TFE EnterprisesBy Grace Webb • Jul 2015 • Category: Feature Story
Chad Lyons, owner of TFE Enterprises in Truman, isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get dirty.
In 1999, 23-year-old Chad Lyons thought he had his life all planned out.
The Fairmont native was married with a young son, was working as a manager at a hog farm in Truman and was also serving in the Minnesota National Guard. He planned on going the full 20 years so he could earn a complete retirement package from the military.
But one night he woke up and he couldn’t breathe.
It was because of a heart condition that had plagued him his whole life. When he was a young kid, his doctor had told him he had a heart murmur, but it had seemed to disappear as he grew. However, he said he’d still always had heart problems, which would cause blurry vision and make him winded far sooner than a soldier in the prime of his life should have been. While his Guard buddies were easily lugging backpacks up hills, Lyons could barely run two miles.
As the difficulty in breathing through the night became more and more frequent, Lyons went St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester for help. There, doctors discovered he had a hole in his heart that was leaking blood. To save his life, they scheduled an intensive surgery that would involve cutting him open, removing his heart, fixing it and replacing it inside him.
As the date of his surgery drew closer, Lyons struggled to control his fear.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if I was going to
wake up again.”
Finally, the fateful November date arrived, and Lyons went back to St. Mary’s. The 10-hour surgery was grueling, but he emerged from the operating table alive and well.
But his fight was far from over.
He stayed at St. Mary’s for a week before he was even able to go home, and it took him another month and a half just to be able to sit up straight. But perhaps worse than the physical exhaustion of recovery was the uncertainty that came with it. He wasn’t able to pass his latest physical fitness test, which meant he couldn’t stay in the military. And even his job at the hog farm was too physically demanding. Suddenly, Lyons’ perfectly planned life had completely fallen through.
But Lyons has always been resiliently resourceful and an exhaustively hard worker. Once he had recovered sufficiently, he plunged back into the job scene—and somehow found his way into a position at TFE Enterprises in Truman in 2003. Now, 13 years later, he’s the owner of a business that creates a million pounds of feed supplement a year and sells to customers across the world.
Lyons’ life is a testament to how life doesn’t always work out like you planned it—sometimes, it’s even better.
Lyons was born in Fairmont in 1972 and raised by a single mother until she remarried when he was 12. Then the two of them moved to Truman to live with his stepfather on a hobby farm. There, Lyons would help butcher chickens and collect eggs.
“We probably butchered 25-35 chickens a day,” he said. “It’d take us all day, and we were definitely tired when we got done with it.”
In addition to his chores on the farm, Lyons started working for neighboring farmers, taking his first job milking cows when he was 14. He also worked for hog farmers and crop farmers, working long enough hours to earn a few thousand dollars every summer. He was a quick learner and a hard worker, and his bosses quickly recognized he had a knack for leadership: when he was only 16, he led farm crews made up of men twice his age.
“I was 16 years old, and I was in charge of people who were 20 years older than I was,” he remembers. “I was their boss. It was definitely awkward, but most of the people were pretty good about listening to me. I learned a lot of responsibility thanks to those jobs.”
This work ethic came in handy as Lyons grew older and started experiencing difficulties with his stepfather, who eventually demanded that Lyons start paying $150 a month for rent when he turned 16.
“I grew up a lot [very quickly],” Lyons said. “Finally, I had enough. When he wanted rent, that’s when I left.”
At first, Lyons went to live with a friend, and then he moved in with a relative. But when he was a senior in high school, he decided to join the Army National Guard. He enlisted in 1990 and served for nine years.
“I mostly joined because I was thinking of [college] and how the military would pay for it,” he said. “I did what they call a split-option enlistment, where I trained in the summer and still went to high school in the fall. Then I graduated in 1991 and finished my Advanced Individual Training.”
Even though the country was still in the throes of the first Persian Gulf War when he enlisted, Lyons was never deployed, instead spending his service time in bases in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since he was in the National Guard, he only trained for one weekend a month and two weeks every summer, giving him time to work in the private sector when he wasn’t on duty. He first worked for a canning company in Fairmont for about a year and a half, before moving to St. James right after graduation and working at Swift Eckrich, which produced lunchmeats.
