Company grows where it was founded
By Eric Mortenson
DONALD, Ore. — GK Machine is a buzz of whirring forklifts, crackling welding torches and humming machinery. The floor space is crowded with custom-made equipment in various stages of assembly; at any given time, 700 job orders are being carried out on the shop floor. Engineers, welders and designers weave past one another in the hallways and work stations.
Company President Gary Grossen surveys the scene and says, “We’re crowded.”
That’s a lengthy statement for him, but the growth of one of Oregon’s most unusual and successful manufacturing companies speaks for itself. GK Machine has added more than two dozen employees in the past year and now has 140 workers. Grossen says he’s continually looking for more skilled welders and lathe operators. Annual sales have jumped past $22 million.
The result of that growth is rising adjacent to the existing 65,000-square-foot shop: the steel and concrete skeleton of a 115,000-square-foot addition, a $10 million to $12 million investment that will expand GK Machine’s production capability and its national and international sales.
It’s a big move for a company that began in the late 1970s with Grossen and his brother, Keith, working in the family barn to repair and fabricate equipment for other Willamette Valley farmers.
Gary Grossen says his expectations initially were limited to having a small, local machine shop.
Today, the company competes with international farm equipment manufacturers. It builds high-tech sprayers, land levelers, sod cutters and tomato harvesters. It makes greenhouse frames and has developed machines to pot nursery plants and dig up trees. It makes portable toilets and the trailers to haul them on.
When Grossen figured out that strawberry pickers lost an inordinate amount of picking time hauling flats back and forth, he developed an automated wagon that follows them down the rows. The company is working on a solar-powered version. GK Machine is testing a prototype hazelnut harvester. “We hope to do twice the speed they do now,” he says.
The company’s “Switchblade Scraper,” a GPS-guided, fold-up land leveler that deploys automatically, was named one of 10 best new products at the World Ag Expo this year, and has won other awards as well. GK Machine has sold 20 to 30 of them this year, Grossen says. They’re especially popular for use on rice fields where leveling assures even irrigation.
“Two went out Friday to California,” he says.
Beyond farm equipment, the company has made locomotives for an Alaska tourist rail company and for companies in Brazil and Peru, and shipped a mobile composter to Malaysia. A company in Great Britain wants to buy GK’s job production software, which assigns time values to each step of the manufacturing process and tracks it throughout. The company sells generators and heaters to the oil fields and elsewhere.
GK Machine builds many of its own components, and invests heavily in cutting-edge fabrication machinery. Using older equipment, it previously took half a day to machine a flange that holds a heat sensor in place. With new equipment, “We can do it in 29 minutes,” Grossen says.
“If it’s metal and it needs bent or welded, they can build it,” says Nick Harville, business retention and expansion manager for the Strategic Economic Development Corp., or SEDCOR. The quasi-public group does economic development work on contract with Oregon’s Marion and Polk counties and the city of Salem. It worked with the small towns of Donald, Aurora and Hubbard to form an enterprise zone, which provides incentives to companies that locate or stay there.
To aid its expansion, GK Machine was granted a five-year property tax exemption on the value of its new construction. In return, the company agreed to provide jobs that pay 150 percent of the Marion County median wage. By hiring additional engineers, fabricators and welders, the company is easily meeting that goal, Harville says.
“That’s the ideal kind of economic development,” says Don Russo, economic development director for Marion County. “Those are smart jobs, they’re higher wage jobs and they bring benefits in the way people are employed and the way those employees spend their money.”
Grossen’s decision to stay and expand in Donald, where it’s the biggest employer in a town of about 1,000 people, is a “great contribution” to the economy of northern Marion County, Russo says.
In September, the Marion County Board of Commissioners awarded GK Machine a $50,000 grant to help with the plant expansion. Russo said the company scored extremely high in its application, and received the highest amount of four grants that were announced.
For his part, Grossen likes his company’s path. Agricultural orders have picked up as the economy recovers. The company is kicking out a new sod cutter, used by turf operations to cut and stack sections of new lawn, every 18 days. He’s also selling more sprayers — including one with a 100-foot boom capable of spraying a swath 20- to 40-feet wider than competitors’ equipment.
He intends to keep GK Machine on the industry’s leading edge.
“I’ve got a little bit of drive,” he says.