Small businesses can do great things, as evidenced by this year’s honoree for Ag Innovator of the Year at the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce annual Excellence in Agriculture Awards on March 21.
Fremont Automation, which is currently headquartered in Blair, has been chosen for the prestigious Ag Innovator of the Year award.
The honor is a result of the company’s invention of a unique automated chicken packaging machine which is being used inside Lincoln Premium Poultry’s Fremont facility as well as other poultry producers.
The company was started in Fremont 30 years ago by founder Dave Benes.
Today, said his daughter — CEO Amanda Benes — the company employs 16 staff members and has been based in Blair for the past 10 years.
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Amanda Benes said the firm has constructed nine automated chicken packaging machines for Lincoln Premium Poultry, and with the help of officials at LPP’s parent company — Costco — they have also supplied the machines for other poultry companies like Butterball and Pilgrim’s Pride.
“What’s funny is that food processing gets lumped into (agriculture). We build customized food processing equipment for the ag industry. We’re been around for 30 years building custom equipment. A few years ago, when Lincoln Premium Poultry came to town for site review, we did a walk-through with them and noticed they sold six-packs of chicken and we decided we could make a machine for that,” Benes said.
“They gave us a shot, a small company out of Blair, Nebraska, which most big companies don’t do. Since then, we have nine machines in their facilities, and they have helped get us into other facilities.”
Benes said her company’s invention was a labor-intensive process that took three months to develop, fine tune and get into the LPP facility. The machinery takes sections of chicken and wraps them in a plastic container that has six separate pouches. The products are sold in Costco stores across the nation.
“It took a lot of labor, and was not always the funnest thing to do,” Benes said of the packaging work done by humans before her company invented the machine. “(Costco) has been trying to get it automated for 10 years. It is for chicken breasts, chicken thighs and drumsticks … basically all the cut up chicken products.”
Benes said the company has an extensive history of work outside the agriculture section, including automotive businesses and other tool companies.
“Our reputation has always been, if nobody can figure out, we can. Our founder — my father, Dave Benes — has a background in tool and die engineering. He has a very unique brain,” Benes said of her dad. “Every part of the machine, we build in house. There are not a lot of companies doing that.”
Working in collaboration with Costco as well as Lincoln Premium Poultry has been a joy, Benes added, explaining how both companies fostered an environment of innovation, success and partnerships.
“For the first (machine), it took three months. It was a big opportunity for a small company. There are only 16 of us. We’ve seen a lot of large companies not work with smaller companies,” she added. “A lot of large companies are not doing innovation anymore. (Costco) gave us an opportunity, and we ran with it. They’ve been a great partner for us. They have all been amazing partners. Costco is known as a company with a tenet, ‘treat your customers well.’ If they are successful, we are successful. Costco believes in if you treat people well, they will treat you well.”
Amanda credited her father — Dave — for his ingenuity, intelligence, unique, creative mind and willingness to tackle projects other engineers shied away from. Many of the projects were for automotive industries and other food processing businesses.
“We actually started in Fremont … we’ve been a large part of the Fremont community. (Our family) moved there 38 years ago. I went to (Archbishop) Bergan Catholic. I have two brothers in the business. We are a true family business,” she said. “We have just a brilliant team. Everyone is great at what they do. (The award) is a great way to see (her father’s) hard work be paid off. It makes me very proud we get to work with him and be a part of it.”
“I’ve watched him run the business for 30 years, and running a family business can oftentimes be a thankless task. (Dave Benes) has a very unique brain. We have a very hard-working, talented team that are proud of what they do. Everyone on our team has played a role in building this equipment,” Amanda added.
The Excellent in Agriculture awards luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday, March 21, at Fremont Golf Club. It is hosted by the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, which is selling tickets for the event.