Vita Plus Corporation
Vita Plus Corporation
1508 West Badger Road
Madison, Wisconsin 53704
Telephone: (608) 256-1988
Web site: http://www.vitaplus.com
Sales: $87.6 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 311119 Other Animal Food Manufacturing; 325411 Medicinal and Botanical Manufacturing
Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Vita Plus Corporation is an employee-owned manufacturer of animal and livestock feed, supplements, and base mixes. According to the company, it mainly serves livestock producers in the midwestern United States—including its home state of Wisconsin, as well as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and South Dakota—through more than 200 dealers and "on-farm feed manufacturers."
Along with supplying feed products to farmers, Vita Plus considers itself to be a "technology interpreter" by conferring with a wide variety of agricultural experts in the development of its products. These experts include industry leaders, production managers, as well as private and university-based researchers and scientists.
Finding the Right Mix: 1948–59
Vita Plus got its start in 1948 when Lyle H. Hill and Walter J. Henderson formed the company in the back of a rented barn in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, using a feed mixer they bought for $25. The two men had met years earlier during the Depression years of the 1930s while attending the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture. Early on, Hill and Henderson demonstrated that they were a problem-solving team. While working for Wisconsin Country Magazine, they helped get the publication out of difficult financial straits.
After college, Hill and Henderson entered the feed industry. Before long they developed the idea of providing livestock producers with an alternative to so-called "complete" feeds. As Doug Moe explained in the February 1983 issue of In Business, the two men "felt the future of the livestock feeding business would be away from complete feeds toward a vitamin and mineral 'base mix,' which the farmers or feed dealers would then mix with the proteins (usually soybean meal) and carbohydrates (usually corn). Hill and Henderson felt this to be the future mainly because it was cheaper."
Several things inspired the name that Hill and Henderson chose for their new enterprise. According to Robert C. Bjorklund in the November 16, 1969 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, Hill once explained that Vita Plus was so named based on the fact that it involved vitamins, because the word "vita" meant "life" in Latin, and due to a concept that Hill's boyhood scoutmaster used to talk about—the "plus factor."
In 1951, Vita Plus moved to 1508 West Badger Road in Madison, Wisconsin, a location that would serve the company into the 21st century. The concrete structure measured a mere 2,500 square feet, but that figure doubled the following year when strong growth fueled expansion. Around this time, some 134,000 animals were fed base feed mixes from Vita Plus.
Science Drives Success: 1960–79
In 1960, Vita Plus added a market research department in response to an expanding product line and a growing distribution area. That year, the company erected the fourth addition to its Madison plant. By the decade's end, the plant would receive yet another addition, bringing its value to approximately $500,000. In the November 16, 1969 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, Robert C. Bjorklund dubbed the facility an "engineering system marvel," explaining: "One man, with an ear tuned toward the right sounds of mechanical and electronic devises, can get 80 tons of feed supplement material out of a giant rail car and mixed into prescribed portions. Then, with two other men, it is all bagged and moved to the warehouse, where it is readied for shipment."
Vita Plus introduced a more scientific focus to its operations in 1961, when it established a 60-acre research center in Verona, Wisconsin, to study feeding methods. According to the February 1983 issue of In Business, Vita Plus "worked closely with the University of Wisconsin Meat and Animal Science Department in projects relating to animal diseases, new farm products, artificial insemination, and milk replacers."
In 1965, Vita Plus's sales reached $795,000, supported by a sales force of 13 men who served customers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. The following year, sales exceeded the $1 million mark for the first time. New products played a key role in the company's rapid growth; approximately 42 percent of sales were attributable to products Vita Plus did not offer seven years before.
As of 1966, Lyle Henderson remained president and chairman of Vita Plus, and Walter Henderson continued to serve as vice-president. During that year, the company bought an additional 80 acres of land next to its hog research center in Verona, Wisconsin, in order to expand the center's scope to include dairy and beef cattle. The acquisition increased the facility's total size to 160 acres. As evidence of its growing sophistication, Vita Plus added a number of new departments in 1967. These included a marketing department to handle advertising, market research, and sales, as well as an educational and public relations department.
By 1968, Vita Plus had expanded into Indiana. That year, the company added a "gestation house" to its research center in order to study feeding requirements of sows and gilts. It also opened the research center up to other companies, including those in the pharmaceutical industry, that were interested in performing studies involving large animals under farm conditions. Vita Plus also introduced the Vita-Plus N-Richer Feed Manufacturing Franchise. This enabled the company's base mixes to be combined with ingredients grown locally and then marketed under the Vita Plus brand name.