Around the same time, Lyons met his wife, whom he married in 1995. The two of them moved to Willmar, Minnesota, where they both attended Ridgewater College.
“I started out by studying carpentry, but I decided I didn’t like that,” Lyons said. “I didn’t want to be outside in the cold all winter. So I switched to insurance adjusting.”
But Lyons soon learned that his new study choice had its own set of challenges, since there was already an abundance of adjusters in southern Minnesota. If he wanted to find a job within his field, he’d need to move south—but his wife had just had their first son, Colby, and Lyons didn’t want to move away from them. Instead, he moved his family to Truman, where he found a job working on a hog farm owned by Chuck Patche. For the next five years, Lyons worked as the manager for the 350-hog farrow-to-finish operation. He worked grueling hours—often from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.—and did everything from helping sows give birth to castrating the new piglets.
Lyons said it’s rare now for hog farms to be farrow-to-finish. Instead, farmers often break up the process and only focus on one end: the births or the deaths. But he enjoyed working at a place that dealt with the whole lifecycle.
“If I worked at a place that only focused on one thing, I’d get bored,” he said. “Here, I had to change jobs and do a little of everything.”
While he was working at the farm, he still split his time with his military duties, and he said he planned to stay in the Guard until he was able to retire at the 20-year mark. However, when he was 23, his life-threatening heart condition overturned his plans. After his surgery, he was honorably discharged in 1999.
Despite not being able to retire from the National Guard, Lyons said he still learned from his time in the military—especially about what not to do while running his own business.
“I learned how to take a lot of direction,” he explained. “If you’re low in the ranks, you just take orders and do what they tell you. And that’s the part I hated about it. You had no opinion, no suggestions. But I like to think and do things. So when I came to run TFE Enterprises, I’d ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Do you have any good ideas?’ I wanted to let my employees offer their input, because if they did, they would care about the business more and do a better job.”
Lyons’ surgery also impacted his private sector career. He had to quit his job at the hog farm because the work was too strenuous while he was recovering. Instead, he took a job at Countryside Cashway in Fairmont, working for five years as an indoor salesperson.
“It wasn’t really that hard to make the switch, because I went to school for insurance adjusting,” he said. “That was more about home insurance, so when I went to Cashway, I knew how to estimate a house. I could know how many shingles someone needed for his roof, stuff like that. It kind of just flowed. I went from hogs, to studying insurance adjusting, back to hogs and then being the salesperson at Cashway, before finally ending up making pig supplement feed at TFE. Hogs are natural for me.”
As to whether he enjoyed his time at the hog farm more or his time as a salesperson more, Lyons wasn’t sure.
“Every job has its different pluses and minuses,” he said. “Dealing with people and customers can be tough. They get mad at you. With the hogs, you didn’t have to be with people. You were all by yourself. But then you had a lot of time to think and be bored. At Cashway, you got to talk with all the different customers. Out on the hog farm, you talked to the hogs.”
Lyons would have stayed longer at Cashway but, around 2002, his employer cut his health insurance benefits. By this point, Lyons had three sons, so it was too expensive to pay for the costs out of pocket when he was only making $8.50 an hour. So he started looking around for another job.
Fortunately, Lyons had become close to one of his Cashway customers, who eventually asked him if he’d be interested in managing a facility in Truman—TFE Enterprises. At the time, it was owned by WFS, a farmer-owned cooperative that sold livestock feed and other agriculture-related goods.
“I interviewed for it and was hired a day later,” Lyons said.
Lyons was hired as TFE’s new manager, taking over for former manager Dave Kahler. He was responsible for a team of four employees.
“Dave trained me in for a week, and then he was gone,” Lyons said. “That was kind of nerve-wracking. I looked around and thought, ‘You’re gone? It’s all mine?’ It was a lot to take in at first. But Matt Benton, one of the employees (and the only one still working at TFE) worked with me a lot, and I asked a lot of questions from the other employees. So I learned bits and pieces from them and put it all together.”
The main task of the facility is creating a feed supplement for young piglets, which aren’t ready for full pig feed yet. Lyon purchases 150,000 pounds of scrap cheese every month from area vendors such as Kraft in New Ulm, as well as other businesses as far as Iowa and beyond. The cheese is unfit for human consumption but perfectly fine for pigs.
