Welcome company is North America’s largest provider of feed software and automation.
Photo by Jeff Silker
“Many businesses manufacture hardware, many produce software; we do both,” said Mark Gaalswyk, owner and CEO of Easy Automation, Inc. “Our business hits dead center on the line where those two meet. We blend them together seamlessly. Easy Automation is the largest provider of feed software and automation in North America.”
Gaalswyk employs 50 people in his plant in Welcome (just west of Fairmont), produces revenues of about $6 million, serves about 3,000 customers, and has products in use in more than 1,000 feed mills in the United States and Canada, as well as a few in Mexico and Australia. It’s one of a handful of companies in the world that offers a complete line of fully integrated livestock feed automation systems, from complex batching systems to micro ingredients systems, grinders and feed information software.
Gaalswyk owns about 15 patents (plaques for 10 are displayed on the wall in his office) and has maybe five more pending. Although he’s proud of having invented processes and products, he gives the impression that there are more important things to discuss than the exact number of patents.
The pending patents are mostly related to his plans for ethanol production from a variety of non-traditional fibers. That’s where his other company, Easy Energy Systems, Inc., comes in. You might call this system something like “fuel in a box.” Ethanol will be made not from corn, but rather from a variety of waste sources, including cellulosic waste paper, waste wood, corncobs and waste soda pop. A patent is pending on the modular ethanol system for which parts can be manufactured in Welcome, then shipped and assembled anywhere in the world. This technology is currently being tested at the company’s one-million-gallon-per-year pilot ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Gaalswyk anticipates needing to build another manufacturing facility in the Welcome area as Easy Energy grows. He pointed out that the manufacture and operation of the ethanol plants will create hundreds of jobs, not only at the manufacturing plant in Welcome, but also worldwide.
“We think it’s the future of fuel,” Gaalswyk said. “We have applied for a federal grant (which is pending) to build a demonstration corn-cob-to-ethanol plant and have received a few hundred thousand dollars in state and regional assistance in developing our technology. Our trademark is ‘Fuel the world.’”
Gaalswyk’s interests have always combined agriculture and innovation. He began working on the Trimont-area family farm at age 15 and, despite a business calendar that would make a workaholic’s head spin, he continues to cash crop 4,300 acres with his 87-year-old father and two brothers. The farm’s hog facilities, now rented out, once housed a 300-sow farrow-to-finish operation.
After graduating from Trimont High School, Gaalswyk attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., taking physics, math and computer science classes, then returned to the family farm. He succumbed to boredom within two years and decided to put his education to use by moonlighting as a contractor with a technology company. He did some of the early work on satellite farming systems and site-specific fertilization. It was a natural progression to begin writing software code for improvements he wanted to make on the family farm.
“I did not like the feed mill technologies available, so I developed one for our farm,” Gaalswyk said. “While attending a regional trade show, I was approached by a company with customers looking for the same thing. The company provided the mixing and grinding equipment, and I provided the computer information, controls and software. I spent my nights initially writing and debugging the computer code in the feed room next to my hog barn. We initially contracted out the manufacture of the control panel.”
In 1986, Gaalswyk decided to get into the manufacturing aspect as well. He first rented, then bought, a facility in Trimont and began hiring employees. About the time the business was outgrowing the facility, he learned about the building available in Welcome and moved, rather than expanding in Trimont. His brothers now operate a trucking business from the Trimont building.
Growing the business initially involved door-to-door sales. Gaalswyk said, “In the mid-‘90s I put a control panel in the back of my pickup and drove around the Midwest, showing my invention to farmers.”
Talk within the farming community quickly spread the word about Gaalswyk’s invention, and, after a few sales, he began getting inquiries from his customers’ neighbors. He also sought leads at farm shows. (He still attends trade shows as well as advertising in livestock and feed mill magazines.) The result of Gaalswyk’s vision, energy and commitment was rapid growth.
“Eventually we grew to doing all of it, including the building of the systems for grinding, mixing and micro-ingredients for our customers,” he said. “We’re unusual because at one end of the building the people are writing computer programs, at the other end, they’re cutting metal and welding. In the middle, they’re building control panels. This also positions us well for other opportunities.”
