The following is the full interview between Farm Equipment editor Mike Lessiter and Don Landoll of Landoll Corp.
Landoll Corp, headquartered in Marysville, Kansas remains owned and operated by the man who started it all, Don Landoll. The ag world knows them for their tillage tools, grain drills and seeders, but they have 4 other divisions too. Besides farm equipment, they are also involved in construction, forklifts, trailers and OEM/government work.
Now in its 54th year, the company has nearly 800 employees, almost 900,000 square feet of facilities and ships product to 39 different countries
Landoll's is a great American success story, and we guarantee that the conversation that follows -- if you enjoy stories of bootstrapping and sweat equity in business --- will be worth every minute of your time.
Mike Lessiter: Thanks for joining us today, Don, it’s a pleasure to be doing this interview with you. I know you celebrated a major anniversary a couple years ago, which was really a neat thing to be part of. Right off the bat, you did something at that event that I’d never seen done before, and it was when you had all the guests introduce themselves and then you told a story about everybody in the room. It was really cool, really special for all of us. I wanted to ask you, how did you decide to do that to mark the occasion?
Don Landoll: Well, I think that’s something we do pretty much almost daily or whenever the time occurs. I take a lot of pride in recognizing the people that have helped me over the years with it. I’ve got thoughts and ideas from over the years, so that was just kind of a continuation of that.
Mike Lessiter: To contrast it today, how big is Landoll for someone who maybe isn’t familiar with you?
Don Landoll: Well, we started out with like 12,500 square foot or something like that. And today we have a little over 900,000 square feet. You get to that size and you kind of quit counting. I mean, you do what you got to do, but that’s real close to what it is. So as an old farm boy, we’re beyond the 20-acre mark under-roof, and I’ve chosen as much as possible to always stay local. My good friend Roy Applequist, founder of Great Plains Manufacturing, and some of them did well by going out and obtaining other areas, local businesses, but I’ve tried to always stay in the area, other than when we went to Beloit. But the Brillion product line we brought all back to Marysville and that seems to be more manageable that way. But I think we do have 29 employees out of Beloit right now.
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Mike Lessiter: From a very young age you were kind of destined to be doing what you’re doing. You had some stories about what you played with as a kid before you had power out on the farm, right?
Don Landoll: Right. I always give my folks a lot of credit being the oldest boy of 8 children, but they graduated me from tinker toys to an erector set at the age of 7 and I’ve never stopped building since that time I guess.
Mike Lessiter: From a young age you were engineering, designing, putting things together, correct?
Don Landoll: Sure. I was born and raised on a homesteaded family farm. Dad had 3 brothers and sisters and between the 4 families we had 22 first-cousins who all lived within a mile of each other. So we grew up as a big family. But being the old homesteaded farm, well that’s where Grandpa had a nice shop. So, the other brothers, sisters and their husbands or whoever, we’d come over there to get maintenance and repairs done so that’s how we’ve been doing maintenance and repairs since I was a little kid — alongside of Grandpa or Dad.
Mike Lessiter: You started commercially helping other farmers when you were in high school, correct?
Don Landoll: Yes. You know, we didn’t have much money. We didn’t think of it as being poor, but yeah we went to Grandpa’s farm and sawed down some trees and ran them through a sawmill and built a shop when I was a sophomore in high school to start welding for the neighbors. And of course, we just kept moving forward from there.
Mike Lessiter: Were you taught to weld on the farm or in school?
Don Landoll: No, we didn’t — I learned to weld — started welding as a — I had that desire but until I was a freshman in vocational ag, that’s where I got my start. And we had a teacher that wasn’t overly-enthused about shop. He was a World War II veteran, but he recognized some of my abilities and pretty much turned me loose. And then my senior year I actually taught hands-on welding through a study hall from 11 to 12, so I’ve been teaching people to weld for pretty much my lifetime.
Mike Lessiter: So ’63 was when you actually started the company, is that correct?
Don Landoll: Yes. That’s when we bought the welding shop.
Mike Lessiter: If we back up a few years to high school age, I remember you saying that you were planning on going into the military outside of high school, correct?
Don Landoll: Correct, yeah. You know, early spring I enlisted into the Air Force and in those days of course everyone had a military service to fulfill and I wanted to get that out of the way. Plus, we didn’t have trade schools. They were very elite in those days, so that was a means of getting into a trade, into the production business. I graduated from high school on Tuesday and went to the Air Force on Sunday, failed my physical on Monday, so Tuesday I was back home ready to continue my life.
Mike Lessiter: From there you went to a dealership?
Don Landoll: Yeah, an International Harvester dealership. They were family friends as well in my hometown of Hanover and they called it Hanover Implement and Manufacturing. They did a lot of shop work and they got started building some playground equipment and then picnic tables and then we built truck hoists and trailer hoists both back when the ear corn days were a big thing.
Mike Lessiter: How many years were you at the dealership before you went out on your own?
