Joe Bassett: For me my career really started in 2003. Our top line revenue never went down between 2003 and 2014. We continued to grow the business linearly between 2003 and 2014.
Mike Lessiter: Impressive.
Joe Bassett: What was a defining moment for me was realizing that we are building an industry on the back of corn and you can’t take for granted that corn is worth something or that there’s a market for it, or that… I get to do what I do because there is net farm income, and because my customers have money to spend on technology and products like ours. And if the customers have no money then they can’t — you can be doing every single thing right, perfect strategy, perfect product plan, perfect everything, and if the customers have no money you can’t sell anything to them.
And that’s what kind of happened when the market readjusted in the 2014 period. I was just like “whoa, we just had our first year over year decline,” and then we had another year of year decline in 2015, and at some point you actually start thinking, “well, I need to be running a smaller business or I need to have fewer people working there,” and the mistake I should have actually cut more sooner. In hindsight I wish I would have cut more sooner because it just — that would have been the wiser thing to do. It was almost vanity to think that we’ll just kind of engineer our way around it. And in practice that was pretty hard to do and just coming to realize that it is a cyclical business, sometimes things will go down and that doesn’t necessarily have to be an adjudication on yourself.
Mike Lessiter: Was that about the time that you took the wheel from Jim?
Joe Bassett: Yeah, I mean Jim had kind of thankfully — you know I hear from a lot of my customers, my father was a staple on the farm circuit forever, he was the large and everybody in the business knew him. He was notorious for showing up at farm shows late. We have this reputation that plagues us to this day of being the perpetually late company. But being perpetually late also I think is kind of cool because we’re constantly — it goes back to the fact that we’re doing this all with our own money. There’s not a big team of people, we’re living within our means. Everyone at Dawn Equipment — Dawn Equipment’s a company that people want to work at that want to have a big impact, that people that want to have big roles. And I want to let people that want to have big roles have big roles where they can do things, but we’re constantly running at that edge. You know my father was always that guy like the big character out there. He thankfully kind of let me — kind of moved aside I think. He’s going to do really well. I think there’s a lot of examples out there in the industry where you have that older generation not able to step aside.
Mike Lessiter: It’s very hard for most of them, right? He has to work probably to give you the room to run the company.
Joe Bassett: Well now he has a second kind of life. My father actually, he raises Herefords, he sells the beef at the farmer’s market, he’s actually teaching high school physics. He has this complete second life that he seems to be doing pretty well. I intend to pay him a lot of money in that he can…the sweat equity that he put in not letting the company go out of business. That starting point, having that name that means quality that customers identify with that started with some customers, that was a big starting point for me. I’m not going to gloss over the fact that having that starting point was a very valuable thing and it would have been difficult to get where I am as quickly otherwise.
Mike Lessiter: Where’d the Dawn come from?
Joe Bassett: So the Dawn of a new era in agriculture. My father would always joke that he would always run into the waitress named Dawn at the truck stop and we lose a lot of hats to it. We’re going to kind of freshen up our brand a little bit in the near future. I’m really proud of being in business for 25 years and I hope that staying an independent company being in business for 25 more years is actually going to — it’s going to be a technical challenge because what it’s going to require doing is every implement that is going to become a smart implement. Like every single thing is going to become, as automation increases, something that has some digital component to it. And what the industry doesn’t have right now is a clear pathway forward, a clear framework where independent 3rd party digital things will interface with other independent 3rd party digital things.
