Zeeland Farm Services earns Association for Corporate Growth award


Cliff Meeuwsen. Photo via fb.com

Zeeland Farm Services has picked up the 2013 Outstanding Growth Award from the Association for Corporate Growth/West Michigan Chapter in Grand Rapids.

Cliff Meeuwsen, president of the family-owned business that is now a major player in the worldwide soybean market, received the award on behalf of ZFS at the ACG Outstanding Growth event recently in Grand Rapids.

The Outstanding Growth Award honors a West Michigan company that demonstrates sustained growth in sales, profitability, employment and community involvement. Last year the winner was ADAC Automotive, and prior winners include Perrigo, Herman Miller and Wolverine Worldwide.

Meeuwsen brothers Cliff, Robb and Arlen, and their sons, run ZFS, which in 2009 was reported to have annual sales of about $300 million.

Patriarch Robert Meeuwsen started a small one-man trucking business from his rural home near Zeeland during World War II. What became Meeuwsen Produce & Grain mainly served the food and agricultural industries in the region, but Cliff Meeuwsen recalled at the ACG event that one of his father’s first hauling jobs was trucking German prisoners of war from their POW camp in Allegan to work at the H.J. Heinz pickle processing plant in Holland.

The company began adding trucks, including a refrigerated truck for hauling perishable fruits and vegetables to processors in Michigan and Ohio, in the early 1960s. During that time, Robert converted an old oil tank into a grain storage bin for the corn and wheat they were buying from local farms and reselling to distant companies. He put it up on concrete blocks so that trucks coming to haul the grain away could simply pull underneath and fill up from an opening at the bottom. Conventional grain elevators built on the ground require power equipment to both put the grain in and take it out, so Robert’s innovation eliminated half of that cost.

“Gravity is fast and low cost,” quipped Cliff Meeuwsen.

The company built a new grain elevator in 1974, next to I-196, and Cliff, the oldest son, was given responsibility for managing it. The business was reorganized as Zeeland Farm Services in 1977, and in 1992 Robert sold the business to his three sons and retired — sort of. At 84, he still comes to the ZFS complex every day, to stay involved and keep busy.

In 1996, ZFS formed a new company, Zeeland Farm Soya, and built Michigan’s first soybean processing plant at its facility. Soya began exporting its specialty soybean meal to processors overseas in 1999, with its biggest customer today being Kikkoman, the Japanese soy sauce manufacturer.

Products from soy processing include protein in the form of meal, plus fiber (hulls), oil and animal feed. The ZFS plant processes 100 million pounds of soybeans a year, but Meeuwsen noted that its full capacity is 160 million pounds, “and we plan to do it.”

He said one thing his company learned from working with their Japanese customers was “how to bow. There’s three or four ways to do it.”

The Great Recession didn’t make much of a dent in ZFS, which “grew jobs right through” it, according to Meeuwsen.

He succinctly explained why agriculture was so strong through the recession: “People don’t have to buy a new car, but you have to eat.”

ZFS annual revenue grew 350 percent from 2002 through 2012, he said.

Today, ZFS has more than 330 employees, including 12 family members. It has three satellite offices in Wisconsin, Florida and Georgia, and four divisions. The new office building at its Zeeland headquarters has a LEED Silver certification.

Most recently, ZFS has expanded into ethanol production. It acquired a plant in Nebraska in 2009, which then took two years to renovate. The plant now processes 17 million bushels of corn per year.

In 2011, a second ethanol facility was acquired in Pennsylvania that has the capacity to process 50 million bushels of corn per year.

Cliff Meeuwsen stresses the importance of ethanol from corn as a replacement for more costly petroleum in the fuel industry. To expand the presence of ethanol on the market locally, ZFS is planning to open fuel stations selling an ethanol blend that includes its own production.

“We’re going to have these fuel stations tell that story,” he said.

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