We’ve been very blessed as a company’

Anyone who steps into Jerad Higman's office can't help but notice the large painting of Clint Eastwood, playing the role of one of his steely-eyed, western characters, hanging above his desk.

Jerad Higman, president of Masaba Mining Equipment, is overseeing the third addition to the manufacturing plant since it located in Vermillion in 2005. When its new expansion is complete this spring,  Masaba’s buildings will cover a total of 210,000 square feet. (Photo by David Lias)

It sends a message that this is a place where determination reigns supreme.

Just as Eastwood was instrumental in creating the Man with No Name character's distinctive visual style in his spaghetti western movies, Higman, the president of Masaba Mining Equipment, and his staff have used that same type of resolute perseverance to create a Vermillion success story.

Since Masaba located in Vermillion in 2005, it has undergone an expansion of its manufacturing plant here, and also opened a manufacturing center in Canada to meet the growing demand for its products.

Masaba's story is still being written, as Higman oversees yet another addition to the Vermillion plant. The steel framework for the 50,000 square foot addition is already up; once it is completed, hopefully in early March, it will house the manufacturer's sandblasting and painting chamber to put the finishing touches on the equipment the company produces.

Other clues to what Higman holds important are also evident in his workspace. There's a Nebraska football helmet from his days of playing for the Huskers under Coach Tom Osborne. And, framed photos of his family – snapshots of him with his wife and his two daughters, surround his large workspace.

"The new addition is basically going to be our blast bay and paint facility, and we're going to have quite a bit more fabrication in there as well," he said, describing the main reason for adding another 50,000 square feet to Masaba's Vermillion plant. "The blast and paint will help alleviate a lot of the bottlenecks we have now – it's the final stage in the whole manufacturing process. It will help us from a quality standpoint tremendously."

The new addition will allow Masaba's employees to blast its equipment indoors, in a controlled environment. Currently, the blasting of equipment before it's painted occurs outdoors.

"We're one of the few people in the industry to actually sand blast our steel as we prep it for painting," Higman said. "Right now, we're at the mercy of Mother Nature and this new addition will help with that. Additional fabrication bays are also going to help us out tremendously, too. It's going to help us get more organized inside and improve some efficiencies that we have."

Masaba designs and fabricates aggregate processing and mining equipment, as well as specialized agricultural equipment. The various products the plant creates include conveyor lines, hoppers, surge bins, and portable and stationary crushing, screening, and wash plants.

The new addition being constructed by Masaba will allow employees to sandblast the products they build indoors, in a controlled environment, before they are painted. Currently, the blasting of equipment before it‚s painted occurs outdoors. (Photo by David Lias)

All in the family

It's not unusual to find Higman's desk surrounded by family photos. Masaba came about largely through the efforts of his grandfather, Harold "Bud" Higman, Sr., who founded Higman Sand and Gravel at Akron, IA, in 1939.

Jerad Higman's dad, Harold Higman, Jr. formed Masaba in 1962 and incorporating what he had learned from his father, began building and selling equipment tough enough to withstand the everyday abuse of mining environments.

Harold Higman Jr. and Justin, Jerad's older brother, are still active in the operation of Higman Sand and Gravel, while Jerad puts in University of Nebraska mechanical engineering degree and years of personal experience in the business world to work here in Vermillion.

That experience has led to Masaba producing equipment that works beyond the realm of gravel pits, the major type of mining found in this part of the country.

"We have diversified considerably," Higman said. "We're still into building equipment for hard rock and sand and gravel, but we're getting more into the areas of coal, pulp and paper, frac sands and equipment for the unloading and loading of materials, such as on docks for ship loading and unloading.

"Our growth has been because we've expanded our range as far as dealerships throughout the United States, and we have our sister company, Masaba Canada, and it's done a phenomenal job," he said. "We've also done quite a bit more overseas this year than we've ever done before. We've shipped our first product to Australia, and we're getting more work out of that product and we're hopefully going to grow that as well."