If independent or another company like — I was at Info Ag and I was talking with the guys from Verus, from Soil Optics, these other sensor companies. Well, look at our new planter products that you could be changing the depth of the planter on the go, you could be reconfiguring a number of different things about the planter where you’re on the go. Is there going to be an open accepted framework where independent products can interface with other independent products? I think we are actually going to have to innovate in that way. And some of the choices we’re going to make in the next year I think are going to be towards the direction that we decide to go with the Reflex product line — this is my prediction, if you file this video away and look at it 15 years from now, we’re going to be the bellwether of what becomes the open data standardization in the American farm equipment business. Or what is the future of Isobus, or what becomes a new type of open data exchange systems because who do we — we now will make a product where you could be planting and you could have 4 row by row independent data layers. Well they need to go somewhere. They need to go to — they only have value if the end user can look at them, juxtaposed with every other thing he’s doing on his farm. The value you get from data is that every single thing you do will be juxtaposed on top of it and then, amongst other things, but how do you do that, how do you do it in a way that does right by farmers, too? And I think that this is we’re literally at another inflection point, like I think Dawn came about at an inflection point in farming in the early 90s, and we’re going to be right there at another inflection point here as we kind of move into the robotic age of farming.
Mike Lessiter: Interesting. Why is it important for American agriculture to have independent suppliers like yourself?
Joe Bassett: Oh, because we just drive the pace of innovation so much faster. One of the things that I always intend to do, no matter how big the company gets, is I’m always going to be taking sales calls. I am always going to be looking at the internet. I believe that as an executive you can’t get too far away from the customers. We just have to just be, I don’t know, how could we not have any competition? I mean it’s the role of the independents to provide — that’s where so much of the unique innovation is coming from.
Like we were talking about before, what I think is at risk in this market is not that you won’t have small startup companies in agriculture, I feel that basically the industry will become bifurcated into simply large companies and then very, very small companies. And that what we will be losing is the mid-market. That is actually a technical problem, that is an electronic problem. How do companies, short line companies, make products that interface with other shortline products and OEM products. The next steps that happen in the industry are going to really determine what happens there.
Mike Lessiter: Sounds like you’re going to be in a position to drive that conversation.
Joe Bassett: I hope so. I want to keep doing it. I mean I really enjoy what I do. It’s a drag running a business. I mean anybody that runs a business, we’re about 50 people right now, it’s not always fun and games. What could be better than doing this, making stuff?
What I need to get better at is convincing a younger generation, and it’s crazy that I’m already becoming cognizant of a younger generation, but guys come up in their 20s, you know, we need to get better — I think as shortline and smaller companies, we need to get better at attracting young talent, retaining young talent, and bringing people up. Identifying people that are — if you want to be engineer one of 400 at a big company, you're not going to be fit for my company. But I talk to a lot of guys and they say why do people end up at like just kind of in the grind at the big companies is because they’re the ones out doing the recruiting. We need to get better at recruiting, we need to get better at identifying talent, retaining talent, recruiting and bringing people in and finding people. Because it really is a joy, having big impact is a joy.
Mike Lessiter: It’s a privilege.
Joe Bassett: And what I hate seeing is having younger people in their 20s leave my company to go to a bigger company, knowing full well that they might turn around 10 years, 15 years later to realize what a joy it is to have that kind of impact where you can sit down, design and then talk to the customer, recognize the need for the product, design something that fulfills that customer’s need, make a prototype, test it, sell it. The whole thing. That that has real value. That I feel like is something that I wish we could get through to people better. That’s going to be a struggle.
I recently decided we’ve had some kind of turnover recently and that really profoundly affected me. Lost a couple of team members that I was like, “why are you leaving the company?” Sometimes it’s about money, sometimes it’s about other things. The one thing I’ve realized is that what I have to do about our company, I’ve got to put you into the middle class at least. What does it take, if you want to buy a house in America today, have a family, get married, do all this stuff, what does it take to put you in the middle class? You know what, it’s a lot more and what we need to do is think of like we need to start from there. If I’m going to keep you and you’re going to enjoy being on this team, work is great, but if it’s not working for you as your total life picture, your work life balance, you’re not going to be happy at work. And so what I have to start from is how do I create roles that are big enough roles in the company that I can pay you enough to get you into the middle class, where you can actually have that life and have some ability to move yourself forward.
