By Becky Hurley

La Junta

CEO: Brian Burney

Employees: 90

Brian Burney leads one of Colorado’s signature companies to global exploits. His other mission – building a growth company in La Junta – hits closer to home.

Oliver Manufacturing’s rural Colorado roots run deep. The 80-year family-owned enterprise got its start in the 1930s in St. Louis, where it originally built ore sorting equipment for gold miners. By the mid-1940s, however, founder Oliver Steele had moved the operation to Rocky Ford. There he began producing a new generation of gravity separators designed for agricultural producers and processors.

Gravity separators – for those unfamiliar with ag lingo — are used by grain elevators and food processors to sort, clean, dry, process and package edible seeds, nuts, grains, coffee and bulk powders.

By the 1960s, the company also introduced destoners, used most by growers to remove contaminants from rice and other foods. By that time, Oliver Manufacturing had become a reliable go-to company for the agricultural industry.

“We made a lot of custom machinery for our customers – one-offs. But as we saw broader equipment needs in the industry, I realized Oliver’s existing line could be adapted to capture more market share,” says third generation President and CEO Brian Burney.

As a result, Oliver developed strategic OEM partnerships with Rockwell Automation and Italy-based color-sorter manufacturer ASM. So far the company’s increased technology focus and increased product line is paying off.

Today the company’s gravity separators, destoners and added precision sizers, fluidized dryers and color sorters are in demand worldwide. Ninety-six percent of its revenues are still generated by agribusiness – and as the world’s population increases, that market will only continue to grow.

Burney estimates 65 percent of his business is international – and is on the increase. Rather than spend money on advertising, the company’s sales force consists primarily of resellers (grain and food processers) along with a handful of field representatives in North and South America.

“Brazil is a very strong – we’ve just added a sales rep there. We’re also seeing a lot of demand from Argentina and Asia,” he says.

Newer reclamation and recycling applications are emerging as well.

One Oliver Manufacturing recycling client takes Coke bottles made of polyethylene terephtalate, that have been separated from lids and labels, then grinds the remaining material into granules.

“Once we can separate out the various types of plastic, the result can be woven into carpet fibers or other uses,” Burney says.

Through its website, Oliver Manufacturing allows prospective customers to submit material for free lab testing. Samples as small as two thousandths of an inch can be purified and sorted.

Case in point: Oliver developed specialized equipment for a South African mining company that removes chromite from waste material. The lighter chromite particles could be separated by weight and density – and recycled for use as a stainless steel casting material.

As it builds its reputation as an international equipment manufacturer, Oliver is also making a major economic development impact in its southeast Colorado communities.

Work has just been completed on a $3.5 million, 10,000-square-foot headquarters expansion at its La Junta facility. That’s in addition to its existing 200,000-square-foot La Junta production facility purchased six years ago from an abandoned Bay Valley Foods.

“Rocky Ford is my home. When Bay Valley closed in 2006, a lot of people were laid off. We bought the facility. If we can grow business and keep jobs in La Junta, that’s part of our core mission,” Burney says.

Challenges: Continuous communication. We’ve been growing so rapidly that we’re hiring people in every area. Finding engineers, customer service managers, welders, electricians and fabricators or labor we can train is key.

Opportunities: Adding new products and entering new markets. Agriculture as a whole is growing. It’s a strong market. We want to be full-service specialists – and it absolutely can be done here.

Needs: There are several, but the main one is raising additional capital for business growth. We’re still considered a small market company but hope to reach mid-market status soon. We’re actively reaching out in the capital markets and have some prospects.