On Track to Grow
Plymouth-based Kromer Company has a new president, a new outlook and a plan for reaching new markets.
BY SARAH ASP OLSON
Sitting still isn't Ronn Ponath's style. After a 35-year career at Tennant Company in Minneapolis, Ponath retired, but not for long. "After about eight or nine years, I was really getting bored," he says. "I started looking around for a company to buy."
Ponath came upon Kromer Company in Plymouth. Although he didn't have direct experience in the manufacturing of athletic field grooming and painting equipment, he felt his skills would translate. "I understood the markets they sold to, because I had sold to the same kind of
markets at Tennant Company," he says. "I'm not an engineer, but I could see there were a lot of things that could be engineered better, so those are the things that intrigued me about the company."
Ponath bought Kromer and took over as president in August 2008, immediately making significant improvements to efficiency, staff involvement and marketing strategies.
One of the first items on Ponath's agenda was to rework the way Kromer machines are made. He added air and water lines to create a cleaner, healthier work environment. He upgraded tools to make workers more productive, started outsourcing some parts fabrication and adjusted
the entire layout of the shop floor to increase efficiency.
"We used to make three machines at a time; now we can make six machines at a time," Ponath says. "We're doing more and more computerizing of the assembly process [and] the design process. We provided better lighting, tools and ergonomics for our people in the assembly
area so that the quality of the product just keeps going up."
New efficiencies led to faster, more customized production for the company. They also led to greater flexibility for Kromer's clients, including university athletic departments, professional sports teams, city parks and recreations departments and the U.S. Military. Kromer's
newest machine, the Field Commander, offers ultimate flexibility with more than 35 attachments.
"[The Field Commander] allows people to do a wide variety of tasks with one machine," Ponath says. "A lot of these multi-purpose stadiums play [host to] football one day, baseball another day and the next day have a soccer tournament. Our [equipment] allows them to change
the markings and logos, change the end zones and customize the field for whatever event is taking place." In addition, the machine can be customized for synthetic fields, turf or a combination of surfaces.
While the quality of the product is going up, so is staff involvement, morale and efficiency. With just nine full-time staffers, Ponath's team is doing the work of at least 15 people, he says.
"I've seen a great improvement in morale, which is really the No. 1 thing," he says. "It's unleashed a burst of creativity in the organization because of change. We have a team approach to problems, and when we do things in teams, we become more powerful than nine
Enter Enterprise Minnesota
With Kromer's new high levels of efficiency and creativity on his side, Ponath is actively seeking to expand the company's markets, as well as the regions into which the company sells.
To get started, he sought out some outside advice. "I've hired specialized outside consultants to help us where we don't have knowledge but we know we have problems," he says. "They can give us a perspective on how to solve those problems."
One such consultant is Jeff Mueller, a business growth advisor for Enterprise Minnesota. "[Ponath] had read an article in Enterprise Minnesota magazine talking about the availability of Growth Acceleration Program (GAP) dollars, and that's what initially prompted the call,"
Using GAP funding, Ponath and Mueller are working together to develop a strategic marketing initiative to seek out new markets, acquire new clients and sell into new regions of the country. "They have done very well in the Northeast, they've done very well in the five-state
region around Minnesota, and they've done fairly well in Texas," Mueller says. "But there are other areas ... [where] they haven't done as well. They want new strategies and new plans to focus in on in some of those undeveloped regional areas. That's one of the key components of
our dealings with Kromer."
Mueller is charged with identifying the most effective marketing strategies Kromer can employ to effectively sell to different markets. "They need to understand the economies and requirements of different geographic regions that they want to gain entry to," Mueller says.
"They specifically want help with preferences in regard to Web content, direct mail, trade show ads [and] help with identifying the most effective sales approaches for their markets."
For example, in the Southern United States, fields need to be maintained year-round, whereas in the North, winter often stalls daily maintenance on outdoor turf. Thus, the way Kromer sells in the South will look different from marketing techniques for clients in the North.
Going Forward with GAP
Thanks to GAP funding, Kromer is expected to see reimbursement of about $4,600 for the strategic marketing initiative with Enterprise Minnesota.
"My main goal is to increase our market penetration, and the GAP funding will allow us to do that through the market research we're doing in conjunction with Enterprise Minnesota," Ponath says. "That will help us focus on those markets and the way the markets are
Both Ponath and Mueller anticipate continued collaboration going forward. "I think we have the opportunity for a long-term relationship here," Mueller says. "It's incumbent upon us to make sure we're focused in terms of what we're delivering to Kromer. If we're
successful, that will mean they'll be able to increase their sales, they will have gone into new markets, [and] they'll be getting greater feedback from clients. As the company grows, we would certainly hope to be involved in helping them as they expand their business, as they bring
on new employees and as they work to develop new product lines."
Looking to the Future
Kromer's future looks bright, and Ponath--who is already looking forward to new product lines and overseas export opportunities--couldn't be more excited to see how the company progresses. "I see [us] doubling, perhaps even tripling, in the next five years because of better
market penetration," he says. "We are getting some really good response to the changes we've made. We're really focusing on our customers' needs, we're listening to what they have told us [we can do] better than in the past, and as a consequence, we're responding to their needs
better. To me that means we're going to be successful, very successful."
As for any thoughts of a second retirement, Ponath hasn't even considered it. "I'm enjoying this so much that I'll probably die with my boots on," he says.