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The Lean Machine
Broekema Beltway hopes to ‘lean’ its way out of dependence on its European counterparts, leaving higher margins and better customer pricing
May 2018
Jeff Eilers, president & CEO, Broekema Beltway USA Inc
Jeff Eilers, president & CEO, Broekema Beltway USA Inc.

One of Jeff Eilers’ proudest career milestones has been to improve profitability through lean efficiencies. Eilers, president and CEO at Broekema Beltway, hopes his latest efforts will enable him to become independent of its operational reliance on the company’s foreign counterparts in a way that will leave higher margins and better customer pricing.

Broekema manufactures high-end belted chain conveyor belts for root-crop harvest equipment. Its primary U.S. plant houses 70 employees in a 31,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pine City that generates about $17 million in revenue. It does another $5 million from a 25-person plant in Woodland, California.  

The company exports products to more than 40 countries. Its products include rivet rods, rod covering, rod securing to center belting, sprockets and drive wheels, and many replacement parts. “There’s a lot of different intricate portions that go into it,” Eilers says. “It looks really simple on the outside, but the devil is always in the details.”

Founded in Minnesota, Broekema today is owned by the Jäger Group, a privately-held German conglomerate. “They are the most personable people I’ve ever met,” Eilers says. He adds that the company is on an aggressive lookout for growth energy, new designs, and developments. “They want to be at the forefront of everything,” he says. 

Eilers’ plan is to exploit his lean passion to help make his U.S. facilities operationally independent from their European counterparts. Currently, the company relies on Europe for about 30 percent of his needs. That independence will require additional machinery, equipment, skillsets, and people. “Ultimately, it will improve both margins and the end price,” he says.

Eilers grew up in Seattle before enlisting in what would be a seven-year stint in the Air Force. Finding that his expertise in rapid assembly munitions—bomb-making—didn’t knit well with after-service career opportunities, Eilers landed a job as a warehouse supervisor. It was there that he took an “Introduction to Lean Manufacturing” course and had a lightbulb moment. “It clicked,” he remembers. “A lot of what I was doing in the military was lean manufacturing, just using different terminology.” 

He rode that niche expertise to climb his company hierarchy. “I found that I had a knack for getting people in the right positions with the right skillsets.”

He worked in management for 12 years at three other companies before landing at Broekema three years ago, first as general manager, and then in January becoming CEO. 

“Lean is one of the things that makes me happy,” he admits. When he joined Broekema, he found that his predecessor had created a foundation for lean but was spread too thin to make it effective. “He was trying to wear about 15 different hats. There was a good start, but it never got pushed forward. You can’t drive it from one person. You have to get the baseline floor level employee to understand.” 

Two years ago, Broekema’s Pine City facility achieved ISO 9000:2015 status; Woodland got certified in 2017.

“It set us up. It drove us to look at our processes, and map them out, and understand how we do business. It drove, again, some ‘aha’ moments of, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ If we look at it, you move this over here, it makes sense, we’ll save some time, and energy, and heartache.”

Starting last year, Eilers secured the budget to start doing additional training out on the floor.

He introduced each employee to the concepts and verbiage of lean, and what they could accomplish with it. They created a baseline and then with the supervision and some of the managers, they did a Kaizen event with 5S, cleaned up one specific area, and set up some of the different 5S boards.

Eilers said his counterparts in the Netherlands have seen the success and recruited their own lean consultants.  

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