Manufacturing America’s Windmills

on January 14, 2007

In 1998, Kees Verheul drove to the Aermotor Windmill Co. in San Angelo, Texas (pop. 88,439), in search of parts to repair an aging windmill on his Spur (pop. 1,088) ranch. Maybe it was the sight of a once proud 110-year-old company that was nearing its demise, or possibly a desire to come out of retirement. But something happened to Verheul as he visited the windmill manufacturer whose towering, whirling machines are as synonymous with the Texas landscape as longhorn steers and oil wells.

“I toured the plant, and a week later I owned it,” says Verheul, 70.

Although he knew nothing about manufacturing windmills, Verheul had machining, engineering and management skills, plus money. He had rescued his own family’s oil field machinery business decades earlier and had retired to his ranch a millionaire at age 47. He was equally determined to bring this once iconic company back to its former glory.

“America needs good windmills,” he says. “They’re the only source of water for remote ranches that can’t get electricity. When I saw what poor quality imported mills were, it was a real incentive to get in here and give it some of that good old U.S. push.”

James Dockal, Aermotor’s executive vice president and sales manager, has seen that push first-hand. “Kees could see that by investing in the right equipment and improving production methods, he could turn this company around,” says Dockal, 63, a 21-year veteran of the company.

When it debuted in 1888, the Aermotor windmill revolutionized the industry. It offered a unique steel sail (or blade) that proved far more efficient than larger wooden sails of the day. Only 24 Aermotor windmills were sold that first year, but by 1892, the company was selling 20,000 a year, helping provide water-pumping power in rural areas across the country.

In the 1930s, however, windmills were being replaced by electric pumps. Over the decades Aermotor barely hung on, providing windmills for areas still without electricity. Today, the same Aermotor windmill that helped settle the Western frontier has remained mostly unchanged.

“Except for improvements in metallurgy, the Aermotor windmill has hardly changed since 1888,” says CEO and President Bob Bracher, 53. “Our windmills come with a seven-year warranty and will last 100 years with little maintenance other than an annual oil change.”

A complete 8-foot windmill, the most popular size, sells for about $2,200, plus the cost of a tower and installation. Hands-on craftsmanship goes into making each windmill. Inside the 40,000-square-foot plant, machinists cut thick, solid steel disks that become gears that transfer wind power to a water pump. Sheet metal craftsmen carefully cut and shape the windmill’s vane, blades and helmet, which shields the windmill’s inner workings from dirt and water. It leaves the plant as a kit to be assembled by the buyer.

Despite cheaper imports from other countries, Bracher says business is booming. “The reason is superior quality,” he says. “We’ve sold more windmills in the last two years than in the last 40.” To meet demand, the company has grown from 10 employees in 1998 to 25 employees today and supplies about 300 dealers around the country.

“We’ve sold thousands of windmills since I came here,” says Verheul, a hands-on owner who does everything from loading trucks and training new employees to personally delivering windmills.
Bracher believes that sales are up due to farmers’ and ranchers’ concerns over the rising costs of electricity and power grid failures. “The wind is free, so a windmill saves the cost of electricity and pays for itself in the first year,” Bracher says. “Plus, it holds its value and adds value to the property.”

In addition to sales in North America and Europe, a new market is emerging in Africa, where many remote villages have no source of fresh water. Verheul takes pride in knowing that around the world, people are seeing the classic windmills and the words “Aermotor, San Angelo, Texas, USA.”
“You’ve got to hand it to us Americans,” Verheul concludes. “The U.S. has better quality.”

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Found in: Traditions