Ohio farmer Merle Henry didn't know when he purchased a CLAAS combine that he would come to Omaha to accept the keys to the company's 450,000th machine.
“I'm very excited,” said Henry, 67, who has produced corn and beans for 46 years.
“I'm thinking, 'How are we going to keep this thing clean?' ” said his wife, Sylvia, smiling.
The German agricultural equipment manufacturer celebrated the milestone Monday with a ceremony at its Sarpy County location, where the 450,000th combine was put together by a crew of about 90 local workers. Attendees included the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce and La Vista city officials
It was special that the piece of equipment was completed at the facility near 132nd Street and Giles Road and sold to an American customer, said Holger Krumel, executive vice president finance and chief financial officer of CLAAS North America Holdings.
Calling the $450,000 machine a “German and American masterpiece,” he said, “This is really something that makes us proud today.”
The milestone comes almost 10 years to to the day after the company's 400,000th combine was sold. To make the event even more significant, this year the $4.4 billion global CLAAS company is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Today, it employs more than 9,000 people.
Marketing coordinator John Schofield said the company does not release financial figures from individual locations but called its North American presence “key” for the worldwide company and said company growth can be realized through the Sarpy County location's employee numbers.
When the company came to the area, it had just 40 employees. Today, it has about 150. They include engineers, diesel mechanics and workers with technical skills who have two-year degrees. The Sarpy location became the company's North American headquarters in 2003, relocating from Columbus, Ind.
“We've had several really strong years over these last few years, and that's kind of a reflection on the industry,” Schofield said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted that farm income, which reached a near-record level last year, will be about the same this year and drop 25 percent in 2014. Even with the decline, farm income would be higher than it was in 2010.
Strong farm incomes and commodity prices have called for additional investment in equipment.
“Here, there's so much opportunity,” Schofield said.
At the 200,000-square-foot Sarpy facility, CLAAS workers get threshing mechanisms and cabs pre-assembled from the main plant in Germany. Then, they put the final details on the product so it's ready for a customer.
It takes four or five days for a combine to go from the beginning to the end of the assembly line, Schofield said.
Just 10 years ago, only about 5 percent of the machines were made from American materials. Today, about 40 percent of the materials are American-made. That percentage is growing, said John Costello, external marketing coordinator. The grain tank on the Lexion 740 presented to Henry on Monday, for example, was made by TMCO Inc. of Lincoln.
And North American customers are taking notice of the equipment CLAAS produces, Schofield said. It's one of the largest agricultural equipment manufacturers in the world, trailing only John Deere, Case New Holland and ACGO.
“Farmers are not always early adapters, but they're smart about their investments,” he said. “It takes one or two people in the area to take that first step with our combines. People will realize they have an alternative here. That's an important part of it.”
Rod Moseman, vice president of economic development at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, called the CLAAS operation here a “classic success story.” Moseman worked closely with the company when it started to consider the Omaha area for its new facility.
“In terms of the process, the team all coming together, working closely with the company,” he said, “we're very proud of them.”
At Monday's presentation, Merle Henry got to test the signature yellow and black machine by driving it a few feet inside the facility. He also autographed the inside of the side panel.
Henry said he decided to buy the company's Lexion 740 after he saw a side-by-side comparison to his John Deere combine. While he enjoyed being part of the company 450,000th combine festivities, Henry said he was ready for his 15 minutes of fame to be up so he could get home and back to work.
“I've been farming all my life,” he said.