WILLMAR, Minn. — Andrew Gomer’s well-used passport, which documented his frequent visits to places like Malaysia and Thailand, has been collecting dust since the COVID-19 pandemic halted international travel last year.
The same is true for his co-workers at Nova-Tech Engineering, the Willmar, Minn.-based company that develops, manufactures, leases and services poultry equipment around the world.
Known for their robotic equipment that administers vaccinations and hatchling treatments to day-old poultry for commercial markets, Nova-Tech does business throughout the United States and in 58 other countries.
Before COVID, Gomer, who is the business development manager at Nova-Tech, typically spent about one-third of his work time developing new business markets and training existing team members throughout Asia.
Aaron Madsen, the global business director at Nova-Tech, spent most of his time in China, and John Schlagel, the customer service manager, covered countries like Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
But during the pandemic they’ve been stuck working from the Nova-Tech offices in Willmar, or from their home offices.
Even though the pandemic put a stop to Nova-Tech’s international travel visits, the tech-heavy company was able to use its existing technology to create a smooth transition to a virtual format to maintain constant communication with worldwide customers.
While some companies decreased their workforce during the pandemic, Nova-Tech actually grew in 2020 and continues to hire more people — locally and abroad. On top of that, the company is looking to expand its reach from poultry to shrimp.
Technology is a key component to that growth.
“We were really a connected company before COVID showed up,” said Schlagel.
“So for us to transition to being totally a remote company was not a big stretch for us,” he said. “It’s just something that we were used to and we brought a lot of that technology to our customers.”
To service their equipment and diagnose breakdowns, Nova-Tech has always had the capability of having someone in Willmar log into equipment at hatcheries on the other side of the world to resolve problems.
“I’ve even done it from airplanes where I’ve logged in to a hatchery and did trouble-shooting somewhere over Russia years ago,” said Gomer. “So as long as we have a stable data connection you can log in and view our machines and their performance.”
During the pandemic, they’ve increased their use of technology by creating a lab in the service tech department to create a studio with lights, multiple cameras, microphones and other “techy” equipment. The two-way visual connection is used to teach customers how to install equipment, said Schlagel.
“We have multiple camera shots and they can see what we’re doing and they can emulate exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s been a learning experience for us and our customers, and every time we do another installation we learn a little bit more,” he said.
The company is exploring using “augmented reality” and “mixed reality” technology, which creates an interactive experience that makes it seem like you’re on location with the equipment right in front of you.
Because it’s unknown when they’ll be able to physically return to other countries, Madsen said it’s hoped Nova-Tech can “leverage the more advanced technology that almost puts us there at our customer’s site.”
Some customers are in remote, mountainous areas where reliable internet service isn’t available, which requires delivering training in different ways, such as paper manuals and training videos that’s on the equipment.
“We try to cover every possible angle and channel for communicating with people. We all learn differently. It’s very important,” said Gomer. “When you find a road block, you don’t stop, you just keep finding a path until you find something that works.”
The company is also using the old-fashion boots on the ground method during the pandemic using their international employees. During the last several years Nova Tech has hired 21 international employees, including 16 in China.
Having international employees on one side of the globe is part of the growth at Nova-Tech, where there’s a growing number of employees being hired for every sector at the Willmar facility including people who engineer, build and repair the equipment and the account representatives who are in constant contact with customers in the U.S. and any one of the 58 countries were Nova-Tech has clients.
As the employee development specialist at Nova-Tech, Shelby Groen is constantly developing programs to enhance skills of existing employees and is looking to fill open positions — locally and globally — as the company expands its product lines and market areas.
In March of 2020 the company had 235 employees. They’re now at 260.
They need more.
“We’re growing like crazy. We’re hiring,” she said.
The primary challenge is finding people with the right skills.
Nova-Tech has teamed up with Ridgewater College in Willmar and the University of Minnesota to create a new poultry program that includes a multi-level education for a variety of poultry careers and has donated manufacturing equipment for Ridgewater programs. They also offer internships and support a high school program that exposes students to manufacturing.
During the pandemic, they’ve used virtual job fairs and interviews over ZOOM.
With its partnerships with industries, such as poultry genetics and poultry pharmaceutical companies, Nova-Tech’s primary focus has been on improving the health of poultry.
“A lot of our focus is what’s best for the bird,” said Madsen.
But with a larger goal of enhancing agriculture and “feeding the world,” Nova-Tech is now on the verge of expanding into aquaculture.
They’ve been working with local domestic shrimp producers, including Tru Shrimp, and are in the process of developing equipment for processing shrimp for consumption. That could include tasks such as deveining shrimp as part of processing domestically raised shrimp for consumer sales.
Adding shrimp to the mix is a different “language” for the company, but Madsen said it’s exciting to be “on the cusp” of what could be a significant domestic shrimp industry. “It’s really cool to be part of that timing,” he said.
It’s anticipated that Nova-Tech’s shrimp technology and equipment would also be marketed globally.
Madsen said more than 70% of Nova-Tech’s revenue from poultry customers comes from “outside the United States” and he expects that model to be replicated for the shrimp business.
He said that revenue comes back to Willmar and has a significant impact on the local economy.
Nova-Tech is also working on other first-generation technology for other agriculture sectors that Madsen called “new-to-the-world-solutions” that could improve supply chains for other products.
“This is state of the art, novel technology, that will change sectors,” said Gomer. “And with that comes immense opportunities for the employees of the company, as well as the community, to succeed.”