The following is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Joe Bassett of Dawn Manufacturing. Bassett talks through his company’s history, from early memories of Jim Bassett, to the bankruptcy and the moment he realized they would make it.
Mike Lessiter: Someone says, “Tell me what Dawn Equipment’s all about.” How would you answer that question?
Joe Bassett: What Dawn does is we try and make the smartest ground engaging devices in the world. We only make things that either directly touch the soil or are involved with how things touch the soil. Obviously, we’ve shifted from making really basic planter attachments to now making incredibly sophisticated computer controlled ones to high efficiency tillage. I think the undercurrent of all the products is that they’re always kind of at the edge of technology and what’s going on in industry trends.
Mike Lessiter: Very much a design engineering company first and foremost, is that fair to say?
Joe Bassett: Oh yeah. I don’t know how we could stay in business otherwise. We have to, I mean design’s part of just we do and who we are. What I do, I don’t identify as an executive or CEO, I identify as a product designer and in the end having something to sell, knowing what your customers need is the most important thing. So I always think like okay, what is the most important thing for me to be working on. Well that’s understanding what my customers need today, a year from now, and 5 years from now.
Mike Lessiter: You’re definitely cut differently than a lot of executives. I know we’ve talked about it, you’re a self-taught casting designer, those kinds of things.
Joe Bassett: Yeah, I mean, I come from a design background — a product design background. I grew up actually doing a lot of mechanical stuff. I was involved in the business from a very young age. Always loved mechanical stuff. I started working on sports cars when I was 15, I was featured in the Lego Builder magazine when I was a child, I built a robotic hand when I was in college. I like making farm equipment, it’s one of the few fields where an individual inventor can make something and kind of do it in automotive or aerospace or medical or a lot of other kind of design fields, architecture. It’s not quite like a guy can’t just go to a garage and cut…that’s this industry and the industry that Farm Equipment and Lessiter Publications serves is that kind of cottage industry where the individual inventor can go out to the Farm Show, and even though that’s really changing now where you’d have the farmer inventor. I like to think of Dawn as epitomizing the independent spirit of American agriculture.
Mike Lessiter: Take us back into the incorporation of Dawn and what your dad was doing at the time and what the thought process was when you decided to launch the company.
Joe Bassett: I was really a kid, but the way that it worked actually was my father does have some — he’s a professional engineer, he comes from a mechanical engineer background — I was born in Davenport, my father had been working that I think at Harvester Works at the time. They left there much to my mother’s chagrin — she evidently likes being on John Deere health insurance. We moved to Minneapolis St. Paul, we lived in St. Paul, my father worked at the Toro Company designing golf course turf care products.
And then from there we, when I was in maybe 2nd grade, we moved to the Dekalb/Sycamore area of northern Illinois, where we live currently. And my father had started working at what was Barber-Greene which was a manufacturer of paving and road construction equipment. At some point in the early 90s, Barber-Greene was going to sell out the Caterpillar and at the local church that we went to there in Dekalb, the Catholic Church, the Newman Center, my father — we met another family, the Favors, and the company got started actually kind of in talking with Steve Favor who later had a significant career. He was kind of like an electrical engineer, went to the University of Illinois but he was a large farming family locally and he was kind of at the absolute cutting edge of precision farming. They got together and they decided to start a company, and the company was actually started in the basement of the Favor farm out on Fairview Road in Dekalb. And that’s where I remember going over there as a kid and the first product actually — this was kind of — people don’t remember, but ridge till was a big deal back then.
Mike Lessiter: We had a ridge till publication at one time. Ridge Till Hotline.
Joe Bassett: And I remember in my early days people talking about how Buffalo was a big company and talk about the history of short lines. Buffalo is still around, right? I think they’re still actually… and the first product we made was actually a ridge till product which was called the T-knife, and it was a knife for ammonia that you’d run in between the rows of ridges and then it would shoot a band of ammonia out under the ridge. And I’m not totally clear on how it worked, but Howard Martin, who was the original patent holder of the tooth wheel row cleaner, had licensed, sold his patent to John Deere like every farmer inventor probably shops their idea to John Deere, and for whatever reason this tooth wheel row cleaner design John Deere had decided to not produce it internally. And what my father, Jim, has told me is that John Deere came in and basically talked to a few people and they licensed, relicensed the Martin intellectual property to 3 companies, that was us, back to Martin and to Yetter. And that’s how we got into kind of no-till and row cleaning. Because at that time, in the early 90s, Roundup came around and it was just like whoa all of a sudden weed control just got way easier and that just changed, farming got super simple, and all of a sudden no-till became a heck of a lot easier to do no-till because you had glyphosate. And they were like okay well now we can get into no-till.