“How [the business] started was, there was all this scrap cheese and nobody knew what to do with it,” Lyons said, explaining that TFE Enterprises was one of the first (if not the first) to turn leftover cheese into high-protein feed supplement.
While there are some other facilities that now offer similar products, Lyons said his customers prefer his feed because he uses soy flour, whereas other producers often use whey. Between the soy flour and the cheese (along with some milk and healthy additives he adds in), Lyons’ supplement is made up of 41 percent protein and 27 percent fat, a healthy dose for growing pigs. Farmers use the supplement for about 2-3 weeks before switching their pigs to more standard feed.
Lyons worked as TFE’s manager for about 10 years before he bought the business. During that time, the company had to let go of three of its employees because of a downturn in business, with only Benton staying on. It was also sold to former WFS CFO Bill Day, who had bought it only after Lyons promised to stay on as manager. But as Day began wanting to spend more time with his family, he offered to sell it to Lyons.
For Lyons, the choice wasn’t hard. He knew TFE’s potential, and he also was excited about the prospect of being able to run the business with the freedom that comes from being the owner. So he purchased it in 2014.
So far, he said, business has been “pretty good.” He sells his mixture to customers across the U.S. (including WFS) and the world, with one of his biggest customers being South Korea, which orders up to 84,000 pounds of supplement a month. Overall, Lyons produces more than a million pounds of feed supplement a year. That’s especially impressive considering he only has one employee.
“We can do it,” he said. “You make a batch and it takes an hour for it to go through the system, so during that hour, we’re doing garbage, cleaning, bagging the end product. It’s a process. Matt [Benton] and I are just in sync. I know what he’s doing and he knows what I’m doing. We don’t even have to talk; we just do it. Every day, we’re always talking. ‘We should try this. Let’s see how this works.’ We have a lot of breakdowns here, because cheese is hard on stuff. So Matt will suggest something, and I’ll think, ‘That’s a good idea.’ So we’ll try it. He tries to make my life easier, and I try to make his life easier, so it works pretty well.”
In fact, Lyons said working with Benton is the best part of the job.
“We’re like family,” he said. “It’s a job, but it’s not to us. We sweat, and we’re cold… but it’s still not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate going to work.’”
The supplement-making process itself is fairly simple. Lyons and Benton put their cheese and soy flour into a mixer before baking the mixture in an oven at 350 degrees. From there, it drops onto a cooler conveyer and heads to the grinder, where it’s ground into a powder before it’s finally bagged and shipped to customers.
Lyons said business has been busier in previous years when he worked with China, which ordered so much product that he had to nearly double the amount of supplement he was producing. However, that could cause its own problems, since an increase in product meant Lyons needed to increase his orders for cheese—and that could drive up prices. Not only that, but sometimes he just couldn’t make find enough cheese to produce enough supplement for China’s orders, which meant he had to choose which customers got to buy from him.
“If you don’t have enough cheese, you have to pick who you’re going to give it to,” he said. “If farmers put your supplement in their feed ingredients, they need that to constantly come in. Without cheese, you might lose customers. So I take care of my long-term customers first, like WFS, Land O’Lakes, Hubbard Feeds, Korea… and if I have any leftover, then China can have it. You kind of have to play the market and keep your good customers that are stable happy, first.”
While Lyons isn’t currently producing any supplement for China, he said he’d be willing to work with them again if they approach him. But right now, his main goal for the future is to form new relationships with local farmers.
“That’s how I’d like to expand more, to get more local,” he said. “Some local big farmers make their own feed, so they could buy my cheese and put it into their own formulas. But no matter what, I just want to stay open and doing what we’re doing.”
Matt Benton is Lyons’ only employee, and he was actually around before Lyons came to TFE. Benton, 36, was born on a farm outside of Truman and graduated from Truman High School in 1997.
He started working at TFE Enterprises while he was a junior in high school, and he’s been with the business for 20 years now. Along the way, he also picked up a second job at the Holiday Inn in Fairmont after he graduated from high school, and he worked there for 17 years. But now he’s spending all his time with Lyons.
“It’s my first and last job,” he said with a laugh.
While he said it can be difficult with just the two of them when business gets really busy, “all in all, it’s pretty good.”
When he’s not working, Benton enjoys fishing and being outdoors.
Address: 333 State Highway 15 South, Truman, Minnesota