And then I’m starting from there, this is my new thing. Not just like — I don’t want like — I want a smaller group of people and every person needs to have a big enough universe inside of their work where they can generate the return on investment that’s required to put them into that life. If I can’t give you a big enough universe to pay you to do that, then that’s a mistake, that’s not a role, because that’s the only way that I’m really going to retain and build people and have career employees. Younger employees coming in, those team members — you know you read a lot in the business press about millennials and work and job hopping. Like this constant like difficulty retaining millennial talent and this constant job hopping around vs even team members I have that are 30-something, 40-something team members where…I think millennials actually get a bad rap about not being loyal to a company. I think companies also need to think about work in a way where you are thinking about careers instead of jobs.
And that was a mistake I made also— and that was a turning point for me, realizing that I need to actually manage people and…the little things, too. I hear all the time. My father didn’t actually — he wasn’t what you would call in any way a great manager of people I think, but guys loved how he would always bring in donuts and it costs like no money, and you’d be surprised how much I hear about like things like donuts, and I have to constantly think to myself I need to think about the little things, I need to think about the little stuff that really matters a lot to them.
Mike Lessiter: That’s interesting because I’ve known Jim for 10, 12 years, very tough, but it takes time to do a small gesture like that to keep the people engaged.
Joe Bassett: That’s what I need to do. The thing about the agricultural industry is it’s not a big world. The world of planters is not a big world and I really think that reputation is everything. A reputation will stick you for a long time, and so it is kind of like a family. And I’m increasingly as I’m getting older becoming cognizant. Like you guys are kind of like the standard bearers for our little market segment that it is our little — it has a disproportionate significance. And the things that we’re doing with cover crops and other stuff.
I was tweeting recently about how much credit other people like Elon Musk get for like electric cars and all this other stuff, and I was hypothesizing that the change that we will bring in cover crops along with some of the other just thought leaders and innovators and the farmers and all of the people that have started, that is a broad sweeping social change that will probably take more carbon dioxide out of the air and put the carbon back in the ground than anything else. And it will all happen just kind of silently over a 10 or 15 year period without anybody realizing it’s even happening, without any kind of big…it’s really — I think that it’s not what we’re doing can actually have great social significance and great impact on the climate and the world. And I am just so happy.
The one thing I could probably close on is how important there is like a little sliver of the farming population that’s like 5% of those early adopters, those early adopter farmers are the ones that have let me do what I do. That guy who — and there’s some of them that are — I mean that will take a chance. If we did not have that small group of like early adopting innovator farmers that are willing to take a chance on products, companies like us couldn’t exist. Because the center of the bell curve is always waiting for what their neighbor does. It’s a super socially bias world. And the fact that there is that little group of farmers that are the kind of against the grain farmers. They are the ones that have actually allowed us to develop because they’ll actually take a chance on you. And so I’m really grateful to them more than anything.
You know like when my father — I remember when we moved into our facility and we installed this system, Kinsey was up and coming and I mentioned — and Jon Kinzenbaw came by to visit at one point and I already talked about how Al Meyer was kind of in that same group and you have like companies and there’s kind of like a whole kind of group of peers that are people that were the founders of companies at that time. I wonder who my peers are going to be when I’m 50 or 60.
Mike Lessiter: You’re 37?
Joe Bassett: Uh-huh.
Mike Lessiter: So you’re well below the average. There’s going to be people going out before some of your peers are coming in. You’ll be the generation that had…
Joe Bassett: I want to get into bigger projects, too. I want to actually — how much more can we do with the true V planter row unit and I mean how much more — I just, you look at the world and I’m just like man, there’s going to be some crazy change with… you know what really scares me? Perennial corn. Like you ever think like how much — in technology people always talk about like it’s not like the competitor that gets you, it’s like the stuff that comes out of left field that you would never think. It’s like what if you just never plant corn anymore?
Mike Lessiter: It’s a grass, right?
Joe Bassett: It is, it’s a grass, like why do we plant it all the time? There’s got to be a solution to that. Somebody would. I mean it would totally undo everything.
Mike Lessiter: Talk about Jim for a minute. Tell me about his background, how did get into all this?
