn’t its success tied to new home construction? What happens to you if there is a home bust?
We constantly look at different avenues for growth. That’s one reason I recently went to Italy—just got back last night. We also do trade shows to promote Blue Valley Sod to many different customers. We also have lots of sod sales from road construction work. When the new golf course building boom slowed, we began looking at other customers. We have 1,800 acres of grass growing today. I’m a diversified guy.
Is Blue Valley Sod about one-third tied to home construction?
It’s about 50 percent home related. Road construction, golf courses, parks, and other areas constitute the rest.
What makes your sod better?
We grow a blue grass blend, the best for the area. We travel the country looking at grass, and constantly work with distributors picking grass seed. If a golf course wants 40 acres of a special blend, we’ll grow it for them.
Right now you’re on the board of an international sod association?
I’m leaving this Thursday evening for a board meeting in Florida of Turf Producers International. This group is made up of international growers. We get together to discuss labor relations, economics, and business thinking. We also have a trade show to learn what’s coming out new. For instance, we just purchased three new automatic sod harvesters, meaning my employees no longer physically have to touch the grass when cutting it.
What else are you involved in with business?
Along with a good friend, I just bought a group of convenience stores again. All six will be Shell stations, like the one I already own in Blue Earth. A while ago I said I wouldn’t get back into the convenience store business, but when an opportunity arises, you take it. They are in Fairmont, Madelia, Gaylord, Glencoe, and Springfield.
I’m leasing a new 12,600 sq. ft. office building along I-90 in Blue Earth to AgStar. I had the building constructed specifically for them.
I’ve read you were very disappointed when the Blue Earth City Council rejected your request to name the new road to your building “Donovan Drive” in honor of your late father.
Their decision did disappoint me very much. Look, I never asked the City for any TIF money for that building project. Using my own money, I personally built the infrastructure—sewer and water, and the roads, everything. I never asked the City for a dime. When paying the bill, I think it should be my privilege to name the road. That’s just the way I am. When you tell me I can’t name the street, to me that’s a kick in the pants. I’ve got $4.5 million wrapped up in that project. When you stick that kind of money in and don’t ask for government help—and then they got a little sarcastic with me about wanting to name it after my father. It’s not as if that street has a name on it already. It’s a new street. And besides, it’s going to be named Donovan Drive anyway. I’m going to put up my own street sign.
What do you remember about your father?
I learned a work ethic. I remember he used to call me “the boy.” He got up every morning, went to work, and supported his family. He never hunted or fished—he just worked. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. He was always straightforward and would answer anything asked. As for me, he’d always say, “Don’t lie to me.” He wouldn’t tolerate mind games. He was tough on me, oh, was he tough. But I learned a lot of lessons from him. He died about four years ago.
He didn’t help me get started financially in business at all. All the help he ever gave was a $500 wedding gift when I got married. When I was 23 and needed help starting my own business, the banker in Winnebago at first wanted my dad to co-sign on the loan. I told the banker that if he didn’t trust me to pay it back, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing business in the first place. After that, the banker grabbed me by the shirt, shut the door to his office, and we argued, and I ended up getting all the money I needed. He was Jack Kelly of First National Bank of Winnebago. And he trusted me. He knew exactly where I stood, and I paid back every dime to him.
Besides the AgStar building and Blue Valley Sod, what else are you involved in?
Others and I own an oil and lubricant distribution business in Albert Lea called South Minnesota Lubes, which used to be South Minnesota Oil. It sells bulk oil primarily to truck stops and truckers, and to construction companies.
And I’m involved in the Corn Plus ethanol plant. It’s made good money over ten years. I was one of the few collecting money from investors to get Corn Plus started. It was a difficult time. The ethanol plant in Marshall fought us hard when we were first trying to get off the ground, even telling our lawyer and accountant not to talk with us. And they told our construction contractor that if working for us, he’d never be able to work for them. They were very arrogant. And their arrogance eventually hurt them. They went out of business, and ADM bought them out.
You raise $11 million for an ethanol plant—that’s a lot of money. One man told me he put all his retirement money into Corn Plus. I respect what he did. Believe me, I don’t take our investors’ money for granted. About 680 farmers invested to get that plant running. I put money into it too.
How much did you put in?
Quite a bit.
More than $250,000?
Close to that. You have to respect people putting their money in.
