Like most great ventures, the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program started with an idea, took root and grew. Now, its branches touch every corner of Nebraska.
In 2010, cattleman, entrepreneur and Husker alumnus Paul Engler made a $20 million gift to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to cultivate future generations of entrepreneurs and problem-solvers with an aim on growing and sustaining rural communities.
Within two years, the program was up and running and Tom Field was tapped as director. Just over a decade later, the program’s impact has been extraordinary.
At the end of 2022, there were 344 on the alumni rolls. Nebraska has gained at least 70 new businesses, adding 123 jobs. These businesses reported $147 million in lifetime revenue, including $37 million in the past year alone.
Those successes include a number of growing Engler alumni-owned companies scattered throughout Nebraska — Sehnert’s Bakery in McCook, Stahla Services in Lincoln, My Ellement in Central City, Treadway Ag in Ashland, Oak Barn Beef in West Point, Pioneer Equipment in Hastings.
“We’ve attracted kids from around the country and world, but we have 230 alumni living and working in Nebraska,” Field said. “Most of the alumni who came from Nebraska started companies and are working in Nebraska — many in rural communities.”
Students in the Engler program are offered experiential learning opportunities, specialized courses, networking events and a community of like-minded peers. The Engler program is part of a larger entrepreneurial bent at Nebraska U, Field said, which benefits all students and Nebraskans.
“Entrepreneurial growth is not a one-size-fits-all proposition,” Field said. “We are very fortunate to have a dynamic ecosystem at UNL that includes the Engler program, the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business, the Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts and the Raikes School. As such, UNL has the agility and capacity to nurture a broad array of enterprise builders for the Heartland.
“Any student at UNL has great options, and the ability to interact between the programs creates added value.”
The restless activators, as Field described the students he works with on a daily basis, are often the epitome of Nebraska’s culture and renowned work ethic, which are both huge advantages to a program like Engler.
“This state has not forgotten that being a blue-collar person is a good thing,” he said. “We roll up our sleeves, skin our knees, bruise our elbows and go again. That’s why this works. We’ve tapped into that. The credit goes to the parents and communities that brought these young people up, and we get the privilege of working with them.”
Jeff Hornung, owner of Pioneer Equipment, was definitely restless as a teen, always looking for innovative ways to make money. He started his first business in high school when he recovered and sold scrap metal before pivoting to buying vehicles, fixing them up and reselling them. He enrolled in the Engler program after taking a seminar offered by Field.
“I was hooked,” the 2017 graduate and Ceresco native said.
Sitting at his desk inside a new office and machine shop building that Pioneer Equipment and its four staff recently expanded into, Hornung said the Engler community, culture and classes all played a role in his success.
“I don’t think the Engler program made me start my business, but I can definitely say that it took me, as an executive and as a business owner, from good to great,” he said. “It helped take me to that higher level of thinking about the big picture. The Engler Program fosters that ability for people to think on a bigger level.”
Hornung also continues to leverage his Engler connections, including mentors, staff and fellow alumni.
“Everybody says connections and networking in college is really important, but I don’t think you realize how important it is until you’re 10 years out,” he said. “Just off the top of my head, I can think of five of my Engler classmates that I do fiscal business with on a monthly basis. Did I know as a student that was going to happen? No, but I made so many connections in Engler.”
Hannah Klitz, owner of Oak Barn Beef in West Point, agreed.
“The mentorship and networks you’re exposed to play a really big role,” she said. “You learn from people from across all industries and meet a lot of people you’d otherwise probably never cross paths with. You have people to talk to, to help you figure out those hard decisions or big decisions.”
Klitz launched her business when she was a sophomore in the program in 2018. Her parents, who still farm near Unadilla, were a major support for her venture, but Engler’s community and culture helped instill the confidence needed to make the jump from idea to startup.
“The biggest difference-maker, I think, was that encouragement to start,” she said. “There are small steps you can take to start a business, and taking those steps is really powerful.
“It’s hands-on entrepreneurship; it’s not just classes. They really encourage you to get out there and learn by doing. I think that makes such a big difference in encouraging you to take risks and get started.”
After doubling sales year over year from 2018 through 2021, Oak Barn Beef now ships to customers in all 50 states and, in January, opened its first retail store.
“We want to keep serving more customers, and we added the local aspect of that, too, with the store,” Klitz said. “That will be a big part of this year — serving a local market while also reaching more customers online, as well.”
Hornung and Klitz both said they’re still actively involved with the Engler program. Engagement with alumni is a key component, Field said, for both student mentorship and to continue to help build a “sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem” in the state.
“The name of the game for us is not to build a good company, but to build a community of people who want to build companies, so that we have multitudes of companies that stick in Nebraska and stick in the Great Plains,” he said.
While the success of the Engler Program in its first decade is remarkable, Field said they’re just getting started.
“Truth is, across the board, the data on entrepreneurship says most companies and small businesses are started by people in their late 30s and into their 40s,” he said. “We are planting the seeds, but they’re going to germinate at different times. It’s super exciting to think about what this will look like another decade from now.”