Below is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Anthony Montag of Montag Manufacturing. According to Montag, efficiency of product is key. At Montag Manufacturing, family, strong communication and a consistent drive to learn make it happen.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us what Montag Manufacturing does, what their role is.
Anthony Montag: Montag Manufacturing develops equipment that is designed to maximize the efficiency of the product, or of the fertilizer used by placing it where it is the most available for the crop, both to achieve the most economic benefit as well as to minimize the environmental impact to the greatest degree possible through efficiency. A small company, that my father started, came out of an idea that he had in the mid-80s and developed. We build dry fertilizer equipment and steerable carts for the ag industry, and then partner with a good number of companies within that ag industry to market those pieces of equipment. I have the influence on engineering, marketing and manufacturing.
Mike Lessiter: How many employees?
Anthony Montag: We have about 35 employees now.
Mike Lessiter: And 2 sites?
Anthony Montag: Two sites, Emmetsburg, Iowa, which would be our main headquarters, and about 28 employees up there, and then a smaller parts distribution center in Milford, Neb. The Emmetsburg location is mainly focused on the large manufacturing, so that’s where carts, Gen 2s, Gen 1, our Generation 1, Generation 2, products come out of. A lot of our OE partnerships come out of there as well. Milford is more of a small parts assembly, a little cleaner environment, we’re doing gear boxes and plastic housings and components right there, and that’s also our parts warehouse, so parts come out of Milford. Marketing is out of Milford, engineering is out of our Emmetsburg location and we have some sales presence out of there as well.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us about your customer profile, who you serve in the equipment manufactured side and where you sweet spot is as a company.
Anthony Montag: Our customers tend to be conservation minded or efficiency minded farmers, farmers who are really looking at getting the most out of their investment in building the best fertility and taking care of their soil to the highest level. Those tend to be our customers. As typical in the ag industry, selling something new would tend to be in that 1500 to 5,000 acre farmer, that tends to be a lot of who we sell to. I’d say that dynamic is changing as well, though, we’re starting to see a lot of the larger farmers starting to look at it and starting to see more of those smaller farmers who are now starting to purchase used pieces of equipment as well now that we’ve been in business for a few years, starting to see some of that, but still a relatively small amount of used equipment really in the market.
Mike Lessiter: Affiliations with the other manufacturers out there, what’s the breakdown look like today?
Anthony Montag: We have tight relationships like with Kuhn Krause and Deere where we move equipment and have a fairly structured system and do that. But then we have a lot affiliations where we work closely with OEs, Blu-Jet, Dawn, Orthman, Great Plains just to name a few, where we have agreements where we work together and partner to sell equipment and those relationships continue to grow and continue to add new ones all the time.
Mike Lessiter: Describe to us what the engineering focus capacity operation is at your place… engineering and design.
Anthony Montag: So, mostly in the development of our products really to bring them and keep pace with the technology that’s changing in the ag world. Many people tend to think of agriculture as kind of a backwards way of doing things, but in fact it’s heavily technologically driven and, for example, the latest major project that we worked on would have been our new generation machine that has the ability to blend multiple products together, control those over a section off of a GPS satellite prepared and applied map and do all this in real time while driving across the field. So, developing those pieces and integrating that and then working with the computers in the different tractors.
Mike Lessiter: Before we get into the history, I want to know a little bit more about your dad’s background, and kind of encapsulate him growing up and what carried him forward to starting the company.
Anthony Montag: Often at times I’m convinced my father was born an entrepreneur.
Mike Lessiter: He seems like one.
Anthony Montag: Most certainly was. His junior high school project was building a skid loader in shop class, and this is before skid loaders were out. So he built a little 10 hp skid loader to scoop manure out from underneath the chicken cages in the chicken barn.
Mike Lessiter: What state were we in, city?
Anthony Montag: He went to high school and West Bend, Iowa. So, this is his junior project. His senior project was working on a machine for moving grain bins, so he worked on that and then worked onto that the farm as well. And that’s what he actually started doing right out of high school — he farmed, raised some livestock, which was the common thing you did in the 70s, but then on the side he also would do some manufacturing stuff and he moved grain bins. He actually moved nearly 2,000 government bins as a side job, plus moving Quonsets and larger grain bins, but he lost track of the number of grain bins he moved. Around 2000 is what he estimates that was because he lost track in the upper 1800s. So yeah, kind of a different thing.
Then he started working on a lot of projects so farmers would come to him and he would take a new idea, and he would take and strip that down and make it into a pull type and he timed them for the seed corn, for picking seed corn so the ear actually never moved in the field but just up and timed everything.
So, he did some things like that, built some like he had the largest grain wagon ever built for a time and some fun projects like that. And I can still — that’s where I grew up. I can still — one of my earliest pictures in the shop is with Mom holding me at about 9 months and there’s Dad welding those large grain wagons in the background.
Mike Lessiter: It was an on-farm shop?
Anthony Montag: Yep. So he built it not too long after he got out of high school. He built the 60x40 shop there on the farm and that’s where he did a lot of different manufacturing projects. Many of them were shown in the Farm Show paper.
Mike Lessiter: What were some of the other ones that he tinkered with?
Anthony Montag: Well, he built a high boy, and that was actually the very first metering system that he built was on that high boy for applying dry fertilizer in crop and that would have been built back in the early 80s. It was — yeah, high boy, he built a couple of those that would have been really the beginning of what became Montag Manufacturing.