And so we started making the tooth wheel row cleaner and that’s really where like the core engineering like the fundamentals of Dawn, like making the heaviest built, longest lasting stuff we can possible make. The Dawn tooth wheel row cleaner was always a forged wheel, very good steel, 100% American made, just good quality features. And like they started selling like gang busters.
Mike Lessiter: What year would that have been?
Joe Bassett: That would have been in the like 1993 to 1996 area. It’s just up and to the right. We moved out of the basement at the Favor farm and then we moved to a little tiny factory on Route 64 on the east edge of Sycamore that’s still there today. And I remember being there because I was already around at that time, I’d push a broom, or some of the employees at that time, nobody wanted to do inventory, so I was 12 or 13 and they would make me do it — I would actually have to do inventory and stuff. But those were good times.
There was another partner, a gentleman named Lee Putney who owned the local Case dealer chain and was also a partner. Things, you know, sales grew really rapidly on the no-till row cleaner products and things kind of went up and to the right and my father, like a lot of people, looked at — they looked at the planters that were out there at that time and they got into all sorts of attachments. Like John Deere put out the 750 drill and they didn’t put a marker on it, so we made a marker and other kind of stuff like that.
And then Jim decided to make what he thought would be the best planter in the world, which is a big jump from when you start making something that’s like this big to making something that is a complete tow behind implement. They did some debt financing and like it was a big project. I remember — today I can’t imagine doing it with like auto cad, you know, doing it with 2D. It was kind of an interesting time. It still would be a very innovative planter today. His philosophy was high speed planting before anyone even thought of it. It was about smaller high speed planters which 25 years — there’s no advantage in business to being ahead of your time. It had a unique metering system, it had a hydraulic down pressure system. Like some of the things that he got into then actually those ideas kind of percolated back up now in our product line as we get into like the Reflex planter automation system, the active control systems that we’re making for some of the Suffield planters.
But that project just — it was going to sell but he kind of ran out of runway, like it wasn’t from a financial standpoint, it did end up bringing the company to the brink of insolvency in the late 90s when I was actually kind of in college at that time. I’d worked there throughout my childhood since I was always around. I remember the faces from back then.
Mike Lessiter: Every business has those moments that you recover from.
Joe Bassett: Actually it was a profound moment for us in the way we run our business up to today, and it has some kind of interesting… so the byproduct of going through bankruptcy at that time was that it basically forced us to — we started self-funding. We started running the business entirely on cash flow and so I came into my career effectively in a business situation which was like you have to make money and make sales, otherwise you don’t make payroll. And always having that discipline, which I frankly think is a really turned out to be one of the greatest gifts that I have because when you look — like today I just acquired Jim’s half of the company from him, that at the age of 37 I own a business of this size 100%. I have, effectively, a debt-free business. It’s a slog, I mean anybody up and down this aisle. I mean farming’s a slog, the industry is so up and down.
Although, to be quite honest… okay, so the company like once a chapter 11 late 90s and like Jim just hung on. I mean I can’t believe it, because he really like I think he — the other…
Mike Lessiter: It’s harder to hang on than it is to walk away.
Joe Bassett: It is, and everybody got paid. Steve had to leave the company, it just shrunk down. Steve went to other stuff and other places. So the company had kind of shrunk way down, but we always had a market for those core products, the Curvetine, the screw-adjust trashwheel just like heavy, there was always people that bought those core basic products from us that kept the business afloat because of never compromising on the quality of the product is what I learned from that. Where if you always focus on making really the best thing you can possibly make, then that’s always a leg to stand on. Whereas once you give up on quality, when you’re in dark times you don’t, why do your customers have any reason to stick by your side.
So when I actually joined the company in 2003 I went to the University of Iowa, I actually studied physics at the University of Iowa, not engineering. I had a great time there. I actually learned — I did a machinist apprenticeship while I was at the University of Iowa, there was a machine shop at the Department of Physics, so I did get a lot of exposure to where I could just build things. I built a robotic human hand, I built a motorcycle — just got to do a lot of stuff. I used to make lab experiments and that was really great for me. I was also getting into computing and other things at that time, too. And at one point there was really a question of the vast majority of people did not think that like joining the family business was the right career choice for me. And I had other offers and in the end did decide to come back to join the business. And that was like one of those critical fork in the road decisions that you’re going to make.
Mike Lessiter: So it was a conscious decision, you had other options you could pursue and you had to stop and think which one.
Joe Bassett: Absolutely. Starting from somewhere is better than starting from nowhere, and I always liked making stuff out of metal and doing mechanical things has always been really what I’m interested in. And so it worked out. And we just tried a lot of different things from like 2003 to like 2007. We made some far out toolbars. That’s when I designed the first strip-till device. I honestly cannot, looking back at it, I cannot believe some of the things we were doing — and you just have to learn from experience. I’m sure looking back at your business you think some of the things you thought about 10 years ago or 15 years ago you just can’t even believe.