Don Landoll: About 2.5 years. The day that President Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963, I was sitting in the car with a senior welder at Brunos, and he was 30-years older than I, and was a World War II vet as well. He had seen the opportunity to buy this welding shop, but he was looking for a partner. And having worked with him for 2.5 years, why he chose me to partner with him. I look back at that. I mean, for years now, I think about it when I’m talking to different groups who generate and recognize and take advantage of your opportunities. Being the youngest one in the shop, and yet I was chosen as his partner. I had no money of any amount, so he said, ‘well that’s no problem, I’ll pay cash for my half and you can borrow against my half.’ And then we got ready to borrow the money. I wasn’t 21 yet, so I had to borrow my half under his name and make his payments, so it was an opportunity that he gave me. And obviously it all worked out well. 2.5 years later, he said, “I got an opportunity to go back to the railroad on Monday and I’m going, and so I’m going to leave you with the shop and sell you my half.” And since I had no ability yet to borrow enough money because we’d grown the business some, he loaned me the money to buy his second half out. So that’s how I got on my own, and I’ve been on my own ever since.
Mike Lessiter: That’s a great story. At that time, was that welding shop a job-shop operation or were you specializing in certain products?
Don Landoll: Well, we were a welding, radiator and blacksmith shop. That’s what I like to think of as my early diversification — the implement company we worked with previously, and of course all the farmers in rural Kansas were pretty diversified, especially eastern Kansas. So, diversification is a big, big word in my vocabulary and it’s worked for us many, many times.
Then a camper factory had moved into town, and I got started building frames for campers. It was kind of the first contract job I had, and my partner was still with me at that time. Something we’re going through right now is major droughts in Kansas. But, having been through the “dirty ‘30s” and, my partner was with his mother and dad when the sheriff took them off the farm, so I heard about the “dirty ‘30s” and that as a kid. And you know, we had the “dirty ‘30s,” we had the ‘80s and we’ve had some challenging times since. So, there’s a lot to be learned from that.
Mike Lessiter: What were the first 5 years like for the business, your early days?
Don Landoll: The first product with my own name on it was a pickup slide-in stalk crack, and that was a good product. We had about a 1-inch square tube and some 1.25-inch angle iron, and that was my building material, plus a few bolts. So that gave me a real opportunity to get my name out and to fill in. The job shop business has always been that way and probably always will be. You have the peaks and valleys almost daily or weekly. That was filling in the peaks and valleys for me, so I got started with that. That was something you could sell locally, and I sold lots of them.
That was my first experience. We weren’t the first people in the business, but we were the first people with a high-quality product. And that’s when the style side pickups and stuff were first coming out. People wanted something that looked nice in their new pickup, so we got started with quality, which we’ve never gotten away from.
Then I got fortunate. the feed companies came along with a liquid supplement, and the liquid supplement was a nitrate-based molasses. In order to sell their product, they had to have a container to put it in with lick wheels on it. In those days, everybody had livestock on the farm, so they’d put that on the farm, fill that liquid feeder up and that cow would lick that wheel and, kind of like a human taking salt and pepper, they’d get their fill of it. You know, if they drank it, it would kill them, so we had to have a quality product they couldn’t get into. So, I got started with a local elevator and they were buying my product as a means, a container to put their product in. Then we got with Nutrena Feeds, and that was when we got on the national circuit. They had their national convention in Omaha and we ended up taking that product as far as Canada, so we built thousands of those. But that became a real means of a cash income — no terms, no sales commissions. They were just taking care of what — looking for a quality product to put their product into to make their product look good. So those were good times.
Mike Lessiter: That was all in that 5-year, first 5-year period?
Don Landoll: Yeah, a little longer. So that’s when we got started shipping, but like everything it had a little bit of seasonality to it. Then a company just 30 miles down the road from Dempster with the bigger tractors and, what I’m referring to in the ‘60s as bigger tractors, like 4020s and 560s, even the old diamond toolbars — a solid piece of steel was still a very popular product — was a very sound manufacturing company that built a lot of products for Ford and Massey, Ferguson and Ferguson in the old 2-row days, and some 4-row. But people started tearing up their product and they had no desire to do better. Their sales manager decided he had the dual toolbar concept and he wanted to get in and start building a dual toolbar. I was fortunate enough to — and he didn’t have money either, so together we got started building toolbars and he would finish and sell them, market them. And that’s where, in ‘68, that’s where the chisel plow came from — anhydrous ammonia bar that we beefed up and spread out and things of that nature.
Mike Lessiter: And that was the — at that time when you went out there that was — you had Landoll chisel plow out at that time?
Don Landoll: Yeah, one of my local friends, he wanted a chisel plow, so he came in and we were — he was a great entrepreneur and farmer, but we built the first chisel plow. Then I went to the Nebraska fair and found my distributor, you know, a show in those days — the state fairs were big, Nebraska had a great state fair. And I went through trying to find somebody that might be able to sell my product, and I picked a distributor out of Kansas City. At the time they were just losing their Fox Chopper line and they were looking to get into some tillage, they’d been all hay equipment pretty much. So that’s when I got in with them and started working the shows with them. That gave me the opportunity to get to know fellow manufacturing sales people. So, then those people would say, “you need more than one distributor, I would recommend you go here… I’d recommend you go there… I’ll introduce you…” and that’s how I got started in the network. Then of course they got me into FEMA, the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Assn., and I’ve been a big, big supporter of FEMA ever since because it’s been a great part of my life as far as enhancing and finding good friends and quality manufacturers.
