Homegrown Success in a Worldwide Industry
“It was a spin-off of Aerovent Fan & Equipment,” says Forbush. “We were the controls division.” Mark Doyle was Techmark’s first president. In a 1999 reorganization, Ted Gates became the president and Forbush the vice president. “Ted focuses on mushroom growing and cultivation,” Forbush says, “and I focus on storage of fruits and vegetables. When fruits and vegetables are in storage, they’re alive, and we need to get them from the point of harvest through to point of consumption so they can do some good for somebody. They’re also perishable,” he says. Forbush explains that Techmark works with growers and other parts of the industry to “do what we can to get that crop through to the market without losing it to storage pathogens.”
Consequently, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide controls are their focuses. They work with potato growers all over the world, and Forbush says that Michigan has the largest concentration of potato chip potatoes in the United States. “The potato chipping business is a high demand for storage of chipped potatoes. The controls I mentioned are critical for successful chip storage. I actually did my master’s [at MSU] on the effect of ventilation of chipped potatoes,” he says. “We just took this right out of school and took off with it.”
While most of their customers are producers, they do work with one large snack food company and several smaller ones. Forbush says he recently worked with a potato grower from Egypt that they did a project with in the 1990s. “It’s really important in this industry to integrate a knowledge of the producer when you can,” Forbush says. “We work with very successful businesspeople; they’re good at what they do, or they wouldn’t be in business today. So it’s important for us to hear what they’re doing well, then to incorporate further technology and systems to improve their performance over time.” Their work varies by growing region.
About 25 to 30 percent of Techmark’s storage business is in Michigan and the balance elsewhere, including a fair amount in Canada. “The potato region is really right across the Canadian-U.S. border. North America is really the path of potato production.”
He says that about 60 percent of their business is potato storage and that “the idea is that we have a uniform production through irrigation and a production system that is uniform,” he explains. “It can vary 15 to 20 percent at the most. It’s a highly contracted crop, so the production has to be relatively stable.”
They have a laboratory in their office that measures the sugar concentration of the potato and tells how well they’ll make a potato chip or a french fry. They also have labs in Manitoba, Alberta, Texas, Nebraska and New York state. “They’re independent labs,” he says. “You could view the relationship as similar to a franchisee type of thing. They’re Techmark approved. They follow our procedures and have to meet our standards for test samples.”
Techmark has 14 employees in Lansing, with jobs ranging from accounting to shipping/receiving, light manufacture, engineering and lab employees, to installation. “We’re actually licensed electrical contractors in Michigan,” Forbush says. “All of our installation crews are either master journeyman or apprentice electricians.” He says that Michigan’s economic times and agriculture’s economic times are out of phase. “That’s something that happens … because of the strength of currency. Agriculture and energy have had a pretty strong four or five years, which is out of phase with the state and the nation. When everyone else is doing well, we always wonder where our next dollar is coming from. And vice versa. It has to do with commodity prices, and how they’re priced relative to the value of our currency.”
The brand on Techmark’s tag is Technology from the ground up. “We’re a technology company that delivers technology in agriculture,” Forbush says. “The balance that we all have to work with is that technology is paying dividends for people. We focus on the ROI for any product that we either manufacture or distribute. And if we can’t provide a three-year ROI, we don’t promote the product. We’re always looking for ways to help people make money, which is the essence of our business. If we can’t make our customers more money than they’re spending with us, then we’ll be out of business.”
This goal is in line with the first part of the company’s mission statement: “… to serve high-value agricultural producers, always striving to make the best producers better.”
Todd Forbush, Engineer, Vice President
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