Building Mixers for the World
By Don Steele
Most of us would have no reason to visit the offices and manufacturing plant of Roto-Mix LLC in Dodge City, but this unassuming structure hidden down the hill south of east Wyatt Earp Boulevard houses one of the top agricultural service businesses in the country.
The Roto-Mix story is American enterprise at its best.
The story begins with a young businessman named Ben Neier, who was looking for his way into the agricultural services business. Working with two Canadian friends, Neier developed an idea he had for an auger mixer to sell to the growing number of cattle feed yards and dairies across the midwest.
In 1961 he built his first mixer and started a business called B-J Manufacturing.
By 1965 he had enough capital and enough orders to build a plant near the railroad tracks along Dodge City’s eastern industrial corridor.
B-J Manufacturing expanded to other agricultural implements: manure spreaders, irrigation systems, pump jacks and farm equipment.
In the late 1970s Neier sold the business to a company in Nebraska and created Roto-Mix. He retained the joint patent on the mixer, bought his Canadian friends out and started a new phase of development.
“There are still a lot of those old auger mixers around,” said Rod Neier, Ben’s son and now president of Roto-Mix.
As feeding conditions and commodities changed over the years, Roto-Mix made adjustments in the design and operation of their mixers.
“A lot of the feed yards are using distiller’s grain from the ethanol plants now, and that’s a tricky material to mix. The moisture content is really inconsistent, which poses a challenge for mixing,” Neier said.
There are dozens of other manufacturers across the country, but only a handful qualify as truly national supplier, and Roto-Mix has become one of them.
Joining the family business
Rod Neier graduated in 1981 with an accounting degree from Ft. Hays State University. He got a job in Amarillo and eventually attained CPA certification. When his firm had an opening in their Dodge City branch, Neier transferred to it and eventually bought the Dodge City practice and merged with Smoll and Banning.
Along the way, Neier was helping his dad with accounting for Roto-Mix and in 1993 he joined the business as vice-president/controller.
By 1997, Ben was ready to take some time off, maybe travel a little, and Rod became president. Although Ben is now semi-retired, he’s still involved in the business and the process of charting the company’s direction.
Just the facts
The Roto-Mix story includes a lot of impressive numbers.
The firm currently has nearly 100 Dodge City employees. “We’re proud of the fact that, while others were laying people off, we were able to retain our employment numbers at a high level,” Neier said. Their payroll roster makes them one of the area’s biggest employers, and their annual $5 million payroll contributes significantly to the local economy.
Furthermore, they are now hiring assembly and fabrication workers. “The need for help goes up and down a little with the orders, but we are hiring right now,” Neier said.
According to Neier, the feedlot industry has weathered the recession in relatively good shape, while the dairy industry has had more trouble.
While most of the Roto-Mix employees have been through technical school as welders or machinists, some come to the plant by way of good experience in other jobs.
Neier finds that it’s increasingly harder to find help. “A lot of kids coming out of school aren’t interested in manufacturing jobs, even though they can make a really good living doing that,” Neier said.
And although you might expect that welding would be a skill that’s been essentially the same for decades, that’s not the case.
“Three of out best welders are in Tulsa right now, attending welding school. There are new gasses, new wire, new machines — we have to keep up with the innovations in the craft,” Neier said.
Roto-Mix employs people outside of Dodge City as well. “We have a manufacturing plant in Hoisington that’s actually more square footage than the one in Dodge, and we have a location in Scott City for installation and service,” Neier said.
Roto-Mix maintains a list of fifteen sales representatives whose combined territories cover the entire country.
And for some really impressive numbers, consider the Roto-Mix’s annual sales have reached $20.6 million and they can claim an estimated 60% share of the feed mixer market. The company holds nine patents and two pending patent applications.
A whole new level
As Roto-Mix’s domination of the national market grew, it was inevitable that people in the beef and dairy industries in other countries would hear about the product.
When Roto-Mix first began getting information requests from overseas, the resulting export business would mark a dramatic shift in the company’s operations.
Today, Roto-Mix sends mixers and other equipment to 35 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia and South Africa.
“Of course, getting our equipment to Canada or Mexico is a little easier, it just involves trucking, but once you get an ocean involved it’s a little harder,” Neier said.
The process involves setting up dealer/distributors who can work with customers to analyze their needs.
“Wherever in the world the operation is, they start with what commodities are abundant and build a mix that provides the right combination of roughage and nutrition to achieve the final product that the feeder is looking for — to supply the product his customer wants,” Neier said.
In Australia, for example, many of the feeders are producing beef for the Japanese consumer, who likes beef with much higher marbling than the U.S. customer — for a simple reason: “Most of the beef consumed in Japan is going to be stir-fried and that requires more internal fat,”Neier said.
In most European, South American and African countries, the desired product has less marbling, which most people agree results in a little less flavor and requires different cooking techniques than the American beef product.
“In the U.S. we’re slaughtering at around 1200 pounds, but in Australia its about 850,” Neier said.
Most domestic operations a feeding mixes with higher grain content, while the overseas markets need a mix with a higher roughage content because of the target weight difference.
“Some of our overseas customers need to have a lot of hay in the mix, which the mixer has to cut and mix differently from grain, so we do our homework — we want them to get the right mixer so it works for them,” Neier said.
Roto-Mix engineers prefer to assemble the mixing unit right on a truck frame in the Dodge City plant.
“We’re located right next to Dodge City International, and we love to use their trucks. We also use Peterbilt or Kenworth — we can get any truck the customer chooses — and it makes the local dealers happy,” Neier said.
Once the truck and the mixer, or whatever product the customer has ordered, is ready for shipment, a long and involved journey begins.
The process starts with inland freight to get the equipment to a port. Then a packer prepares the unit for shipping suitable for the requirements of each specific port and ship. Some require flat rack shipping and some are what Neier describes as “ro-ro,” meaning the cargo is rolled on the vessel then rolled off at its destination.
The process is expensive. “You might have $20,000 in freight costs to ship a unit to Australia, but that’s on a unit that could cost up to $200,000” Neier said.
In 2009, nearly 25% of Roto-Mix products were shipped overseas, proudly bearing a “Made in the USA” label.
Roto-Mix made it’s first overseas shipments in the early 1990s and by 1996 their foreign segment had grown so dramatically that they were named the Kansas Governor’s Exporter of the Year.
Neier expects that side of the business to continue to grow. “China is a potentially huge market for us, as is Russia and the former Soviet Union countries,” he said.
Neier credits the company’s success to their leadership in developing the first rotary-style feed mixers, but also to their commitment to their customers.
“We listen to our customers’ needs and help them get the best options for their operation,” Neier said.
So the next time you drive by east Wyatt Earp, near the overpass, look for the Roto-Mix sign and imagine a mixer being built there today ending up in some faraway corner of the world.