Engineering Custom Conveyor Components

Van Gorp Corporation
Written by Jen Hocken

Since 1933, Van Gorp Corporation has been building components for conveyors. The company specializes in engineering custom products and providing customers with the right solution for their conveyor setup, and almost nothing is standard, leading to an expertise in solving unique problems in an efficient, cost-effective way. With an attention to performance and a high standard of quality, the company has developed a name for itself that customers have come to trust.

While it was not officially incorporated until 1957, the company story actually began twenty-five years earlier, when founder Franklin Van Gorp created his first conveyor pulley for a local coal mine.

“The world has changed drastically since back then, but in the Midwest, there used to be small coal mines for heating homes, power generation, et cetera. Someone from one of the local mines approached Mr. Van Gorp and asked him to make a steel pulley,” says Van Gorp Owner Joe Canfield.

In those days, conveyor systems used leather belts and big wooden wheels that broke easily and often. Franklin Van Gorp was a blacksmith by trade, and built a steel pulley to replace the wooden ones the mine had been using. By 1957, he was making such a number of them that he decided to incorporate the business. Over the next two decades, he built the company into one of the largest producers of steel conveyor pulleys in the United States.

By 1976, he was preparing to retire. The company had become a major manufacturer with a significant customer base by that time, and due to that success, it caught the eye of Fortune 500 engineering company Emmerson Electric. Emmerson acquired the business that year and operated it after Van Gorp’s retirement.

By the early 2000s, Emmerson had shifted its attention from manufacturing traditional industrial products to developing software for controlling industrial facilities. Because Van Gorp Corporation was a parts manufacturer, it no longer fit within the company’s core strategy. Joe Canfield, an Emmerson employee who had been working on Van Gorp’s management team, was given the opportunity to acquire the business, and he took it. Canfield has been the owner of Van Gorp Corporation since 2002.

Today, the company employs roughly eighty-five people, but since much conveyor use is connected to the seasonal business of agriculture, this number can increase to more than one hundred people during the summer. It operates from a single facility in Pella, Iowa, and its products are sold in twenty-five countries around the world with an especially strong presence in Latin America.

The components are used in a variety of conveyor applications. The conveying industry is broken down into bulk handling and unit handling, and the company offers products for both. Bulk handling moves large quantities of loose materials such as corn, soybeans, grains, and other products for the agricultural industry, or gravel and aggregate for construction, or minerals, coal, copper, and other materials for the mining industry.

Unit handling moves one thing at a time for warehouse management in large department stores or parcel handling for shipping companies. Van Gorp Corporation manufactures belt conveyor components for all of this equipment.

According to Director of Business Development Nick Woodley, one crucial way that the company has been able to stand out has been by developing a team with expansive capabilities for its size. “Because we’re a small company, everybody is really empowered in their role. We look for people who have a lot of cross-functional ability. That way, everyone can pitch in in a lot of different areas. We look for a lot of leadership in every position. It’s not just top-down leadership. There’s also leadership from the bottom up,” says Woodley.

Van Gorp has an advantage over much larger companies as this is a close-knit group where everyone knows each other by name and has learned how to collaborate effectively. As a result, the company is known for performance and quality products.

Van Gorp Corporation has been ISO9001 certified since 1996, demonstrating twenty-three years of meeting the industry’s most prevalent quality control standard. It has grown considerably in that time, having tripled in size in the last two decades with a substantial portion of that expansion taking place in the last five years.

Despite the many changes that accompany growth of this magnitude, the company has upheld its certification and its reputation by refusing to make any sacrifices in the quality of its engineering and its manufacturing.

“We have a robust product design focused on performance in a quality-first approach. We have refused to go down the road of improving profits by taking something away from the product, and it shows, because we offer some of the longest warranties on the market. There are others who offer long warranties, but you have to pay for it. We say, ‘Here’s our standard product line. It will match up against someone else’s line, but we offer three years where they offer one.’ We’ve really tried to focus on designing for performance and not for profit,” says Canfield.

Van Gorp has strictly standardized every aspect of its manufacturing process, eliminating any guesswork. It employs a system of objective reporting on its performance and a corrective action process for when performance is not in compliance with the standard. Because of this, the company has been able to manage its growth and its level of component quality.

Many businesses throughout the United States struggle to deal with the nationwide skilled labor shortage, yet the challenge of finding qualified workers is even greater for companies operating in Iowa. The unemployment rate in Van Gorp Corporation’s home state is well below the national average at roughly 2.6 percent.

“With the economy the way it is right now, it’s always a challenge to find new talent as you grow, especially in our area, where the unemployment rate is very low. A lot of our core knowledge is with key people whose families grew up here, so we can’t just pick up and relocate, nor would we want to. It’s definitely a constraint, and we have to look at how to add capacity as we go forward,” says Canfield.

Fortunately, the company’s concentration on culture and values has enabled it to retain a strong team. Van Gorp’s leadership believes that values matter and has always made an effort to foster a positive work environment through a commitment to teamwork, recognizing the efforts of team members, assigning responsibility, and providing opportunities for career development.

“One of the things I hear a lot is that people get stuck in a silo and do the same mundane thing over and over. Here, they’re going to experience a lot of different things. Some of it may be in their traditional core functional area, but there’s going to be a lot of things that aren’t. You get a lot of cross-functionality and a lot of experience working with a lot of different departments,” says Canfield.

The company’s commitment to culture also reaches beyond its own workforce into the community through volunteerism, charitable giving, support of local education, and community events.

Going forward, Van Gorp Corporation is positioned to continue growing. This year, it is scheduled to showcase its product line at nine trade shows to demonstrate the quality of its products to a broader audience.

“As we expand and grow, we’re constantly getting into new territory, and we’re finding new companies to do business with. The obstacle is how do you overcome that newness and how do you make your company more familiar to someone that you’re looking to work with? The way that we overcome that is through our partnerships. We have a lot of great relationships that we’ve built over the years. We’re really able to leverage those to pick up new business to stretch further and expand our reach,” says Woodley.



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