Mike Lessiter: Was that chisel plow the moment where you really turned the corner in ag, or was there some other one that you would call that defining moment?
Don Landoll: Well, the chisel plow definitely. And the main reason… that’s an easy answer. In 1974, ’73 actually, Case came to us. That’s when people couldn’t build enough farm equipment. At the time, I think Case had 152 company stores and they were looking for somebody to build a chisel for their company stores without the Case name on it. They wanted a, not necessarily inexpensive, but a quality product. So, they came for them, came to — I’m not sure how I heard about it at that time. But anyway, I got on, I chased it down and had 4 people come down from Case, and I always remember, and I’ll somewhat — I didn’t have an engineer on staff at that time. I was the only engineering part of our company. So, the one engineer voted against letting me build their product, and the other 3 liked my enthusiasm so they went with me on that enthusiasm. That went well.
So, then they let me build their pull type unit and they said your quality is good enough, we’re going to put the Case name on it, we’re not going to just put Lift Master or whatever the name was. Then I built that product. And then that’s when the subsoiler, the V plows, came out and they said, “hey, we want to sell that V plow.” Then the coulter chisels came out, and we called ours the Soil Master. Glencoe kind of led that with the Soil Saver, so they came and they said, “we want to sell that product.” Selling through distributors gave me an opportunity, discount wise and everything, to work with the majors. So, we were building 4 products for the Case Co., you know, the good old days, getting orders by the box full. Then for us it was major. When the Case IH merger came along, like 14 years later, why that’s when we lost it.
You know, International had the largest tillage plant in the world up in Hamilton, Ont., so it wasn’t because of any feelings. It’s just part of life and that’s what you always — we get dealt with from time to time. Sometimes there are good parts, and some are negative parts.
Mike Lessiter: I imagine that opportunity, it made you a major player in ground-engaging equipment right there. Was that the first significant manufacturing investment that you were making in your facilities?
Don Landoll: Yeah, over and above our chisel plows and that for the local people. And during that time, we were — Case had a big showing in ’76 down in McAllen, Texas, so we had our products down there. They had dealers bring them in for about a month, and that’s where I met Jerry Neffbaum. He was with Glencoe and they were building products, and the main reason we were building products is they didn’t have adequate supply from Glencoe. And then after we got home a couple months and the relationship we built working that show with Jerry, I said I’d rather work for you than my current company. So, I hired Jerry, and that’s when we started getting directly into our distributors on a pretty heavy basis. In those days, distributors were big. In my early days our large 2 plow would get up to 40 on a semi load. You know, today we get 1 piece or 2 pieces, so times have totally changed, the distributorship, and so that definitely had to grow over the years. What worked once doesn’t always work. I’m a big theory guy, you know, walk before you run in many different directions.
Mike Lessiter: As the company founder and the design engineering mind behind the company, were you also tasked with the sales end in those early days?
Don Landoll: Yes, I was sales and purchasing, and until 1970, the first 11 years, I was everything. I was the buyer, the plant manager, the engineer, sales … But working with distributors, that was a little easier than dealer-to-dealer because you made the major shows, and did your major learning curve — or training was done at the major shows. In those days, everybody had a great state fair. We had the Farm Progress, then M&W had a farm show, and Elmo Minor turned out to be a great, great friend. The first 2 implement trailers I sold at the M&W farm show, Elmo bought personally. And he bought every year. He would sell all the products that he bought off the farm show and use them for a year to farm his land and then buy new. So, he was a great help in getting the trailer side done. And what made that so popular is that’s when everybody — if you sold a tractor you sold a moldboard plow and if you sold a moldboard plow and a tractor to go out and demonstrate, nobody had any means of hauling it. With our traveling axle, a low-angle till with our wheels going completely to the rear to get the payload spread out, it was the perfect answer. So that played a big, big part in getting the trailer successful.
Mike Lessiter: When was it clear in your mind that you guys were going to become a major player in ag equipment?
Don Landoll: Well, you know, I’m a real big believer of goals. But in my position I feel it’s very strong or — I’ve always recommended in the tours that we give to set yourself attainable goals, and if you can attain that goal, then set another goal. And you know, you continually climb the ladder. And I’m a — that’s the theory I’ve used. At that time, Gilmore Tadgy was doing very well down the road from us, and their plant manager was married to a first cousin, so I had access to their shop and his knowledge after hours, and saw the mistakes, and the things I did that were right and wrong.
And at that time, I guess to answer your question, Gilmore Tadgy had 200 people. I said, “man, someday I’d like to have 200 people.” So, that was a great incentive.
Mike Lessiter: What would you say are your core values in running the business that you learned from maybe some earlier times or from your family?
