Made in the Tri-States: For local tank manufacturer, it all started with taking a risk

Lukas Furlong (front) and Stephen Spillane weld a base barrel together at Advance Pump & Equipment. The Peosta, Iowa, manufacturer designs and builds customized tankers for trucks. The business, which initially operated out of a facility near Galena, Ill., employs 34 people. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

PEOSTA, Iowa — About 15 years ago, Wayne and Jill Vanden Berge decided it was time to roll the dice.

The couple had recently welcomed their first child and Wayne was employed at Jay’s Inc., a tri-state manufacturer that since has closed.

With more than a decade of industry experience under his belt, Wayne believed he had the wherewithal to launch a venture. But that doesn’t mean going it alone was an easy decision.

“I was scared as hell,” Wayne recalled. “When you have a newborn at home, it can be hard to take that kind of risk. We had a young family and no other income coming in at the time. But you realize you have no choice other than to succeed. You gotta make it work.”

Advance Pump & Equipment opened in 2003 and initially operated out of a facility located just north of Galena, Ill. At the time, Wayne and Jill were the only two people who worked at the business.

Now located in at 15418 Old Highway Road in Peosta, Advance Pump & Equipment employs 34 people.

The business specializes in manufacturing and assembling truck- or trailer-mounted vacuum tankers. These products primarily are sold to septic pumpers and grease trap companies, according to Wayne Vanden Berge.

And while many of their customers are locally based, Vanden Berge noted that Advance Pump & Equipment sells to customers throughout the nation.

“We’ve got equipment from Alaska to Key West (Fla.),” Wayne said. “We have products all over the country.”

EYE ON EXPANSION

In the company’s early years, growth did not come easily.

Wayne and Jill Vanden Berge employed only three other workers in 2005, when they decided to uproot the operation from northwest Illinois and move it to Peosta.

A steady increase in business occurred in the next couple of years. However, the onset of the 2008 recession threatened to bring that growth to a screeching halt.

In 2007 and 2008, Advance Pump & Equipment began noticing a significant drop in sales. They feared that they would not longer have enough work to keep their staff on the payroll.

“There was a time when we only had a half a dozen orders on the books and we realized we are at risk of losing our talent,” Wayne said. “We decided we needed to diversify.”

Prior to the recession, the company had carved out a niche as an assembler of tanker trucks. Its specialty, Wayne recalled, was to order tanks from a supplier then conduct the assembly — mounting the tank to a truck or trailer — at the Peosta business.

In the late 2000s, Advance Pump & Equipment got into the manufacturing business by creating these tanks in-house. The learning curve was steep, but the risk ultimately paid off.

“During the recession, we kept our people busy learning a skill,” Wayne said. “After it was over, our orders started to pick up.”

‘DESIGN MODEL’

Advance Pump & Equipment prides itself on engaging with the customer early in the process.

After working with the company’s sales team, customers then get the chance to interact with the engineering department. Company engineers create a three-dimensional “design model” of the tank that shows customers exactly what the finished product will look like.

Vanden Berge said this step has separated Advance Pump from many of its competitors.

“What sets us away is our ability to connect our engineering staff directly with the customer and invest that time to creating a piece of equipment that is perfect for the customer’s needs,” he said.

Once the model has been approved, Advance Pump & Equipment works with other local businesses to create many of the essential parts for the project.

Wayne Vanden Berge said Tri-State Industries, of Dubuque, conducts the fabrication for a variety of tank components. These parts make their way to Advance Pump & Equipment, where staff carries out the necessary welding procedures.

The items ultimately make it to the assembly facility, where workers take the various pieces and form them into what Vanden Berge calls a “completed product.” The final product could include everything from a pumping system to hydraulics and lighting, he noted.

Jill said the company also prides itself on working with customers after the initial sale is complete.

“One of the ways we are different as a company is that we also put the effort into repairs,” Jill said. “We decided we would not only manufacture the trucks, but we were going to do any repairs or provide any service or parts that the customer needed to make sure they were never down.”

FAMILY AFFAIR

The close relationship between Wayne and Jill Vanden Berge lies at the core of the success at Advance Pump & Equipment.

Wayne noted that the relationship creates an interesting dynamic at the business.

“When we are making business decisions, we really feel that we’re both making family decisions,” he said. “That is what happens when your business is family-owned.”

Jill noted that this sentiment extends beyond bloodlines.

She said a close-knit relationship has developed between the business and its customers, many of whom have worked with Advance Pump & Equipment for a decade or more.

“We have had our customers grow with us,” Jill said. “Many of our customers started with one or two trucks and now they are at eight or 12 trucks. Instead of buying one (tanker) at a time now, they may buy two or three. We have all grown old together and it has been great for us.”