The company’s show piece is a batching system with software that is purchased by large farms and rural cooperatives that are building new feed mills or automating existing mills. The batching system, which can be used for any livestock or poultry species, weighs and mixes the various ingredients needed in a mixture of feed. The software adjusts the mix as the animal grows, to maximize economics and meat quality. There’s a computerized permanent tracking system to provide information for a variety of purposes, including present or future food safety issues that might need to be addressed.
Despite the company’s success, its history hasn’t been entirely smooth. Gaalswyk said, “I’ve had my ups and downs over the years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I try to learn from them. When I was growing Easy Systems and had local investors, that worked fine. Then I took on venture capital investors. To satisfy their appetite for growth and expectations, we embarked upon a dot-com, and that hurt us financially, which resulted in my being pushed out and the laying off of most of the employees.” (Gaalswyk choked up and had to pause before continuing the story.) “We restructured in 2001 as a result. The venture capitalists went one way with three product lines. I kept 17, the home office, and most of the patents. My wife and I started over, hired back some employees and eventually grew it all back—little by little.”
Denise Gaalswyk, who works 30 to 40 hours a week in the office, describes herself as “the company mom who wears a lot of hats.” In charge of special projects, she does some public relations and some human resource work, as well as coordinating customers’ annual support on IT.
Gaalswyk credits his employees with the company’s success, saying, “It’s a huge deal to me that my employees feel appreciated. How you treat your employees is how they will treat your customers.”
Gaalswyk referred to a plaque displayed prominently on a wall in the reception area. Though not his own words, he believes in living by them—Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible.
“I set a company culture that’s hard-working, caring, honest, and that has a focus on integrity,” Gaalswyk said. “My advice to other business owners is to be passionate about how you treat your employees; treat them with awe and respect. Business-wise, one of my biggest problems is I’m not an effective ‘bad guy.’ Sometimes when employees aren’t cutting it, I keep trying to make it work too long, but I don’t know if I want to change who I am as a person. A person’s weakness can also be his best strength.”
One thing Gaalswyk would like to change is the financing structure for technology businesses in rural America. He explained, “Traditional rural financing is for tangible items, such as a hog barn or grain facility, not for technology, such as computer software. This is why so many technology companies are on the West Coast. But, other than this, what better place is there for a technology company than here in the Midwest, where your employees are more stable and the work ethic is strong? I feel fixing this is the key to keeping rural America from dying. It’s a real thrill to have a technology company in rural Minnesota, to provide opportunities to bright young people who want to return to or stay in the area. It was a dream of mine. The money from Midwestern technology companies like ours stays in the community as wages for employees. We (he and his staff) try to put a common sense aspect to technology, and I think the values of rural Minnesota may help with the common sense approach. Last summer we had 15 high school and college interns to show them opportunities right here in their own back yard.”
Another maxim by which Gaalswyk lives is spending time with customers to understand and appreciate their needs, because, he said, “Then the rest will come together.” He spends about 50 percent of his work time meeting with customers, both new and old, to learn how their operations are growing and what new technologies they anticipate needing. He also takes frequent trips to explore the development of international markets.
“As a country’s standard of living improves, there is a change from the eating of grains to the eating of meat, and people buy autos,” Gaalswyk said. “So, there’s huge potential in China, India and Africa, both for feed technologies and renewable energy systems.
“I went to China several years ago and again this year because I wanted to understand the Chinese marketplace, the potential for technology and renewable energy. I learned the market is massive, but we’re still studying it. One concern is that the Chinese tend to copy technology.”
Gaalswyk took part in a trade mission to Israel with 20 other business leaders and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty in December 2008. Gaalswyk returned to Israel this year because he’s interested in Israel’s technological leadership and worldwide distribution system.
A recent one-week trip took Gaalswyk to Israel, Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to meet with existing and potential customers. He described the weeks he travels as “beyond horrid,” with meetings from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, followed by phone calls and e-mails until 3 a.m. to catch up with his staff in a different time zone.