You’re on the board of Corn Plus. You’re a man of action, and boards usually aren’t known for quick actions. Has it been frustrating?
Very frustrating sometimes. I usually bite my tongue in meetings. But I tell them what I think. You’ll always know where I stand. If you don’t like what I think, that’s fine. I’m not the type of guy that will stab you in the back. I’ll tell you right up front where I stand. Besides receiving $11 million from investors, we borrowed another $11 million from a cooperative bank. That’s $22 million total. As president then, I had to sign my name on that $11 million note.
Besides opposition from another ethanol plant, and your challenges in raising money from investors, did Corn Plus have other challenges that first year?
We had a dryer fire. Mike Hatch, now Minnesota’s attorney general, was our attorney then and he took very good care of us. The insurance company didn’t want to pay. It was a learning experience.
You recently got out of the construction business. Why?
I sold most but not all of Weerts Construction because I see big companies coming in and taking over the construction industry. For instance, Old Castle this year bought out Southern Minnesota Construction of Mankato. As for Southern Minnesota Construction, due to that buy out, we’ve had to change our way of thinking concerning them. We’re going to work with them rather than compete against them. We’re going to fill niches in areas they aren’t in. Weerts Construction is going to be more efficient and what we do we will do really well—such as erosion control. We still have two dump trucks left and will do a little work locally. We’re not totally out of the construction business. But on October 6 we did sell at auction 140 pieces of construction equipment. This was a great time to get out. The prices at the auction were good. We have some of our auctioned equipment heading off to Mexico and the rest to companies all over the U.S.
What else are you invested in?
I’m investing in four more ethanol plants, in North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana. I’m not helping them get off the ground, like I personally did with Corn Plus. This time I’m just the investor putting in money and nothing more. I also own a tree farm north of Mankato. And Blue Valley Sod is starting to sell bulk peat. We just got the permits. We’re talking now with a worldwide company to sell them our peat for golf courses. We’ll start slow, but it will be a good business. I’m a diversified guy.
You also built in Winnebago the state of Minnesota’s first-ever employer-owned and –operated apartments. Would you do it again?
No. Because I can’t get the return that I could in places like Mankato. When interest rates went down, the people renting my apartments began buying homes. Right now I have only two employees as renters. And of my eight apartments, two are vacant. It’s a tough game. If those apartments are in Mankato, they would be full, and I’d be getting more for them. Right now I get only $450 a month per apartment. I’m making only about two percent. That’s why I said “no” right away when you asked me if I would do it again.
That said, I do think it has been a good incentive for some of my employees to stay on with me. My manager in Mankato lives in one of the apartments. Another reason I built them was because JM Manufacturing, a large Winnebago employer, was seriously considering moving to another city. One reason they gave for considering a move was that Winnebago at the time had a housing shortage.
I’ve been told that earlier this year when major employer Telex in Blue Earth announced it would be closing, you called 25 Faribault County leaders to attend a strategy meeting on the situation. You gave them one day’s notice. All 25 attended. What was discussed? And what became of it?
Its purpose was to address this question: What can we do? Telex had employees all over the region, from Mankato, Wells, and Fairmont to northern Iowa. The pending closure has affected the region. After the meeting, we invited the Minnesota Department of Economic Development to visit. They told us they had three manufacturers looking for a plant like ours. We said if necessary we would fly any prospects to Blue Earth and would do whatever it takes to keep the building full and employees working. We’ve got to let these Telex employees know we’re working for them. We want them to stay.
Some of the 25 invited to the meeting were Neil Eckles, Tom Juba, Denny Zitnak, Nate Mathews of the City of Winnebago, and Curtis Brown of the City of Blue Earth. At the meeting, they all gave input and told us what they could do. People from Wells and Elmore were there. They all realized we had to work toward something. We’re all part of this game here in the southern part of this state.
In November we sponsored a breakfast for all the Telex employees. We had to do something special for them. We told them we’re trying hard to find another company to site there.
What do you attribute your success to?
(Long silence.) I suppose my wife. She’s very supportive. I’ve got a good family and I have two sons and a son-in-law working for me. My 25-year-old son at first wanted to be a pilot, but instead not long ago asked if he could manage our sod farm in Aitken. I own 1,100 acres in Aitken, 956 acres at North Branch, and about 400 acres in Blue Earth and Faribault counties. Of that, we grow about 1,800 acres of sod and the rest is corn and soybeans. So we have room for expansion for sod. We sell about 1,000 acres of sod a year. This was a wet spring, and we didn’t get out the chute well.