Joe Bassett: Actually my father is from New Jersey. He talks about really wanting to leave New Jersey. He did not like it there and I think he left New Jersey when he went to the Air Force Academy, and then he went from the Air Force Academy to the University of Wisconsin. That’s when he got into mechanical engineering. And so he was in a lot of kind of equipment design areas and it wasn’t until, you know, when Dawn was founded Jim was not working in agriculture at that time, but he always had an interest in it.
Mike Lessiter: So that by itself is very unique is an entrepreneur, founder company, didn’t grow up on the farm, and brought an outside perspective to all this.
Joe Bassett: Yeah, I think that’s a good thing. I mean I didn’t grow up on a farm either. I grew up in an agricultural business. I mean it’s good in a way.
Mike Lessiter: It can be limiting, too, because of the paradigm you’re operating from, right?
Joe Bassett: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a great thing. I think it is tough to break, have really outside the box thinking when you’re actively in that world because you’re only thinking like kind of like very close I think I might say. So yeah, he does really like farming. He raises cows now, he likes it.
I personally have no interest in the animal agriculture. Like I’m interested in the technical problems that I deal with. I’m interested in — but I wouldn’t farm myself. I think it’s a great lifestyle. I see my customers. I think for some of them it looks really nice. You get to kind of call your own shots when you’re a farmer.
Mike Lessiter: Any anecdotes that you remember about the time that the company got started in the early years?
Joe Bassett: There were really some funny times. I just bought one of the Paradigm planters back to keep in my collection. It was one that I believe had been bought by Case right when the company was about to go through bankruptcy and I was able to acquire that back. I think that that’s a great one.
I remember going to the patent attorneys when we were litigating about the yield monitor and I think I must have been maybe 13 or 14 and going to Chicago and going up into this building and like having a couple yield monitors sitting on the table. And I remember like making some points about the 2 designs and that the patent attorneys actually took me seriously.
Mike Lessiter: As a 14-year-old.
Joe Bassett: That was a really significant memory for me. I used to build things, too, like build things in the factory all the time. I remember how just… I don’t know how, it’s crazy that it ended up this way, it could have gone so many other ways. When we first introduced the Gfx row cleaner and we went out to South Dakota and we ran it and it was kind of like everything was great. And this moment scarred me forever. You know it could run in the field, everything’s good, and you’re like you get in the car and we were in kind of central South Dakota and we got to about like Jackson, Minn., and your phone rings and like the arms had all — every single one starts breaking at exactly the same place, and that profoundly scarred me to this day where I have a fear when I’m like starting a new product, I have a fear of leaving a customer’s farm because it’s always when you leave, as soon as you leave something goes wrong.
Also when I was child at the early year of Dawn, I remember, and this was in the very early years how — there was this like Gladys Knight and the Pips album that they would always sing in the office and that we were in this tiny little office, this dingy little office, and then you’d go in and there would be like these kind of oversized guys singing Gladys Knight. In hindsight it was all fun and games.
What do you think? I mean how long have you been in the business?
Mike Lessiter: I came back in 2003, so I’ve been back here 14 years.
Joe Bassett: What did you do before that?
Mike Lessiter: I was working in metals engineering and running 2 magazines in the Chicago area so came back to — the family business moved family to Wisconsin at that point.
Joe Bassett: How did your dad get into this business?
Mike Lessiter: He said that milking cows made him want to be an ag journalist. So he got a dairy science degree and decided he was going to help people farm by communicating new methods and that kind of thing. So he got into the publication business pretty early on. Did some livestock, did a bunch of things, and then was hired to launch No-Till Farmer for another publisher in Milwaukee in ’72. So he’s been the only editor in chief of No-Till Farmer in 45 years now.
Joe Bassett: Is he retired?
Mike Lessiter: No, he works 3 ½ days a week. Very much loves to do what he does and empowered several of us to back of the place to run different divisions, but he does what he wants to do now, which is write stores. Comes in, takes pictures, he’s writing a book right now. In fact he probably needs to connect with your dad on the book project.
Joe Bassett: Should call him, he has time.