“When I’m away from my family for five days, I get homesick,” Gaalswyk said. “My wife likes staying home, but I’ve taken each of my children with me (at times). Both sons are talking about joining the company. Brady is studying business finance and entrepreneurship at Bethel University in St. Paul, and Christopher, a high school senior, is interested in engineering and business.” (Gaalswyk’s daughter, Jenna, reflects her father’s past interest. She’s in a pre-med program at Bethel.)
“I really do not consider myself a workaholic,“ Gaalswyk said. “I crave to be with my family, but people keep coming to me and I don’t want to let them down, so I try to squeeze in just a little more. I’m responsible to my employees and customers.”
Despite an economy in recession, Gaalswyk laid off only a few employees over the past year. He said he hates parting with good people, and believes by working a little harder, he won’t have to do it.
He said, “When not traveling, I have breakfast with my brother before coming to the office around 9 a.m. I normally leave the office at 6 or 7 p.m. In the spring and fall I work evenings and Saturdays on the farm with my brothers. Sunday is my day for church and sanity. If you enjoy what you’re doing, the long hours are not bad. My two goals are for Easy Automation Inc. to stay relatively stable and family owned, and for Easy Energy Systems, Inc. to add a few hundred employees, take on investors as it grows and capitalize on global renewable energy opportunities.”
Houston, We Have A Problem
Gaalswyk has rubbed shoulders with men aiming for the stars. It was an experience he’ll never forget, saying, “We had technology issues, so I went to a headhunter to find the smartest computer programmer in America. We found him and hired him. He had worked for NASA, on the Apollo moon landing and on Star Wars technology programs. In a conference with others who said something could not be done, that programmer stood up, slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘I landed a man on the moon. Don’t tell me this can’t be done.’ The room went silent as everyone realized he was not joking; he actually had landed a man on the moon. The problem eventually was solved.”
He continued: “In another instance, the programmer designed into our feed mill systems the routines for checking for all the possible problems with the software, each with a different message that showed on the screen for each problem, like ‘the printer is not working.’ At the end of the list of problem tests, he added a ‘catch all’ message, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ to indicate the solution was not evident. The software and its message got added into the feed mill system. One customer who lived near a space shuttle launch pad had a computer malfunction the day and exact time the shuttle was launching. When the ‘Houston’ message came up on the customer’s screen, he called us up, absolutely frantic, not sure how it all had happened, but wanting us to immediately disconnect him from the space shuttle.”
- Involved for several years with the Young Entrepreneurs Organization and serves on the Fairmont Medical Center (Mayo Health System) Board.
- Recipient of several technology awards: Minnesota Technology Leader of the Year (1998); Several U..S. Ag Engineering awards; “Inc. 500” award as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the nation; One of four recipients of U.S. State Legislators awards for being the top “Small Business of the Year.”
- Childhood: “I grew up on a farm in the Trimont area, the youngest of four children. I have two brothers and one sister.”
- Favorite school subject: “Physics, because it explains how things work and provides solutions to problems.”
- Career goal while in school: “I wanted to be a farmer, but I also wanted to be an inventor or a doctor.”
- Education: “Two years of physics, math and computer science at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.”
- What more would you like to have studied? “I should have taken more business classes, but I read accounting books as I wrote accounting software and early in my career read every business book I could find. When taking on investors, I had some very sharp business people on my board from whom I learned much.”
Gaalswyk Here and Now
- Family: “I met my wife, Denise, on a blind date in high school when we were juniors. We married seven years later, in 1984, and have three children.”
- Hobbies: “I like to drive a boat on the lake and go water-skiing. I used to do some singing in church. I also read newspapers and magazines, especially about business, news and current events.”
- Accomplishment of which most proud: “Being recognized as a visionary technology leader; also my patents.”
- What possession do you value most? “My airplane. It buys me time with my family. I can go to Indiana during the day, yet be back for supper.”
- What intangible do you value most? “My family.”
- Three terms that describe Mark Gaalswyk. Wife Denise’s answer: “Entrepreneur, visionary leader, intense. His job is his work and his hobby. He loves what he does.” Receptionist Denise Jorgenson’s answer: “Intense, driven (his mind goes a million miles a minute) and caring. He cares about people, his customers and the community.” Gaalswyk’s answer: “My wife’s answer is close.”