I’ve heard you are a man of faith.
Yes I am. I believe everything happens for a reason, no matter what. Important things that happen in life are often the result of a matter of seconds. For instance, I once come off a deal in Mankato. I was driving when a piece of plywood flew off a truck in front of me. If I’d been at that spot a second later, that thing would have gone through the windshield and cut my head right off. That’s how close it was. Even in business—if you do or don’t get something, perhaps because of a matter of seconds, it will all eventually work out for your good anyway.
You ask anyone in my office, I always say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I had polio as a child. I believe there was a reason for that. If polio hadn’t slowed me down, I’d probably be one tough guy always in trouble. Polio has slowed me down enough so that I always have to pay attention to what’s going on around me.
What other good things have come out of your polio?
I’ve gotten to meet good people like Dr. Meredith of Orthopaedic & Fracture Clinic. And because of polio, I also look at things differently. People don’t understand me. For instance, I like to joke around. Sometimes I joke around to help me figure out a person. You can tell a person’s personality if you let them joke with you. If you don’t like a person, you won’t joke with them. I like having a good time.
In March 2004, you were a vocal supporter of Shannon Schonrock, the Lady Gophers basketball star and Winnebago native. Why?
I remember the day Shannon was born. I grew up with her folks and after they were married my wife and I ran with her parents. Her father and I played softball together about eight years. We went to sporting events together.
Shannon has been a good player for the area. I suggested we print up some “Schoney” tee shirts for the people going to her games. We bought 144 tee shirts to start and they went like hotcakes. We ended up giving away about 750 tee shirts. The younger girls in town like and respect Shannon. I respect her too, because she’s a good gal. She’s a good player and always signs autographs. I appreciate the fact she’ll do that. I believe everyone is created equal.You have a daughter with a disability, right Daniel?
And some people look down on her?
I respect people who won’t look down on others. I always say you put your pants on one leg at a time and you have to go to the restroom like everyone else. That’s the way I look at people. They’re all equal. Shannon is one of those people. It doesn’t matter who you are. She’ll shake your hand, talk, and give you an autograph. I respect that in her. We went to New Orleans to see her in the Final Four.
What’s your take on hiring employees with disabilities?
I’d hire anyone with a disability because they’ll usually give you 150 percent. They’ll try to do a better job. A person with a disability might not be as fast, but in general they will show up. They are dedicated to the job. You take a famous sports person—they don’t have to work hard because they’re naturally gifted. They have everything coming to them.
I just came back from a trip to Italy. Someone on the trip gave me a hard time once because I was having a hard time walking. That’s stupid, and sad. I wish I had two good legs to walk. People don’t realize it’s tough for me to get around. They have good legs and they can just go. It’s especially tough for me to get around when it’s icy out. I have a bum leg, but it’s not going to hold me down. I’m not whining about it. Life goes on.
I’ve heard you are very involved personally with your employees.
I often give employees, or anyone asking, cash to help them out. My wife gets mad at me for helping some people. I’ll be honest with you: she doesn’t like that. But you know what? If I want something, I can get it. I can call 25 Faribault County leaders and they’ll all come the next night for a meeting. But not everyone can get what he or she wants or needs.
I don’t take advantage of people. And I don’t like two-faced people. If I meet you somewhere I’ll talk to you. My wife doesn’t understand that. I’ll talk to everybody and anybody. I don’t care if you have money or not. After meeting President Bush last year—he’s no different than anyone else. He and others of his stature are human beings just like the guy down the street without money.
How did you arrive at this point, thinking this way?
Probably because of my polio. I also learned it while growing up during my high school years in Arizona. I watched people take advantage of me when I was starting out in business. They were trying to nickel and dime me. I could never have learned in college what I learned from those people. That’s where I learned hard knocks business sense.
I had an advertisement in the local newspaper in Arizona that said, “High school kid needs work.” In time, I had so much business I was hiring up to a dozen kids to work for me. I made a quarter an hour off my employees. I’d give them rides to the job. But I remember some people trying to take advantage of me.