Don Landoll: One that’s very, very important that I always stress with the groups and employees is you build a foundation. A foundation is so, so important — to have a solid foundation, whether it’s under a house or under a shop or wherever. You know, under the family, under the bank, under the employees — we’re always going to have ups and downs, but with a strong foundation it’s always managed to carry us through.
And then a second thing that I preach a lot is that one man’s problem is another’s opportunity. So, whenever someone has a problem, usually there’s an opportunity to solve that problem. And if that fits your line of work, that’s a great place to get started. Entrepreneurship — I mean whoever, you can be the greatest entrepreneur in the world but you still got to solve somebody’s problem to be a successful entrepreneur.
Mike Lessiter: If you could talk about some of the diversification that you’ve done that also allowed you to make major production investment in your facility — I know there was some outside of ag you’ve done over the years…
Don Landoll: That’s something we’re very proud of, and that gets back to my old saying that quality is always a bargain. I started using that way back in the ‘60s — still use it. But here we were building a quality product, and in the ‘70s they’re much like the conditions we’re in right now, at the end of the ‘70s, come to ‘80s — which now as we go forward we’re in that same transition where that farm was — anybody could pretty much make it in farming or farm equipment. But then the challenges started coming on, and that was a national thing in the early ‘80s. So, we had a product at the FMC Corp., who had a manager out of Silicon Valley. He grew up and was raised on a farm in southern Minnesota and married his wife and she wouldn’t come back to the Midwest where he was working. He came to Kansas City to call on TWA and TWA said, “you got a good talking to for not being able to deliver their product.” And of course, that was a Silicon Valley boom, super boom at that time because they couldn’t hire too much help and they also built for the military. So, he drove across the interstate into an implement dealership and he said, “somebody building farm equipment has got to be looking for something more to do.” So driving through, he’d seen the dealership, liked our product from the window, got out and looked at our welds, and got on the phone and called me right from there. He said, “Would you like to build some PCD trailers?” Those are the trailers they pull around under an aircraft where they’re unloading aluminum containers. And I said, “yeah, I’d love to, but I’m not sure we’re good enough.” And he said, “well, you come to California, I’ll show you how we do it, I’ll come to Kansas and look at your facilities.” And we made a great farm relationship. He said, “well, I’ll do better than that. I’ll spend 30 days here helping you build a prototype.” That gave me an opportunity to go see Mom on the weekends, so that got us into FMC.
Then 4 years later, ’82 or ’83, they got in trouble building aircraft de-icers, and they went on strike. He called me up and he said, “we got 10 machines here half-built, I want to load them on a truck and send them to you. If you find a place where we can assemble them and anything you’re sort why I’ll help you get the drawing and we’ll make those parts, you got the ability to make them and we’ll get those units out the door and help us all.” And I did that.
Then the second year we built 16, the third year we built 42, and then the military came along and wanted 391 of them. And that was Thanksgiving of 1984, so we were successful in putting that contract together, which a single order was $43.8 million, and in a bad farm economy that was unbelievably handy.
Mike Lessiter: That was a couple years after the bottom really dropped out of ag, right?
Don Landoll: Right.
Mike Lessiter: And all this happened because he spotted a quality weld on a parts lot that he just happened to stop at? …
Don Landoll: And of course, then we struck up this great relationship. We did such a good job building de-icers that we won the National Award of the Year for Small Business Administration. When we won that national award, that put us in the spotlight with the military and we got to go back to Washington, D.C. and get our awards and all. That gave us that exposure that was so important.
And then we came back home and we were doing such a great job, so FMC said, “you build all of our commercial and your military.” So, we were building commercial and military, but we ended up building a little over 2,000 military, and started out with the 391. From that, everything went well until the military changed the specs. And having a great relationship with FMC — we could see they were going kind of the wrong direction — and we had a, being as we had a no-compete agreement, we had the parts business as long as we wanted it and with 2,000 machines out there, the parts business was much bigger than building basically a prototype machine.
But that got us into the military business big time. Since one of the — not many people can say — but since 1984 we’ve never been without a military contract up until today, so we’re still. You know, you have your ups and downs and that’s why so many people fail in the military business. They do great for 6, 8 years or whatever until a contract runs out or they drop a product, and if they’re not diversified they’re pretty much done.
Mike Lessiter: That’s a great story. What could have the early ‘80s been for you had you not had the opportunity to get that business and make the investments? What could have the early ‘80s looked for you otherwise?
There’s more to a successful year than setting a budget and selling inventory. How do you keep score and measure your progress? When do you know you have the right people in the right places? What can you do to use your Key Adjustment Zone to your advantage? To help you maximize your dealership’s potential, turn to Spader Business Management where we have the right training, processes and guidance to make this year your very best.
Don Landoll: Well, it was obviously going to be — it was tough for all of us. I mean anybody in the business. But I was always scratching at — it’s amazing how many things are out there you can come up with when you get your foot under the gate. That’s an era which people even have — find hard to believe sometimes, but in an era like that if you got a break — if you can build something and breakeven on it, that’s way better than losing. So, if you got breakeven time waiting to get into some better times. … But it was tough, there’s no doubt about that.
