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Rebuilding trust: Wheaton co-op takes over Ashby elevator after embezzlement

Mathew “Matt” Brandenburger, director of operations for Wheaton-Dumont Cooperative Elevator, discusses new procedures at an elevator in Ashby, Minn., with Kim Goeden, who worked as bookkeeper in the previous company and has been hired by the new company. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

ASHBY, Minn. — The soybean harvest is all but complete in the Ashby area, where the Ashby Farmers Elevator Cooperative shut its doors Sept. 14, and the corn crop is starting to come in.

The small stand-alone grain co-op ceased operating after its trophy-hunting general manager was accused of stealing nearly $5 million and disappeared. The Wheaton-Dumont Cooperative Elevator stepped in to reopen the Ashby elevator on Oct. 3 under the name Ashby Grain LLC.

Mathew “Matt” Brandenburger, operations head for WDCE, is supervising the transition. “One way I gauge how a facility is going to perform is how many people came in to at least talk about it. And how interested do they sound?” Brandenburger said.

“The first few days here, it was standing-room-only. ... That’s a very good sign, a very healthy sign. I think we’re going to have a very good response in this community.”

Brandenburger, 49, has been in the grain business for 20 years. He is operations manager for WDCE Inc., which owns and operates 17 locations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. It has about $250 million in annual sales.

WDCE acquisitions often have lost money. Sometimes there has been embezzlement or mismanagement. “Maybe the market just got away from them or the market share is not what it should be,” Brandenburger says. “This is the most extreme case I’ve personally seen.”

Keeping staff

WDCE is trying to be a good community citizen. It has set up fuel accounts with other Ashby Equity and local hardware and grocery stores. All of the commercial trucks that were hauling for the elevator before have been retained.

WDCE also retained most of the previous staff. Past employees are members of the community who need careers, but the elevator also needs them to run the facility and for the customer base.

Among the re-hires is Tim Thompson, a son-in-law to alleged embezzler Jerry Hennessey, and the former assistant manager. Thompson has been named plant manager and seed salesman for the WDCE entity, and reports to Brandenburger.

“He knows more about the facility than anybody else — the feed business, the seed business, the grain part of it. (He requires) no training whatsoever. He’s very good at what he does,” Brandenburger said.

Some patrons have expressed “worries,” about past employees, but Brandenburger is confident in his decision to re-hire them.

Also on-staff is Kim Goeden, who had been the bookkeeper in the old system.

Gaining trust

Brandenburger doesn’t expect the Ashby facility to do 100 percent of its previous volume the first year. “Perhaps as much as two-thirds,” he said. “But that’s a good building block and I think we can build trust in the future.”

There are hard feelings when people have lost money with the previous entity, he said. A big part of his role is customer service, assuring patrons that things will be better now. The elevator is “absolutely crucial”  for smaller producers who don’t have big semi trucks, equipment and can’t haul grain for longer distances.

The Ashby facility should be larger, Brandenburger says, but building bins is impossible until a purchase agreement is complete. The truck-only facility is rated as holding 300,000 bushels, has about 200,000 bushels of “workable space.” Brandenburger purchased a brand-new auger to prepare piling corn on a neighboring farmer’s field, if necessary.

Farmer reaction

One happy patron is Dave Leslie Anderson, 56, of Ashby. He stopped in to the elevator offices Oct. 26, during a rain delay.

Anderson’s father, Harvey, and his grandfather, Alvin, who homesteaded here in 1920, all have hauled to Ashby. He said his farm didn’t have a huge hit in the old co-op’s failure because they happened to haul elsewhere, but he wants WDCE to keep his options open.

“The field I’m (harvesting) on right now, you can see the (Ashby) elevator from the field, so it didn’t make much sense to drive to Elbow Lake when we can zoom right over here,” he said.

“I’m just really happy it’s open again,” Anderson said. “It’s good for our whole town, our community here. Good for our family.”

Three weeks of wet weather during harvest is “never good for the producers,” Brandenburger says, but Oct. 3 is not a good time to take over an elevator either. The rain delays have given the business time to get set up legally and logistically.

Brandenburger acknowledges it’s difficult for some farmers to contract that grain without knowing that Wheaton-Dumont is going to be there next year. But he notes farmers with contracts technically can deliver to any of WDCE’s other facilities. That’s not as practical for smaller producers who still deliver with gravity wagons and not semi-trailer trucks.

“These producers suffered this year already when contracts they had weren’t honored,” he said. “The last thing they need to do is miss a marketing opportunity again next year.”