General Manager Nick Ohman sees room for the iconic windmill manufacturer to grow and evolve in its third century in business.
Aermotor Windmill Company got its start in Chicago in the 1880s when Thomas Perry, conducting scientific research into metal windmills, concluded that such structures were much more efficient than their wooden-bladed counterparts.
“We invented the windmill, essentially,” says Ohman. “I mean, if we didn’t invent it, we mastered it. Most of the windmills out there were copycats of Aermotor, and we had the best quality, we had the best windmill out there, so we managed to hang on.”
The company sold 45 windmills in 1888, its first year in business. “In 1892, only four years later, they sold 20,000 windmills,” says Ohman.
Much of the mastery of the market revolves around the 702, first introduced in 1933. “It’s pretty much: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Ohman, noting changes with the bearings and metallurgy in the 1980s as it transitioned to the 802 model.
“There are so many windmills out there, and some are 70, 80, 90 years old and still working,” he adds. “As long as whoever is maintaining the windmill keeps oil in it, there’s really not a whole lot that can fail on it.”
Likewise, the application has remained the same over Aermotor’s 130-plus-year history. “Our sole purpose is to pump water,” says Ohman. “Solar is good for about six hours, but if you have a three- to five-mile-per-hour wind, your windmill’s going to be pumping water. You’re making water all day long and all night.”
Over the decades, ownership and manufacturing locales changed multiple times. Aermotor relocated to San Angelo, Texas, in 1986, and a group of local ranchers acquired the business in 2006. Henry Investment Group bought the majority of the company in 2015, and Ohman joined as GM in 2019.
About 80 percent of the market is agricultural, but Ohman says that roughly 20 percent of sales go to landowners for decorative purposes. “They just want a spinner out there,” he says. “It’s $8,000 worth of yard art, but there’s people who grew up around windmills and they just like to weather them spin and listen to them squeak.”
The company has vertically integrated most of the manufacturing in its 40,000-square-foot facility in San Angelo. Its machine shop has four CNC machines and two lathes as well as a pair of older vertical mills.
“Pretty much everything is made here in-house,” says Ohman. “We have no parts that are made overseas — everything is 100 percent American-made. Our castings come out of Oklahoma, but other than that, we pretty much make everything here.”
While some machines are modern, others have withstood the test of time. “When you walk back beyond the CNC machines, it’s like stepping back in time. A lot of our machines are from the ’40s and ’50s. A lot of our machines have stamps on them from the War Department because they were used to make battleships during World War II. A lot of our lathes, drill presses, boring machines, they’re pre-World War II, and they still get used every day today.”
The company also offers contract machining services. “When the oilfield’s good, that business does pick up quite a bit,” says Ohman.
Aermotor has shipped about 300 windmills a year in recent years, while providing parts for thousands of windmills in operation across the country. “It’s pretty consistent,” says Ohman. “Our business did pick up quite a bit during COVID.”
In 2021, the company acquired its biggest competitor, American West Windmill & Solar Company, which manufactures windmills in Argentina that are about 30 percent less expensive than an Aermotor. Ohman likens it to the choice between “the Cadillac or the Chevrolet.”
Between both brands, Ohman estimates the company has about 90 percent market share of the water-pumping windmill market in the U.S. “I think it’s been about 20 years since another windmill company existed,” he says.
“We’re excited about the future of Aermotor and extremely proud of its history.”
Challenges: “Without a doubt, supply chain is always a big hurdle,” says Ohman, citing hiccups sourcing galvanized paint, copper rivets, and other raw materials. “Something just as simple as that — not having a can of galvanized paint — can shut your whole program down.” In response, the company has gotten more rigorous with the help of a full-time purchasing manager.
The legacy equipment presents other challenges: “It’s certainly a challenge when one of those machines breaks down. You just can’t go over to the parts store and buy a part for a machine that’s 90 years old, so we have to get really creative and either have to figure out how to repair the part or machine the part.”
Opportunities: “We do see a resurgence on the horizon for windmills,” says Ohman. “Our corporate office has got some pretty deep pockets and they definitely see the potential.”
While Aermotor’s windmills pump water, the company would like to devise a version that generates electricity. “We’re always exploring the electric option,” says Ohman. “In recent years, we have tried to crack the code on how to produce electricity with an Aermotor, but thus far, we haven’t been able to.”
Needs: Awareness. “We’ve never done much in the way of marketing, we’ve just been kind of a sleeper company, but since I’ve taken over, we’ve really started going to trade shows and trying to get our name out there.”