Like I say, you’re looking for other opportunities. I got a call one day from a gentleman in New Jersey and he said, “hey, I just bought a used Landoll trailer, and you know, you got something that our industry needs, but you need to make a few improvements and updates on it.” And he said, “I’m sitting here. … ‘old Harold,’” he says, “I’ll get on the old airplane and fly out at my expense if you’re willing to listen to me.” So, he flew out to Kansas and he said, “this, this and this is what it’s going to take to improve this product for the towing and recovery industry.” The people that — because the wrecker business was pretty much all family businesses, much like a lot of farm business — and he said, “we got too many ups and downs and we’re looking for that fill in. I can do a lot of things besides haul broke-down buses. I can add things to it, but the main goal is to haul a bus.” So, we jumped in there with both feet and that was in the early ‘80s. We ended up getting into the Towing Hall of Fame with it and to this day we’re a leader of supplying that industry.
But the interesting thing about trailers, we never stopped there. We’ve helped start 2 associations with the trailers. And the trailer business has been excellent because — but when you’re in that many industries you got a lot of opportunities and you’re dealing with — you get where you can deal with them. … You know, we started the Mom and Pop operations and we’re seeing the Mom and Pops in that industry getting even stronger right now. The main thing, those Mom and Pops grew their businesses and then sold them off to the large corporations trying to take over America like some of our implement dealers are now. They found out they couldn’t manage all those towing recoveries 24 hours a day, 7 days a week around the clock, so now they’re buying back — they’re starting back over with their children, and of course the first place they come is to buy trailers from us.
The rental industry has gotten bigger since then. People are renting the big rental yards, and some of them are huge. We got one customer who bought over 500 trailers in 2 years for their own use. But what that’s done is if they don’t have enough capacity to take care of their customers, the first thing they do is call the local towing and recovery to deliver containers for them. So, it’s just amazing how many things you can hook together if you work at it and keep an open mind.
One that I don’t normally talk about — but of course dealing with the overlying banks and all that, … takes a lot of money to be in this business. But anyway, our accountant, CPA said we need to have a meeting with our partner, and their headquarters was about 120 miles way down in Salina. But they came in there and threw a bunch of figures out at me and they said, “you realize that you don’t have any money and ought to get out while you can get out.” And I looked at him, and after this hour-long meeting of them trying to convince me why I couldn’t make it, I looked at that senior partner and I said, “you know what? You’ve been to school too long. … You don’t understand the foundation, you don’t understand what we got to offer here. All you’re looking at is dollars and cents.” And what a great motivator for — I always say old German because all of my parents and grandparents were German, so I said that and walked out. And that’s when we got started building the FMC or the de-icers shortly after that.
Mike Lessiter: So that was the early ‘80s?
Don Landoll: Yep. But you know, you got to go to those people for advice, but you can’t let them make all your decisions. I’m a true believer in education — but most of those people whether it’s marketing, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s accounting, their specialty is just one piece of the pie, it’s not the whole pie. So, you got to use common sense and keep that whole pie together.
Mike Lessiter: Great story. When you look at your ag product line, what are the product innovations you’re most proud of over the last 54 years?
Don Landoll: That is a good question. Well, I guess I’d go back and, try to go back to the beginning. The coulter chisel was very, very big for us and we did well with it, but not only because we did well but that was a major portion of our income during that time. And then being able to work with Case, you ship it to them and you get cash, get the check in the mail shortly so that was a very, very big product.
And then we came along in — the finishing tools were just coming along. So, we worked very, very hard on getting the Till-All built. And the till always was an unbelievable tool. It still is. The big challenge with ag in the — it worked great in the heart of the corn belt but it didn’t work everywhere. So, it was still a 2, 3-state product as far as high success. A gentleman here yesterday told me he’d been running his for 19 years and I’m proud of that. Not only that he — some of them buy every 2 years, buy a new one — but the point I’m proud of is we have a great, we call it PDC, our Parts Distribution Center, and with trailers and tillage our goal is to support products up to 40 years old and nothing bugs me worse than when people tell you it’s out of warranty or it’s no longer supported. As long as they got their serial numbers, whether it’s on trailer axles or whatever, wenches, we can tell them what was originally on there. But the point is when you take care of people, the second thing that does is gives your product resale value. When you got resale value, that’s high in their minds when they get ready to buy their next piece of product.
We’re very, very big on quality. I mean we sell Cadillacs. And I tell people Cadillacs and Lincolns don’t — we also recognize there’s a lot of Chevy and Ford quality products sold and there’s a market for that, no hands down on that. But when you're selling a quality product you got to deliver a quality product and that in itself ties in with the military. Building military daily, all our material comes in as certified, we got the cert papers, we got a fulltime welding instructor. So, my point being, that keeps the quality of our farm products because our product goes through the shop. They don’t really know whether it’s a farm product or …
Mike Lessiter: One standard.
