Dairy Feature Friday: Conococheague Stainless LLC
“My wife likes to say my entire life has been about food,” laughed Marlin Wampler, Franklin County, owner of Conococheague Stainless LLC. “My passion is safe, high quality food.”
Marlin’s pursuit of his passion began at an early age, bottling honey with his family. Later, he and his brother operated a dairy farm and a landscaping and lawn service. Eventually, the landscaping business became the brothers’ focus and they sold the cows.
In 2000, dairy equipment dealer Agri-Service asked Marlin to join their team. “I became a milking equipment service technician with the company,” Marlin shared. “Fixing equipment is what I loved about farming and it was a perfect fit.”
Two years later, Agri-Service promoted Marlin to service manager, followed by food processing product manager. As he helped grow that segment of the business, projects included new processing equipment design and custom equipment design for the artisan and specialty foods industry.
With his years of equipment experience, Marlin launched Conococheague Stainless, LLC last year, and a successful farmer’s market restaurant now primarily managed by his eldest son.
“When customers come to us, they have ideas,” explained Marlin. “They want to add value to their milk or make something. We help teach them what they need to know, such as navigating the red tape of regulation.” One thing we do not do is their market research. They need to do that to know how to best align their products with their market which in turn directly affects their business plan and their success.
Once customers firm up their plans, Conococheague Stainless provides equipment lists and estimates to help customers with their business plans. “We want to build quality products that will last a long time,” he continued. “And yet be economical so that customers can afford it.”
“Our draftsmen design the equipment and model it in 3D for customers so they can visualize their custom piece of equipment,” Marlin noted.
As processing equipment is a specialized industry, many electricians and plumbers are unfamiliar with the equipment’s unique requirements. When Conococheague Stainless presents customers with their final set of plans, included are notations for electricians and plumbers, allowing those vendors to understand the project and develop their own budgets.
With a customer’s project approval, the equipment build begins from scratch. Marlin’s team cuts and forms the stainless steel, builds the equipment, polishes it, and finally, passivates it, a process that lifts off any contaminants from the stainless steel, before installation.
Marlin describes two markets for his equipment. Approximately 50% are dairy farmers who want to process butter, milk, cheese or ice cream from their milk. The remaining 50% are customers who focus on food processing, purchasing milk from other farmers.
Serving customers across North and South America, Conococheague Stainless experienced the ripple effects of the global pandemic this spring. “In one day, we went from six months of booked projects to three weeks of booked projects,” remembered Marlin.
That same day, a vendor called Marlin with an opportunity to make hospital beds. “We spent four weeks on that project, making frames that shipped to various states preparing for pandemic needs,” Marlin said. “It helped buy us time as some smaller projects moved forward and keep our employees working.”
Reflecting on his experiences, Marlin offers this advice to people thinking about their own value-added ventures.
“Talk to other people in the business first,” he explained. “Take vacation time and visit. There will be all kinds of ideas. Let your imagination run and ask questions.”
“When I decided to go into business myself, I talked to other people from my church,” Marlin continued. “Don’t try to do it on your own. Get enough varied opinions and don’t pick the person that agrees with you!”
“Finally, if you’re going to start a business venture, make sure you have enough collateral,” said Marlin. “Get approved for more money than you’ll need, and put these numbers in your business plan. That way if your project does not go as planned or goes over budget you should still be OK.”
As Marlin reflects on this challenging year, he is thankful for AgChoice, a lender that is flexible during agricultural industry cycles such as low milk prices. “It makes you feel better when you lose six months of work in one day.”
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