Monday, August 23, 2004


You may remember that I had poems laminated and attached to Budget Bicycle's Red Bikes as part of the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program in Madison, Wisconsin. Another part of the project is publication of a hand-sized book of poems to be placed in the glove compartments of vehicles at Community Car. Well - success here, too! Both of my poems have made it into the glove compartment. Here's the substance of a letter I received from Shoshauna Shy of Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf:

"Your poems 'Simply Morning' and 'Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain' submitted to the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program have made the cut, and will be part of the collection of hand-sized books placed in the glove compartments of Community Car. Community Car is a car-sharing club with over 150 members in the Madison, Wisconsin area. Every time a member reserves and receives a car, they open the glove compartment to fill out a travel log, and that is when they will be given the opportunity to read the book of poems. The poems will be about walking, biking, running and an appreciation for nature by 12-15 poets from all across the country."



I have toured the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide has been Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We walked through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together; now I'm in the office of Bryan Tillett, president of Excel..

Then Dave introduces me to Bryan Tillett, president of the company. We talk in Bryan's office. I ask Bryan about Excel's impact on the local economy. Bryan wants to compared Excel's annual sales to the Smith County wheat crop, so Dave calls the local extension agent to get current figures on wheat production in the county: 150,000 acres of wheat have been certified; a yield of thirty bushels per acre sounds about right for the droughty conditions Smith County has experienced; and the wheat will be worth about $3.50 a bushel. So this year's wheat crop in Smith County will be worth about $15.75 million. Excel has annual sales of $17-18 million.

"Our annual payroll is more than $3.5 million," Bryan says. "We have a hundred sixty-five employees. More than half of them are women. When fit and finish really count, you want women doing the detail work." A lot of the employees are farm wives.

How much do people in the area know about Excel's operation?

"We have an open house for the public every year," Bryan says. "A lot of people from town have been through the plant."

Is the company's location ever an issue?

"Almost all the goods we order come in by the truckload," Bryan said. "A lot of materials come from Indiana, which is the RV capital of the world. We have our own semi to pick up freight as well."

"We are probably about as vertically integrated as we can be," Bryan thinks. "I can't imagine having more than two hundred employees. As we max out the employment pool, we'll have to outsource more."

Fortunately, he notes, technology allows you to do more with less.

"We're a progressive company," Bryan says. "We feed all information to the plant from the office via a fiber optic network. There's a fiber optic line from here to the plant and everything is networked together.

"We've interfaced our AS/400 system with the PC network so orders are integrated. CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) sends orders over to update the bill of materials. Every board that is taken for use is cut according to optimized-use instructions. Parts are nested for optimum yield at the router."

Why is Excel located in Smith Center, Kansas?

"Because our founder was born and raised here," Bryan says. "Being away from the hub forces us to build a high-quality product. We can't compete on price because of the freight factor and we don't have the labor pool to mass-produce. So we compete on quality."

How do you develop a good crew of employees to produce quality work?

"We are selective in who we hire," Bryan says, "and we train them. We don't hire just anyone. The rural work ethic is so good. We have a lot less turnover than other companies. We train people and keep them. And we have core people like Rachel Favinger to help the beginners."

"We want building the size of the company to be a slow process," Bryan says. "The demand on the available labor pool and the demand for our product grows slowly as we increase the size of our dealer base."

How good a community is Smith Center as a location for the business?

"See how progressive the hospital is," Bryan says. "You can get almost any service you want at the hospital. There are fifteen or sixteen consulting physicians who come to Smith Center."

"And the school system," he adds. "It employs a lot of people. We have a tremendous school system."

"How many places in the U.S. can you go to sleep with the keys in your ignition?" he asks.

"It's sad that we export our youth," he says, "but there are not a lot of white collar jobs here."

"We are an aged community," he adds. "A lot of money has been made in the county. Sons and daughters move away and when the parents die and they will the money to their children, it leaves the county. We lose that money."

Would Excel ever move from Smith Center?

"Not as long as I'm one of the partners in the company," Dave says, "and I think the rest feel that way too. This is my home. Once a month we'll get a letter from somebody wanting to buy our company. We just throw them in the trash."

To be continued....


from the "Married To Prairie" series, Middle Ground
(in the voice of a pioneer woman on the tall grass prairie
who has lost her husband)

The merciful day ends and I would count
my blessings: two strong daughters and a handsome

son, a pair of untiring horses and one
cow heavy with milk morning and evening,

a barn loft full of hay and a cellar
stocked for winter, the good apples hidden for

the Christmas stockings, a thick bolt of bright cloth
for a new dress, winter clothes already sewn

for the children, the warm sun all day today
taking the edge off the autumn wind, enough

wood from our grove cut against winter and piled
in the shed, a good well with good water, and

these busy hands of mine, these busy strong hands
and a good strong back. These are my blessings, these

and a sturdy house, the fireplace giving back its
warmth, this comfortable chair. What more could I want?

Oh, husband, there is an emptiness tonight!

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