Don Landoll: It’s just quality is what they’re — that’s all they’re looking at. We’ve been in that era for a lot of years, really, almost my lifetime: the farms are getting bigger and the farmers or the land — leadership on the farm is lessening. So, these people want to cover more and more property or fields. But what I’m leading to is there’s a shortage of labor on the farm big time as well as everywhere now it seems. So, what do they do? When they’re out there planting in the spring, who are the highest-quality people on the farm? They’re running the planters and the fertilizer equipment and possibly sprayers. But yet who’s doing that tilling on the soil ahead of them? That’s their semi-retired dad, or their brother-in-law taking a week’s vacation out of the city or whatever. So, when you get to that condition, that retired dad and that brother-in-law will come out on the farm to do one thing: drive. So, if all they’re going to do is drive, you got to have a piece of equipment behind them that doesn’t plug up, that leaves it smooth — leaves a quality seedbed and doesn’t break down because that isn’t why they came out: to repair something.
So, with that in mind, that’s how we are very successful against some of the majors, yet they’re willing to pay a premium for that. When a guy walks up and looks at our trailer and he says, “what’s that going to cost me,” our answer is, “nothing, it’ll make you money.” And the reason it’ll make money — number one, it’s high quality to use. But during those inflationary times we traded with people, sold their used trailers for more than they paid for them and bought another new one. So, we’ve kept that resale value — it’s stayed very, very good for us. And there’s a lot of markets for — secondary markets for a lot of things.
But that is getting to be a problem in the tillage equipment, the secondary markets. The big guys are now pretty much pulling as big of equipment as we can legally get down the road. So that big guy that trades in a piece of equipment, the next big guy says, “why do I want to buy his used machine? I want a new one, too.” So that makes it hard to trade in the large farm equipment today.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us about the change from yellow to blue.
Don Landoll: Well that was a big, big transition about 12 years ago. As we talked earlier, we’re just very big friends with all our competitors as much as possible. Gerald Meier was always a good friend at Sunflower and I could go on and give you a litany of those people — the M&Ws and on down the line to George Schumacher’s GBs. But that friendship, as we talked about a little earlier — being a diversified company, we’ve been profitable, above average probably for a lot of people. And by doing that with our 4 sales divisions — we didn’t talk about our lift truck division, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with farm — but John Deere and International and AGCO, they all were running our products in the lift truck business as well.
When you get diversified that much you take big pride in staying profitable. So, with the tillage being so competitive and that, we lost market share on that. But when you’re building umpteen million dollars-worth of de-icers, why do you want to take a loss on building a tillage product? And we always knew that was a challenge but there was no simple answer. So then as we got down in there and the Sunflower — which was owned by numerous holding companies over the years, great, great competitor, but anyway. … They sold out to AGCO and they laid — all but the sales manager, they laid off all the rest of them. “Hey, we’re going to sell this product through our normal sales distribution system.” Very, very logical, understandable ... and Gerald and he were going to take retirement and Jamie and he called me up... We had a couple of meetings, non-public meetings and all premise meetings and, hey, we got some of the best tillage companies out there. “Tillage sales people out there, you got some of the best product out there, we can enhance you, we know how to enhance your products.”
So after about a 4 or 5-month discussion there during the transition, we hired 9 salesmen in one day from the ex-Sunflower people that were getting laid off. 8 were getting laid off, one wasn’t, but he was in the leadership. After that it was — okay now we got 2 new challenges: can you sell enough and can we build enough? And that’s when we started the shop 50 building. Then we were just nip and tuck — we actually built 3 times onto that, and of course bought a lot of equipment.
So that’s where — and then hey, if we’re really going to make this happen, what are we going to do so the farmer, he understands that there’s a difference? Well, we all agreed maybe the quickest way was color. So, of course, we didn’t want to go with major colors. Our short line friends had been successful with blue. We built product for them for a number of years. So that’s how we picked the color blue and then we decided what shade of blue. And then it turned out to be a very good relationship for us.
Mike Lessiter: Something I wanted to go back to, and it was something that I observed during the anniversary back in 2013. You led a tour of the entire place, a couple hundred people there as I recall, and you stopped at each machine, introduced the operator, talked about when the machine went in service. … I’ve never seen another CEO of a company your size do that before. But for the people who have not been to Landoll, how can you describe the manufacturing element, what they would see if they went on that tour with you?
Don Landoll: Well, number one, especially when we built — started our last expansion there — our goal was to build the highest quality manufacturing plant, tillage manufacturing plant in America. If we’re number one in America, I say most likely we’re the number one in the world. And we set out to do that and to this day we’ve never been challenged. But we started out — most people do things and don’t recognize when they’re short of welders or whatever — they start on the wrong end. I thought, all I got to do is buy a robot and I’ve gotten rid of a welder. Well it’s totally backwards of where you need to be. You got to start out with a design of the product, then you get the product, and then after you got the product you got to have people who understand tooling well enough to build a high-quality tooling. So, if you got the high-quality tooling, then you can build a quality product every time pretty much. So that was the theory.