Mike Lessiter: So the early 80s, the start of trouble in farm country. Was this side job something that helped him being able to support the farm? Was it that kind of business or was it just a small handyman type operation at that time?
Anthony Montag: No, it definitely helped support the business. Dad did a lot of different things during the mid-80s. Like everyone else he was affected by that. They hadn’t taken a lot of the uptake in land and opportunities that a lot of people were doing earlier because they were more diversified, moving bins and things like that. So, they were a little bit more protected from it than some, but you couldn’t go through the 80s in the ag world and not have felt that in a significant way. And he did a lot of blacksmith work, things like that to subsidize and make it through that pretty difficult era.
Mike Lessiter: How old are you?
Anthony Montag: 36.
Mike Lessiter: 36, so that would have you — you were born in…
Anthony Montag: ’81.
Mike Lessiter: Right at the beginning.
Anthony Montag: Yes, so I have no memories before the 80s crisis. So the glory days of the 70s aren’t things that I remember. I just remember ag — really that early 80s all the way through into the early 90s was kind of a long, drawn out struggle.
Mike Lessiter: Because he had a young family and the manufacturing business was occupying a lot of his time, you had mentioned that that kept him from maybe buying more land during that up around that could have been more difficult for him in the years that followed.
Anthony Montag: Correct, yes.
Mike Lessiter: Blessing in disguise.
Anthony Montag: Blessing in disguise, yeah, they changed — Dad didn’t take some of the opportunities on some of the livestock side either because they were raising quite a few hogs, they had gotten out of the chickens at that point already, but yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us what happened from ’81 or so to 2005 before it officially became the entity we know today as Montag.
Anthony Montag: So, Montag Manufacturing, if you trace it back, has roots in a company called NewMatics, which was relatively popular in the ag industry. I mean it has its place, or definitely had a presence. And that was the company that my father started with two other gentlemen, Michael McNeal and Ken Clark back in 1986. They came in in 1988 so and Dad had been developing this metering system. And they built a complete solution, and this is before strip-till, this is really in the beginnings of banding fertilizer, and they were just banders, used different coulter setups, worked with some different OEs and that company grew pretty rapidly and they started looking for an investor then in the early 90s.
So in 1993 they had an investor come out of the automobile industry, they came in and bought majority interest of that company, NewMatics, and kind of helped to continue to build that up, but had a little different focus on where that market was going. So, instead of selling the complete systems kind of ended up selling more just the metering systems to some OEs and not investing necessarily as much into the R&D side to sustain it in the ag world. That really brings you up kind of to that day in 2000.
Mike Lessiter: Did your dad stay with NewMatics after that?
Anthony Montag: Yep. He was really part of that company and we actually continued to build parts after that majority interest buyout, Dad still continued to work for them and we built — made parts and components for the metering systems and continued to work in that business more as a contractor than an employee of NewMatics.
Then around 2000 started to see some opportunities to develop some other things and we worked on a few projects with NewMatics on the metering system. But we have some ideas that we wanted to start working on mainly coming up with a poly tank. We’d been working on the development of the steerable cart and building a meter that was more technological, such as getting away from the old ground wheel drives and bringing it into a GPS driven platform. They weren’t really interested in investing into that, so we developed those projects on our own just as a blacksmith.
In 2005, we decided it was time to incorporate the business and just give it a name and start marketing some of these products. So, that’s kind of the beginning of where that comes and 2005 was definitely an interesting year. I mean we started out as essentially it was Dad and myself and my two sisters working part time in the company and we built a couple machines, branded them, developed a website with some friends locally. And we’re still working out of that 40x60 shop on the farm place.
But then, no sooner did we start doing that, and started putting a brand on it and we started seeing some dealers coming to us and this was something we hadn’t really anticipated much. We were just going to kind of follow that old NewMatics model, but all of a sudden we started seeing some dealers coming to us and saying yeah, we’d like to sell that product for you. And right away you start getting into this debate are we going to be a manufacturer selling and trying to handle all of this or are we going to just focus on the part we do well which is manufacturing and find dealer partners to go with and support us in their markets. That wasn’t an easy decision in 2005, but it’s one I know we’ve been really happy and grateful that we made and I think made the right decision to start partnering with dealers in the development of our products.
Mike Lessiter: So 2005, you’re 24 years old, so you been around this entire chapter for Montag since incorporation.
Anthony Montag: Yep, I learned to weld when I was early in my teens and yeah, I’ve spent the hours and the nights bending and forming and shearing and cutting parts and grew up with that.
Mike Lessiter: You were definitely doing that work in the early days — personally doing that work in the early days.
Anthony Montag: Yep. Answered the phone during the day and worked at night.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about what happened between end of high school and 24 starting this business with your father.
Anthony Montag: I graduated high school and started working in the shop right away. So I just very much followed my father’s footsteps of doing blacksmith work and we were kind of a traditional blacksmith shop at that time. We had this fab job that we would do, work on for NewMatics and then we would build things that people wanted us to work on or to build. As with everything that Dad was doing, we always were working on some new project or some development of something as well. So, you had your day job and then you had something you were working on, the fun thing that came along after that was done.
Mike Lessiter: I bet there were no days where your feet were up on the desk with an entrepreneurial, inventive, tinkering…