So we started making the strip-till units and around 2005, those started selling and continue to evolve, and that provided a little bit of growth for the company. We made the first remotely controllable planter attachment in the world in about 2006, 2007, with the Gfx row cleaner, which now kind of hydraulic stuff in your planter is ubiquitous. At that time we didn’t even — one of the differences with us is that we have the audacity to actual make it ourselves. We have machines, like if you go to Dawn Equipment there’s like people with machines and we make the thing, too. That kind of started clicking. Planters started getting bigger and you started thinking — I’d go out to a customer’s farm and we were dialing knobs to like adjust your row cleaners, and you’re like this just doesn’t — it could take you an hour to go 36 rows doing this.
And so we started making those. Let’s see, that started clicking and we actually started learning how to make hydraulic compact actuation products at that time, more or less just by learning on the go. Around 2007, 2008, 2009 that started clicking. Around 2009 the Pluribus strip unit, 2008, 2009 that started turning into something which was at least a partially mature product. Although it’s really not going to become a fully mature product until actually this year. I haven’t redesigned the Pluribus strip-till unit in like 6 years or 7 years, we’re going to do an actual redesign this year.
Mike Lessiter: In every business there’s those points where you could say “it’s clear we’re going to make it now.” Was there a defining moment?
Joe Bassett: You could tell that the Gfx row cleaner sells and continues to sell and that proved — that moved us into a different place than we were before. That was a product that works extremely well and continues to work really well. Not only that, it lasts for a really long time. That was one of the main things that just like clicked.
Mike Lessiter: And that set the table for…
Joe Bassett: We’re going to make remote control — we’re going to make hydraulically automated things for the planter. Then we go from there and then we look at it and part of it is like just by luck being in the right place. So we were already in 2007 making a hydraulically controlled planter row cleaner that was like a double acting spring with an accumulator in it. Just by dumb luck. Well, I mean it wasn’t, I was actually looking at suspension designs from other heavy vehicles and thinking about how we could use that. And then we started looking at the down pressure, and the John Deere planter row unit had gone from springs to an airbag with the XP row unit I think in like 2000, around that same time.
And then around that sort of 2007, 2008 period, Precision Planting introduced the Airforce product, which was the double airbags automatically kind of controlling the down pressure on the planter row unit. And I looked at it and I was like, “we’re already making this hydraulic row cleaner attachment, why don’t we just make a hydraulic down pressure product, too?” And that was when we decided you know what, we’re going to actually make a computer controlled product. That was a big step for us. Because going from making something which has 40 parts and is like made out of tubing welded together and like screws and stuff to something which is an active, hydraulic control system for a planter row unit. That was like if I had had people with actual expertise, I wouldn’t have probably done it. If I would have known — like we did not even know what we didn’t know. Because not only are we like, “okay we’re going to make a control system, we’re going to actually make our own cylinders, like these precision cylinders, too, from scratch.”
That put us on a course that of took several years to kind of get, figure out how to make these things correctly and make them with quality. And thank goodness we happened to have some really important early patent filing dates because of just kind of being in the right place at the right time. And that will provide the core of a business moving forward because we made the first row by row controllable down pressure system. There will be now we make the first…what was it…we kind of — that stuff started clicking a couple years ago. Honestly, supplying the factory product to John Deere, John Deere has actually taught us how to do quality control on a level which is like way up because we have learned how to do quality control at a very, very high level, which is required to make products like that. And it’s more or less transformed our business to the point where we — I don’t even know that we shouldn’t be making products that are outside of agriculture. Like when you look at the things we make, it’s like we could be making a lot of different things, which is kind of a fear for me that we would lose that focus on what we do.
So that really, really started clicking on the automatic down pressure control front. The idea that there’s so much attention that had been given to meters and spacing and singulation and clutches, but the uniformity of emergence like I want to be the “uniform emergence company.” Like how do we make the furrow, how do we clear the residue, how do we close it. A couple years ago I started thinking about how we could make the first fully robotic planter row unit. In 2007 we made the first thing where a farmer could just turn it on, he used to have to stop, open up the door, climb down, go back to the planter, do a bunch of knobs. So a couple years ago we had that moment where we were like this is the same time that we are at back then. It’s so ridiculous to be — if we have some things that are automatic, why not have it all automatic. I mean eventually everything’s going to be automatic. And so to today we just introduced the first range of products that can fully automate the planter row units so you could never leave the seat of your tractor cab and control every aspect of it
Mike Lessiter: So I just asked you about that time where you turned the corner. Were there other defining moments that kind of annealed you in the fire like you mentioned that post bankruptcy, after the planter project?