So we got around and nobody wanted to build me a big robot. I mean I went to a couple people and they said that’s an unattainable goal. And I said, “Well I’m going to go home and we’ll build our own.” And I took 3 or 4 people and we built our first big robot the way we wanted to do it. It was so successful that the Japanese had 5 people over here wanting to see what we were doing. They said, “we’re here to help.” I said, “you were nowhere around when we started.” So, the only thing they did after being there was change the color of their arm to match our blue, so our equipment was blue. But then we built 3 since that time and they get along very, very well. We have a total of 30 robots out there welding. But then with the laser cutters and all that, I mean we’re a vertical integration. We believe in bringing plate and tubing in the door and shipping out finished products.
And that’s where the military fits in well again. We’ll get a major military contract — being privately owned we don’t have to worry about the budgets and all that stuff. We go out and buy the best equipment available and not necessarily to just what we need, but what we can afford because we don’t know what the next job is coming in behind it. I’ve done that for a lifetime. And when you do that you build that military contract — we built 1785 military wreckers. The day you got done with those wreckers, you had the best equipment in America to build your everyday tillage tools and trailers and whatever. So that’s a way of really getting the quality of your equipment up.
And then we work very hard, and I feel we’ve been very successful with it. We’ve researched very, very carefully. So, whether it’s going to Europe, going here, going there — our powder line, I think I went to 16 different companies powder coating — 17, 18 years ago before we started powder coating. So, you get the best from everyone. The relationship we have there, anybody that’s a client we tour, and they’re free to tour ours as well. So, we have the majors and they’re coming in to tour as well. As long as we can go to them, they can come to us. But that’s a show up — and then of course the bigger, continual challenge, especially in these kind of times, is getting the volume. There’s so many product combinations today that it’s hard to be able to deliver everything instantly. Of course, you always try to stay in that 3 to 4-week period if at all possible.
Mike Lessiter: You’ve described a number of things that are different than what we see in other independent companies like this, but one of them that sings out is that you’re using your own engineering and problem-solving expertise to put into the manufacturing process, not just the product.
Don Landoll: Sure, very much so.
Mike Lessiter: Is that the area that revs your motor the most? Or what is it that excites you about getting out of bed every morning?
Don Landoll: I still enjoy the shop in general. We’ve got our own land, we got our own 600-horse quad tracks, smaller tractors. But when we can go out and test whether it’s a right or wrong thing to do on a farm for the period of time, my son Phil heads up a lot of the testing, so you just got to do those things because being what I still consider a small manufacturer, it is important getting to the market early. It’s still where you get that foundation we talked about a little earlier, and then if you got that foundation and are willing to give service &nmdash; because whenever you get on a product, you get out there a little bit early, you’re going to have some challenges. So, we got people who go anywhere and update our product if need be, some of the prototype stuff or early runs.
Mike Lessiter: We went through some of the history here today, you guys must be the biggest, or among the biggest short line equipment manufacturers in America I would guess. In today’s environment, knowing what you know and what you had to endure then, could it be done today?
Don Landoll: That’s a question I get asked from time to time. I think it certainly could be done, but it would be a challenge. You know, the number one challenge is probably people. The number two challenge is insurance for those people. So, there were some major challenges where we weren’t smart enough to know what the words meant when we got started. But they’re very recognizable today. But it’s like I said earlier, you’d have to set one goal at a time and work in that direction.
Mike Lessiter: And then there’s regulation, which is much more stringent today and the distribution challenges the industry has today, too, right?
Don Landoll: Right. Well, the large dealers — it’s always been a challenge somewhat. We’re still way more flexible than the majors and things like that. And it’s just obvious you just don’t see many tillage products and that on dealer lots right now, so everybody’s expecting that instantly and when you add that to all the different sizes, not only the moldable different products, but then they come from anything up to 52 feet or so in our case.
So, there are a lot of challenges, but the main thing is being supported by that dealer, getting it there on a timely basis, of course doing the guaranteed service, if he’s working with us, and so on. And then you know that all our sales people are geared to sell quality and hands on setting the machines in the field. We’re willing — we’re not only willing, but we do that with many, many of our machines. We’re out there right alongside the salesman, a dealer salesman or whoever. And that’s well recognized. Then the majors, they still got to recognize that they want every farmer they can get coming into their door. And if they can’t supply the product and they can get the product from us, in a lot of cases the major doesn’t offer the same product. So, there is certainly some support for the major allowing their dealers to handle that.
Mike Lessiter: That was my next question I was going to — and you and I have talked about this topic before. Tell us why the ag industry needs a healthy, innovative, independent short line segment to it.