During the late 1960s, Vita Plus made two acquisitions in Iowa. The first involved the Trend Feeds division of Iowa-based Corn King Company. Then, in 1969, Vita Plus acquired Spencer, Iowa-based Welco Feed Manufacturing Company, giving it increased production capacity for supplements and concentrates, as well as complete feeds for both poultry and livestock.
In 1969, sales reached almost $1.6 million, and Vita Plus produced enough feed each month to support 130,000 hogs from birth to market. The company also began offering retail feed franchises, the first of which was opened in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. New products during the late 1960s included Vita Plus Foot Rot Guard and Vita Plus Foot Rot Treatment, both of which were developed at the company's research center in Verona.
An important development took place in 1971, when Vita Plus moved its corporate offices to nearby Fitchburg, Wisconsin, a mile away from the plant on West Badger Road. In addition to accommodating the company's growing employee base, the new facility included a new computer center used "for standard office procedures, market research, and new product analysis," and to "program data to aid Vita Plus dealers in their individual businesses," according to the July 7, 1971 Wisconsin State Journal. That year, approximately 1.54 million animals were fed Vita Plus's base mixes, up from 134,000 animals 20 years before. It was in 1971 that the company bought the Columbus Mills feed dealerships in Fall River and Columbus Mills, Wisconsin. Columbus Mills was a long-established operation that had been in business for more than 100 years, serving first as a flour and grist mill before venturing into feed manufacturing.
Vita Plus expanded internationally in October of 1972, when it formed Vita Plus of Canada, Inc. The new firm, headed by Canadian native Don Pestell, was based in New Hamburg, Ontario, and operated a warehouse facility in Mitchell, Ontario. Commenting on the move, Lyle Hill told the news media that Vita Plus based its expansion decision partially on the similarities between Wisconsin and Ontario agriculture.
There was much to celebrate at Vita Plus in 1974. In the course of only five years, the company's sales volume had more than doubled. Expansion and a host of new products—including milk replacement formulas for calves and baby pigs—fueled this accomplishment. In 1973 alone, sales had increased 28.5 percent. It also was in 1974 that Vita Plus worked with the University of Wisconsin to convert the barn in Fitchburg, where the company was founded, into what In Business described as "an aquaculture center" devoted to the study of commercial pike and perch production. By 1976, the number of animals receiving Vita Plus's base mixes had surpassed the 2 million mark. Accomplishments such as these allowed the company to prosper throughout the remainder of the decade.
Exponential Growth: 1980 and Beyond
Vita Plus ushered in the 1980s with the acquisition of the Sunnyside Feedmill in Portage, Wisconsin. The company continued to manufacture base mixes for farmers, who combined its products with their own protein sources. Vita Plus offered base mixes for a diverse array of animals, including beef and dairy cows, deer, dogs, horses, and pigs. The company even honored special requests to provide special mixes for certain birds.
The strong growth achieved in previous years continued during the early 1980s. By 1982, sales had more than tripled during the previous five years, and Vita Plus shipped 65 tons of base mix per day, which eventually became 2,400 tons of feed upon mixing. By this time, the company employed 61 people, 25 of whom were based in Madison.
By 1982, Vita Plus was still owned by the family of Lyle Hill, as well as four employees: President Ed Gustafson, Production Vice-President Larry Elhorn, Research Director Art Palmer, and Treasurer Robert Tramburg. In 1986, an employee stock ownership plan was established. Sales had increased approximately 400 percent in only ten years.
In today's fast moving agri-business world, your success depends on every piece fitting together perfectly. At Vita Plus, we are dedicated to maximizing each livestock producer's results. Through innovative feed products and comprehensive services, Vita Plus gives you the edge. No matter what challenges you face, depend on Vita Plus for the solutions.
Computerized formulas, which Vita Plus provided to individual farmers, continued to play a central role in the company's success during the 1980s. These formulas enabled farmers to get the most meat or milk from their animals. President Ed Gustafson commented on the company's success with this approach in the January 12, 1986 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, explaining: "What we're really doing is providing a more economical way of producing feeds to produce livestock. That's why we're experiencing growth whereas agriculture in general is in such difficult times."
