Based in Columbus, Wis., Lyco Manufacturing makes some of the best commercial food processing machinery in the world. The equipment has peeled every potato that became a potato chip or french fry, every onion that has been sliced or diced, nearly every vegetable that’s canned or frozen, and had a hand in processing most of the chicken that reaches your table. Oh, and they do about 132 million beans per year.
The company was founded by Dave Zittel in 1979, but it wasn't always an easy road. He started out with a company that made stainless vacuum pumps for the dairy industry, but about six months after he bought the company, the product failed and life was tough for Zittel and his family.
In 1983, he sold the dairy pump line and stumbled upon an opportunity to build a new potato peeler. An engineer by trade, Zittel designed it, manufactured it, and was back in business.
For the past 36 years, he's built more than 350 potato peelers, but that wasn’t the biggest seller. Two years after the peeler, Zittel designed a new blancher cooker for the canning industry, and has gone on to sell more than 750 of them around the world.
Dave Zittel was employee no. 7 when he bought the vacuum pump company. Today, Dave Zittel, now chairman of the board, has 75 employees and his company does sales of about $25 million a year. As he has for more than 30 years, Zittel intends to grow modestly, but never lose the quality of life he has created for his employees.
For Dave Zittel, it’s important to remain an American manufacturer, which is all about making quality products and supporting the community. It's the backbone of the economy, and being responsible for many employees, past and present, as well as their families is not something that Zittel takes lightly.
Lyco has stayed ahead of the curve by continuing to innovate. Zittel personally holds 35 patents, but he says the most interesting product that he has been a part of is the company’s new continuous pressure cooker. The machine reduces the process time on dry beans from 45 minutes to 8 minutes, and rice from 25 minutes to six minutes. It’s exciting, and customers are able to process more product with higher quality and less damage.
According to Jack Danner, director of sales, Lyco focuses on four product lines. It’s a low-volume/high-mix business with a typical ROI of 12 to 14 months. While they only have four lines, each of these machines has around 500 different part numbers. The majority, or about 65% of the business, is cook/chill, machines that are used for cooking and cooling rice, pasta, dry beans and vegetables as well as products in a flexible package. About 25% of the business is liquid/solid separation, and the remainder is preparation equipment for green beans and peeling equipment for carrots, potatoes and onions.
Steve Hughes is Lyco’s CEO. A 23-year vet, Hughes started in sales and was named CEO in 2002. According to Hughes, the company’s success comes not just from embracing innovation — it starts with listening to the customer.
Today, it's all about food safety — providing a hygienic machine design and solving sanitation issues so customers can quickly and easily clean the machines. It enables quicker turnovers in a safe package.
Manager of operations Brad Weber has been with the company for three years, and he keeps a pristine facility. According to Weber, it's important for Lyco to invest in its employees as well as the technology that helps them do the best job possible. They are also trying to stay ahead of the curve by bringing in young workers to train alongside the company’s savvy veterans.
Midwestern Work Ethic
Zittel credits his Midwestern work ethic to his upbringing. Zittel worked on the family farm, where his father was a garden farmer in the days before the country had supermarkets. His father would take his vegetables to local stores and sell them at farmer's markets.
According to Steve Hughes, a strong work ethic is a key part of the company culture. He says it's a lot of hard work, but when everyone pitches in, it's easy to manage.
Columbus is a farming community of about 4,800 people about 30 miles north of Wisconsin's capital. Many of Lyco’s workers are the first generation off the farm. They’ve learned a hard day’s work and many grew up knowing that half the day was over by 9 a.m.
Lyco is very selective about hiring, and it’s a staff of genuinely nice people. The average tenure is more than 15 years, but many are lifers — even the retirees are invited back to attend company events.
Lyco Manufacturing is a family operation, and Zittel’s two sons work for the company: Bill is the president, and Jeff is the vice president of technology and marketing.
Jeff also manages the Lyco Lab, one of the best sales tools at the company’s disposal. The team uses it to run full-scale, real-world applications. For example, it includes Lyco’s new continuous pressure cooker. The 7,500-square-foot lab allows customers to come in and see the pressure cooker in action.
The ability to run full-scale production in the lab is not only unique, but important. It's different when you process 500-pound trial batches compared to 5,000 pounds an hour on a continuous basis.
Lyco brings in customers, shows them how to run the machines with their own product, maintain it, program it and clean it. So when they get back home, they are up and running. In 2018 alone, they hosted 46 different customers from all over the world.
Jeff’s brother, Bill, is Lyco’s president. He’s done every job from mowing the lawn to cleaning the floors, and working in every department.
When it comes to the business. Dave Zittel keeps it simple. He says, "Design a good machine and sell the hell out of it."
For now, and for the foreseeable future, Lyco will remain a strong, hard-working company that treats its workers and community the same way they treat each other at the head of the table: like family.
Made in America is a new show from IEN that features U.S.-based companies that remain committed to manufacturing in the United States.
IEN gained exclusive access to tour some incredible facilities in the nation, and speak with the key figures crucial to the companies' success.
The show is now in its second season. To recommend your company for an upcoming episode, email Tom Lynch at email@example.com.