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.