In October 1987, Treasurer Robert Tramburg was named president of Vita Plus, which then recorded annual sales of $13 million. Tramburg had joined the company in 1972, when he served as general manager of Vita Plus's grain operation in Fall River, as well as its Columbus feed plant. Ed Gustafson remained with the company as a consultant, and founder Lyle Hill, at age 77, remained chairman of the board.
As Vita Plus entered the 1990s, the company continued its pattern of remarkable performance. Sales increased from $4 million in the early 1970s to $45 million in 1992. In addition to its headquarters in Madison, operations had grown to include five centers devoted to distribution and production. Vita Plus's staff, which included nutritionists and scientists, continued to assist farmers with specialized software applications that helped them to plan more effectively. Employees numbered 130 in 1993, including 80 in Madison.
During the 1990s, Vita Plus continued to provide its customers with individualized attention and personalized service. Indeed, some 70 percent of the feed mixes sold by Vita Plus went to individual farms or farm groups. As Dairy Feed Specialist Sharon Brantmeier remarked in the July 1, 1993 Wisconsin State Journal: "We've been doing all along what Fortune 500 companies are trying so hard to do now. We've got a team approach to everything we do. Our office technical staff probably spends 25 to 30 percent of its time out in the field [with customers]."
By 1997–98, Vita Plus's sales had reached the $70 million mark, reflective of a growth rate of 113 percent in only five years. Such growth had led to cramped quarters for staff as early as the 1990s. By May 2003, relief came in the form of a 27,000-square-foot facility located at 2514 Fish Hatchery Road in Madison, which the company purchased. Formerly owned by Newell Rubbermaid, the building contained 21,000 square feet of office space, as well as a warehouse area spanning 6,000 square feet.
During the early 2000s, Vita Plus had its sights set on the $100 million mark. As an employee-owned operation, the company's staff members were ever cognizant of their importance in reaching that goal. This awareness was evident in comments President and CEO Robert Tramburg made to Julie Orchard in the August 1999 issue of Feed & Grain, in which he stated: "We're at higher risk than a big conglomerate. The impact that every single employee has on this company is much greater than the big companies. Whether it's somebody in production or trucking, customer service, technical sales or office support, the difference is significant in how they treat our customers."
- Founders Hill and Henderson start Vita Plus in a rented barn in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
- Vita Plus moves to facilities in Madison.
- A 60-acre research center is established in Verona, to study feeding methods.
- Sales surpass $1 million, driven by new product offerings.
- International expansion occurs with the establishment of Vita Plus of Canada, Inc.
- An employee stock ownership plan is established; sales increase approximately 400 percent over 1976 levels.
- Sales reach $45 million.
- Vita Plus purchases a 27,000-square-foot facility located at 2514 Fish Hatchery Road in Madison.
ConAgra, Inc.; ContiGroup Companies, Inc.
About Us, Madison, Wisconsin: Vita Plus Corp., 2003.
Bjorklund, Robert C., "Plus in 'Vita Plus' Adds Up to $2 Million," Wisconsin State Journal, November 16, 1969.
"Expansion Move," Capital Times, July 7, 1971.
Flaherty, Mike, "Feed Company 'Bursting At Seams,' " Wisconsin State Journal, July 1, 1993.
Moe, Doug, "The Spirit of Growth at Vita Plus—Feeding Barnyard Animals Is Big Business," In Business, February 1983.
Orchard, Julie, "True Teamwork," Feed & Grain, August 1999.
Parkins, Al, "Vita Plus Going Strong," Capital Times, April 5, 1982.
Riddle, Jennifer, "Tramburg to Head Vita Plus," Wisconsin State Journal, October 23, 1987.
——, "Vita Plus Helps Feed Livestock Economically," Wisconsin State Journal, January 12, 1986.
"Vita Plus Buys Welco Feed Co. Effective July 1," Wisconsin State Journal, June 8, 1969.
"Vita Plus Corp. Buys All Assets of Columbus Mills," Wisconsin State Journal, February 11, 1971.
"Vita Plus Develops Marketing in Canada," Wisconsin State Journal, January 28, 1973.
"Vita Plus Expands," Capital Times, November 8, 1967.
"Vita-Plus Offers Research Facilities," Wisconsin State Journal, July 28, 1968.
"Vita Plus Opens Canadian Branch," Wisconsin State Journal, November 26, 1972.
"Vita Plus Purchases Feedmill," Wisconsin State Journal, May 11, 1980.
"Vita Plus Sales Reach Million-Dollar Figure," Capital Times, January 20, 1967.
—Paul R. Greenland