Celebrating 95 Years of Growth: How Progress Helps Van Meter Stand the Test of Time

  • April 18, 2023
  • News

celebrating 95 years

When Van Meter was founded in 1928, Mickey Mouse was making his first appearance, the first-ever Academy Awards were handed out and sliced bread was a new concept. Suffice to say things have changed a bit since then, both in our workplace and our world. As Van Meter turns 95 this year, learn from three Van Meter employee-owners—with over 95 years of combined experience—about some of the biggest changes they have seen during their careers and the lessons they have learned.


When Kathy Etscheidt walked into Van Meter for the first time, there were 49 U.S. states, John F. Kennedy was a Massachusetts Senator and a man wouldn’t walk on the moon for another 10 years. Van Meter had one location in Cedar Rapids with 19 employees. It now has over 800 employee-owners in 24 locations, but Etscheidt’s job hasn’t changed.

kathy etschedit

“You just have to be on your toes and open to change because things change every day.”

– Kathy Etscheidt, Accounts Payable Coordinator, Cedar Rapids, Start Date: June 1, 1959

Well, her role hasn’t changed—she has been in accounts payable the entire time—but she has seen plenty of changes in the way she does business. When Etscheidt started, there were no computers or email (and it would stay that way for another 20+ years). Invoices and checks were typed on a typewriter and sent in the mail. Things took longer to process, but she said with only one location and fewer customers, things weren’t as rushed as they are now.

From typewriters to fax machines, to computers, email and smart phones, Etscheidt has had to adapt to using many forms of technology. How does she keep up?

“You just have to be on your toes and open to change because things change every day,” she said.

Technology is not the only change Etscheidt has encountered. People have changed too. She said people now are friendlier and more open with each other.

kathy etscheidt

“We converse back and forth. If we have problems, we talk it out. We just work together really well,” she said.

She credits some of that attitude to the company becoming 100% employee-owned and the responsibility employee-owners have in the success of the company. She remembers receiving her first shares almost 30 years ago when Van Meter first became employee-owned.

“I don’t think any of us ever imagined how much it would grow and how important employee-ownership is for our retirement and our fellow employee-owners,” she said.

While many things changed, some things stayed the same. The original motto of Van Meter was “Service is our first thought,” and Etscheidt is proud of Van Meter’s continued integrity and service to its customers. She is grateful that while many companies have had to sell or merge, Van Meter has remained its own company for all these years.

Most people retire around the age of 63, but Etscheidt hasn’t skipped a beat after 63 years on the job. Is she thinking about stopping soon? Not if she keeps enjoying herself.

“Whenever it isn’t fun anymore. Then I’m done.”


In May of 1995, Windows 95 would soon be released, This is How We Do It was the number one song on the Billboard charts and Michael Jordan was returning to the NBA after his brief stint as a baseball player. Van Meter was just starting to use the Internet, and Craig Gehring joined the sales team in the Sioux City branch.

craig gehring

“People are the most important thing. How you treat them is how they treat you.”

– Craig Gehring, Account Manager, Sioux City, Start Date: May 15, 1995

When Gehring started, quotes and orders were sent via fax. It was so unreliable that they often called the person they faxed to ask them if they received it. Tickets were printed on carbon copy paper. If the network went down and they couldn’t print a ticket, customers would take their materials without signing for items. Now, orders are processed and signed for electronically, and communication is done in a matter of seconds over email.

“It’s much more reliable now, and everything is instantaneous,” said Gehring.

The Internet was new for Van Meter in 1995. Now, the sales team can find the cost and sell price for most products online. When Gehring started, the Internet was a new concept, and the sales team had to look up sell prices for items in a Trade Services Price Book. When prices changed, vendors would send a new price sheet that distributors could slide into their price book.


Gehring is often away from the office visiting customers. He had a bag phone in his car when he started, but minutes were at a premium. He had to write down what customers needed and take a list back to the office or call from the customer’s site if there was an urgent need. While cell phones were a big step for improving communication, smart phones were a giant leap. Smart phones give him the ability to view orders, quotes, specification sheets, Van Meter inventory and more from anywhere.

“Being able to look at information in front of you instead of having someone read something to you from a phone booth allows you to see what they are describing and get the right information to move forward,” said Gehring.

In addition to the technology he uses to communicate, the automation technology he is selling has changed drastically. Twenty-five years ago, selling a 50-horsepower drive was a big deal—literally. They were so big they wouldn’t fit in a car and were more expensive. Now, Van Meter has higher horsepower drives in stock, as prices have come down and package sizes have gotten much smaller. Even the most powerful PLCs (programmable logic controller) then had less processing power than the smallest ones now.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of connecting with people and treating them with respect.

“People are the most important thing. How you treat them is how they treat you,” said Gehring. “Even if orders are coming in on email or phone rather than fax, there is still a person on the other end.”


When Jeremy Swarts started his career at Van Meter, the first iPhone hadn’t been announced, Twitter was days away from launch and American Idol was the most-watched show on television. Swarts was Van Meter’s first traveling construction coordinator and helped customers with jobsite tasks like ordering parts, unloading trucks and delivering parts to work areas. The role has grown and evolved since he started.

jeremy swarts

“When I first started in the traveler position, nobody knew how the role would develop. It was just a concept.”

– Jeremy Swarts, Lean Construction Coordinator Lead, Urbandale, Start Date: March 6, 2006

“When I first started in the traveler position, nobody knew how the role would develop. It was just a concept,” he said. “It has progressed a lot over the years, and we have eight national travelers out on the road now.”

Swarts started out learning to operate the forklift and delivering materials. As he learned more about products and how the jobsite operated, he took on more responsibility ordering parts and maintaining inventory on site.

The way he orders materials has changed. It used to take a phone call or an email every time he needed to place an order. Now, orders can be entered electronically through a software program and uploaded into Van Meter’s system.

As contractors look to be more efficient and save time and energy, the parts and services Swarts orders have also changed. When he first started traveling, LED lights were still a new concept. Now, they are the standard. There are better options for wire pulling tools, and Van Meter’s wire services have become more advanced. Pre-spooling wire was a newer service when Swarts started. Instead of having to spool wire onsite or pulling from multiple single-conductor spools, almost all wire orders are now pre-spooled.

“Pre-spooling has been a huge deal and has really simplified things in the field,” said Swarts.

Swarts helped set the bar high, and customers now have high expectations for what a traveling construction coordinator can do. After becoming the first traveler, Swarts now leads Van Meter’s group of traveling coordinators and expects his team will continue to grow as customers realize the value of having a dedicated person on site.

With more than 95 years of combined experience, it is no surprise that these three employee-owners have experienced plenty of changes. However, for each of them, embracing and adapting to change has led to a long career at Van Meter. What change is next for our business, our industry and our world? Who knows—it might just be the greatest thing since sliced bread.