I grew up through seventh grade in Winnebago, and then we moved to Tucson, Arizona. My dad worked in construction in Winnebago in the summer and we began living in Arizona in the winters. After graduating from high school in Tucson, I worked out there one summer, but it was unbelievably hot. So I came back here to work two years before marrying my wife at age 21.
What do you enjoy about being on the Winnebago City Council?
I like getting things done. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like sitting around. If we’re going to do it, let’s get it done. My goal is to finish three things in town: the proposed new museum, lighting the water tower, and having a nice birthday party for Winnebago’s 150th anniversary.
In the late 1980s, did you help with the City’s lot giveaway?
I was on the city economic development authority then in 1986-87. The City of Winnebago owned about 60 empty lots and because of them being City-owned, no one was paying taxes on the property. We had to do something. Judy Ness of Homestead Realty was madder than a hornet at me because she thought the giveaway would wreck her business. But she ended up selling more houses that year because people could build a new home on their free lot cheaper than they could buy a house.
You like working out of your office?
I work out of my pickup. You won’t see my in the office much. I have two wireless telephones I use in my pickup. I just don’t think I can make money working out of my office.
When beginning a new business venture, do you research it first? Or do you make gut decisions?
With these six convenience stores I bought into, the price was right. I made the decision on the spot. That’s how I did it.
And the four ethanol plants you’ve invested in?
On the spot. I knew and trusted the person involved.
What about the office building in Blue Earth?
Didn’t give it much thought. AgStar came to me. They liked the location of my property and wanted to know if I’d construct their building. My accountant did look into it. I didn’t do much. I usually make business decisions from the seat of my pants. I’m not a smart guy—not at all.
What have you owned and sold in the past?
The Winnebago Dairy Queen. I’ve bought and sold a lot of real estate. I just sold my Weerts Construction shop building in Winnebago. I’ve gone through lots and lots of property. I roll the dice. I buy and sell. I used to own a floral shop in Winnebago. I stuck money into an orange juice plant in the Ukraine. I went over there to look over the orange grove and eventually lost some money. I used to own eight Winnie-Mart convenience stores and owned a couple of service stations in Winnebago and a welding shop. Like I said, I’m a guy who if it looks good, I buy. Things have gone well for me this way. If you get good people working for you, you can do well in business. They are what make a business. I also go off gut reactions when hiring people. I’m the kind of guy that if someone wants to buy something I own, I will sell. I move quickly. I like pulling the trigger. That’s my game. I make decisions fast.
Bending Dubya’s Ear
”I was a Minnesota member of an agriculture advisory council for President Bush during the time of his 2004 campaign. Congressman Gil Gutknecht helped me get on. They wanted someone to represent ethanol. I was there to help President Bush’s people with advice and to answer questions about ethanol. I talked a lot on conference calls with people in Washington, D.C.“ —Bob Weerts.
The Next Andy Griffith
“To supplement my income in the winter because I couldn’t draw unemployment, I was a part-time Winnebago policeman in 1973-82. I also often worked a shift after finishing the day at my business, Weerts Sod and Seed. I started Weerts Sod and Seed the year I was married and made $7,000 that year. The City wanted me to go full-time as a policeman, but I couldn’t see driving around town all the time. Years ago, I even helped train in the current police chief. I had to give up being a policeman when I got too busy with my sod company.” —Bob Weerts.
Who Chose Our Business Person Of The Year?
Connect Business Magazine desires above all to have an expert group of judges that is considered by our readers as unquestionably fair and objective. It also is of importance to us that our readers would not perceive our judges as favoring a particular city. To be sure, this is a difficult task.
Two years ago, the editor chose the top award winners. Last year, for the most part, presidents of five chambers of commerce in the region chose our award winners; but that process, if continued, would have made it much more difficult for a chamber president to win. And it may have led only to businesses in those five favored cities being chosen.
This year, we turned to the Minnesota State University College of Business and its resurgent MBA program—as we likely will next year. Its professors exhibited mature reasoning and they obviously didn’t favor their hometown business leaders—the top award winner, Bob Weerts, hails from Faribault County.
The call for nominations concerning this issue’s award was announced in a full-page, full-color ad in our September 2005 magazine (p. 63). To nominate a business associate next year, be sure to follow detailed instructions in September 2006. Any businessperson—male or female, retail, service or manufacturing, small or large business, nonprofit or profit—is eligible, with the lone exception being Bob Weerts, this year’s top award winner.
© 2006 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.