Masaba's success also can be attributed to its ability to craft custom equipment to meet various customers' unique needs.

"It's become somewhat of who we are," Higman said. "I think people out in the industry – if they get into something that's rather unique, that's when our name comes up. It is very engineering-intense work, so we have struggled over the years to get more engineers on board."

Masaba currently has 12 engineers on its staff. Higman hopes to hire a couple more engineers, along with at least two additional drafters in the first quarter of this year.

"When we talk about growth and economic development, this last year I would say we added close to 70 people, and I see that happening again this year if we can continue this growth curve and after we get into this new building," he said.

Masaba employed around 35 people when it began operating in Vermillion seven years ago. Today, its staff numbers 180.

"The good thing about manufacturing businesses is we are creating something, and a lot of our sales aren't even in the state of South Dakota," Higman said. "All of the money that we bring back, in the form of wages and salaries and so forth … we bring that wealth back into the state."

The continued success and growth of Masaba has not gone without notice in the South Dakota.

"Three expansions in five years is an impressive track record," said Gov. Dennis Daugaard. "I'm pleased Masaba has found a hospitable environment for growth in Vermillion and that the company continues to invest in South Dakota."

Masaba's aggregate payroll in the manufacturing industry rose from $5.2 million in 2008 to more than $6.9 million in 2010. Part of the reason for the increase in payroll is the creation of new jobs in Vermillion.

"Success in the manufacturing sector is truly a success for the entire community of Vermillion," said Steve Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Economic Development Company, in a prepared statement released last week to announce this latest bit of good news for the community. "A higher aggregate payroll translates into more money being spent in the retail and service businesses in Vermillion, and should begin to drive a slow housing market."

The community's expansion-based incentives and tax breaks for businesses are driving growth. Masaba is projecting it will employ 250 people within three years. The business-friendly climate has also helped to Masaba export its products overseas.

"The community of Vermillion has been focusing on expanding our manufacturing sector for the last several years," Howe said. "The results of recruiting efforts, fiscal incentives and business-friendly regulations are evident in the growth taking place. Businesses have a solid foundation to build upon."

The business climate in South Dakota, Higman added, is playing a major role in Masaba's success.

"Speaking as an entrepreneur … the thing I love about this state, and I fly its flag high – it's the best state to do business in. Hands down," he said.

Current national economic trends may be worrisome, but Higman said he intends to concentrate on Masaba's operations and subsequent growth in Vermillion.

"I'm focusing on what we do best," he said. "I would like to think politicians can help get things under control and get our country back on the straight and narrow. But the one thing we did, when things were bad in 2009-10, we went out and hired people, sales people specifically, and let people know we were here and active. Today, it's paying off.

"The thing that makes us special is our team," Higman said. "We've got phenomenal people on board here, and with any organization, it's the people you have on board, pushing the growth and the quality of the company. It's who you are. It's your DNA.  I think we have a phenomenal DNA and a culture around here to build with pride and with the best of quality. Our goal is to make every customer happy, and I think that sets us apart."

That "corporate DNA" can be traced back to the company's earliest roots, to the one man who has made it all possible – Bud Higman, Sr., Jerad's grandfather, who died last April. He was 94.

Higman gets emotional just thinking about him.

"He's a pretty special guy," he said, his voice cracking. "He's the guy that started Higman Sand and Gravel and got it all going, and I spent a lot of time with that guy growing up. I think he kind of established that hard work ethic, and passed it on to my dad, and he instilled it in me.

"The one thing I learned from him, besides hard work, was the importance of giving back to your community," Higman said. "It's not just about you. You're here for a purpose, and we've been very blessed as a company, and one thing I've found to be very important is to give back, be it through local charities, or the university, or through the guys who work here."

Bud Higman grew up during the Great Depression, and began working after completing eighth grade. He built much of his equipment himself after starting Higman Sand & Gravel.

"He made me who I am today," he said.

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