Don Landoll: Well, if we’re going to progress, the major competitors have never been a leader in innovation, that’s not part of their goal. Their major goal is tractors, combines and planters, no matter what line you want to take. So, if they’re going to come up with these products, and certainly a lot of, like I said, the tiller and all that, their small area products, they’re never going to be able to service that industry successfully. And when you look at what percent of the big boys’ income comes from tillage it would be very small. So, there’s certainly a need to go forward — there’s always going to be a need for innovative products. I just — the weed control right now, the seedbed, the high speed … since we got machines as big as we can get down the road, where do you go next with speed? So now it’s a matter of how fast you can go and still leave that proper seedbed in order for that farmer to cover more acres. So those are things that for them to sell their planters, they need people like us on the front side of them, preparing that seedbed.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about the family that you have in the business. We have Phil here, but talk about the family element of Landoll.
Don Landoll: We got a lot of family. But I got Phil and my daughter Paula, they’re in the business every day, they’re fulltime employees. So, they’re involved. My brother’s the longest-term employee, he’s hit his 50-year mark as an employee. But not only him, we got a lot of employees above 25 years employment, just a big group.
But we got a lot of nephews and cousins and all that as well. Been able to balance that and keep everybody…and when you do all that, the major challenge in that, whether it’s family or employees in general, is we’re very, very big. We’re a profit sharing company, we’re very big on escalating people, moving them up, but there’s certain people — they’ll have no desire or some of them have a desire but don’t have the ambition to do what it takes to move up. So, it’s a real juggling act — not moving someone up that can’t handle the job. And of course on the reverse side, if they can handle more then they should be moved up. So that’s something you look at every day trying to keep the company growing from the bottom up. I’ve never had much success in bringing in professional people from the outside because we got such a relationship with the people inside.
Mike Lessiter: Home grown, they know your culture and values. Another question that you and I — something that we share commonly is FEMA. You were President of the entire organization, very active as a past President, we’ve been in a lot of board meetings together. Tell us a little more about what FEMA has meant to your ability to do what you’ve done in this industry.
Don Landoll: Well, I’ve only missed a couple meetings since 1974 and I belonged a couple years before that and didn’t have time to go like a lot of current small FEMA members to take in conventions. I got on the board in the early ‘80s there during the tough times, but that allowed me to move up faster than normal because we had a number of people who went out of business in that era.
So ’90, ’91, I was president. But the big, big thing about being in the association, or in the leadership of the association, the time we spend and the relationships you build with the other board members, and generally speaking they’re all quite successful companies as a whole. Once you’re president you can go to a board meeting forever and that allows some leadership experience to come your way. But that also allows us old timers to give some advice.
Mike Lessiter: Last question, what’s the next 10 years for Landoll look like?
Don Landoll: Well, we all wish we knew. It’s a transition period. From day to day you don’t know for sure. I mean obviously, we got some leadership set up going forward and that. But I’ve seen so many failures in people trying to bring in outside leadership because the first thing they want to do is do it their way, and they don’t understand what built the company. And the people around them don’t know they don’t understand what built the company. So, I’ve brought in a couple and got rid of a couple of those kind of people, trying to do a little higher-level leadership. And it’s no secret. I don’t converse with them, but a company our size we get letters, 2 to 3 letters a week, people from these holding companies. There’s just tons of people out there looking to buy up something emergent. And I can give some prime examples where big companies come in and ruin 50-year-old, 70-year-old companies.
Mike Lessiter: That’s not going to happen in Kansas here is it?
Don Landoll: I don’t plan on it. “Nothing’s going to change,” is a phrase used widely but is seldom stuck to.
Mike Lessiter: Anything I didn’t ask you about that you would like to share in this conversation?
Don Landoll: No, I think we’re in a great industry, not that it’s not challenging, not that it doesn’t have its ups and downs, but for anyone young or new in the industry, the 2 things that I really put a lot of faith in is our vertical integration and diversification. Those 2 words and common sense. You add common sense to that, and that’s what it takes to hold it together day to day…for us.
Mike Lessiter: So, if I walked around the FEMA group and we’ve got a lot of common friends here, if I asked one word to describe Don Landoll and your way of doing business, what do you think most would say?
Don Landoll: That’s a good question. Well, I feel I’ve always been willing to be supportive of them, whether it’s my employees or the FEMA members or the sales people from FEMA members. I feel personality-wise I have not changed that much over the years. So, I would like to think that most of them would say that he’s a friend and I know him. It’s like anything, the number of people we got involved and we go to FEMA.
Mike Lessiter: I’ll answer that question, be my observation. … I hear about you opening your plant to virtually anyone who wants to come learn about how you’re doing that. That’s a common thing I’ve heard. I remember at your — we’ve talked about this for years in the supplier meetings, but was shared by John Brown in Myers Spring during the anniversary party where you made time to — at every one of those FEMA showcases — walk around to each and every booth and shake the supplier’s hands and thank them for supporting you on the manufacturing side by getting the products to them that you can carry forth out to market. I don’t know if you know what a big impression that’s made, but I can tell you, that means a lot to those guys.
Don Landoll: And I’m there to learn as well. You never know what new little gadgets are coming up. And I still head up most — any tour of any size I head up. I mean we got a lot of ones and twosies that Phil does or someone else does, but as far as groups, we enjoy and hopefully we’ll inspire them to do better for all of us.