Gregg: I’m Gregg Sauder with 360 Yield Center.
Mike Lessiter: Thanks for joining us here today, Gregg. First off, how you would define what 360 Yield Center does?
Gregg: My 360 Yield Center is all about nitrogen. We spent our life in planter and planter attachments and when we made that switch and we started 360 Yield Center, we knew that nutrient by plant was where the future’s going to be. And so, we based all of our technology and engineering efforts around nitrogen. Without question, water probably first for yield, and then nitrogen comes right in behind that. It’s a high input and, at the same time it can have a tremendous impact on yield. So that’s where we really focus. We key in on it, and we really hone in on that area.
Mike: Tell me about the start of your business on the supply side, going back to 1993 when you and your wife started the first company.
Gregg: You know, we’ve been fortunate, and I’ll just say this, it’s not easy to start over. A lot of times I think we think “oh we’ll just do it again. Precision Planting … we had a great team of individuals.” You’ll quickly learn when you’re in business it’s never about yourself; it’s about the team that surrounds you. We had a really good, solid team. We built up quite a following of distributors. Thru distribution our dealer network is tops, unmatched.
So, when we started 360 it’s – with the agreements and stuff that we had - there was a 5-year non-compete in there that makes it really hard. Handcuffs come off on June 21 so that’s been a lot of fun. We’re back, free to move in any direction we want to move.
So, the challenge was we started in 1993 from the ground up. We’re a farm family. We didn’t have a lot of resources and we just built it one step at a time from the ground up. When I started 360 I said, “you know I don’t have all that much more time,” and we kind of started from the top down, the opposite side. We went out and found the right talent and we brought them in and it’s been very successful for us. It’s a different approach. At the same time then, you’ll have some turnover because when you bring in that kind of talent, everybody is looking to bring those kinds of people on their team. So, there’s been some movement back and forth, but at the same time it’s been a real pleasure.
I enjoy the challenge to get it where it needs to be. The end result is the same. We bring technology to help farm families get better. I am driven to help young farm couples be successful in farming. So, to do that you need technology that’s simple but very effective. In other words, you got to price it right, but it has to be able to have a good outcome. You have to be able to move the needle on yield, and if you can do that and change their profit schedule, you’re going to be in the driver’s seat. So, a lot of our … far as our moving of dealers, a lot of those same dealers come on board with us. It’s been a real pleasure to work with them. We have a great relationship with them, so it’s been a lot of fun.
Mike: So this was 5 years ago when Precision Planting was sold, correct?
Gregg: That’s right.
Mike: So, a lot of people could have said, “this is the dream, this is to – the cash it out. Could have gone, put your feet up on a beach somewhere.” Tell us about why you did what you did next.
Gregg: I hear that all the time and we’re probably working harder now than we’ve ever worked in our lives, and I felt like we were pretty busy before. We have a lot of different entities. I mean we have a pretty good size farming operation. We have farm ground in 3 different states; Illinois is about 6500 acres that we really key in. Almost all those acres are research, which is a lot of fun. That’s where it really starts. Obviously, we have a dairy. Plus we have 7 children and all the children are involved. All of our kids are involved with us in business in one aspect or another. Whether that’s on the farming side, in the 360 side or the dairy side. So that’s what Cindy and I tick for. It was never a question that we’re going to take this income and just relax. It was what can we do, how can we change ag.
You know commodities’ prices are what they are. And you and I quickly learned we can complain about them but we can’t change Chicago Board of Trade. What we can change is how we manage our businesses and how we are willing to change our farming systems, whether that’s in the cover crops or strip-till or no-till or full-till, whatever works for you. And we work with the nation, we work in foreign countries, so people have to adjust. But if they’re frozen in time and they say “you know, Gregg, I have no line of credit to try something different,” I really worry for them.
You have to be willing to adjust within your system and that’s what we’ve always based our business on; education. Education is always the key. We will do meetings here non-stop for 3 days. We’re going to present solutions to the problems. It so happens we believe we have the right solution, but you’re not going to hear us say, “what you need to do is buy a bullet ripper point, or fill-in-the-blank.” We’re saying, “we believe this is what is happening in the corn field. Here would be a solution to it.” So, that’s how we always base all of our promotion is on educational seminars and we work that angle of it.
Mike: Did you learn that focus in the early days of precision or had you always…
Gregg: I think we’ve always done that. I’ve always been involved in grower groups and high yield clubs. Ken Ferrie, a really good agronomist, probably one of the best in the country, I worked personally with him for years and years and I watch his grower groups and I’d see guys that would fall off out of that grower group because they just couldn’t adapt. And we would go to their farms and they had the same problem year after year after year and I’d be like after the fourth year I’m like, “we’re done here. I mean we’ve been here 4 times and talked about the same problem and you’re not willing to fix it. You probably just need to stay here and we need to move on.”
And so, I think with Precision Planting it was about creating products as fast as we could and educating what the need is and then bring that technology out at an affordable price. We always worried about return on investment. ROI to me, the dream product, is when it’s simple, very effective and it pays for itself in half the growing season. So, half the planting season, half of the nitrogen season, you broke zero and now you’re adding money. That’s when growers say, “I can see that we need to invest in this.” That’s our business plan.
To do that you need, what we call e-speed, entrepreneur speed. The other one is BC which is Big Corp speed. So, it’ll take John Deere - I don’t mean to be beating up on them - but it takes them 3 to 4 years to bring out a product and it should because they have to protect their customer base, their brand. In an individual business like we are, we take risk beyond measure. Growers know if they deal with Gregg on a new product first year, it’s probably going to have some problems, but they have to trust that we’re going to stand behind it. Which then means we get a lot of acres and we get a rapid introduction. We’ll fix it on the fly, we’ll make it right to the grower, and so there’s tremendous trust and you never violate that trust. You always stand behind your product.
Mike: A lot of people aren’t comfortable operating….
Gregg:Well, with Precision Planting we took tremendous risk. We designed some new products in 6 weeks, and we call it “the blitz.” Twelve engineers, and the day after our agreement fulfilled, we met for a full day and we mapped out a 6-week blitz and it worked. It’s not always going to work that way, but you should be able to bring a product out in an 8-month to a year timeframe if you’re focused and you got the energy behind it. So that’s what we call e-speed. A lot of companies are trying to copy that. Caterpillar - you’ll see them use it all the time now - in the Peoria, Ill. Area. We’ve met with them and they talk about being an e-speed and I don’t think that’s going to happen in that large of a corporation.
It can at 360 because we’re so small and nimble, which can be a problem because we can turn so fast in the water - our PT boat compared to an aircraft carrier - you can turn and make a mistake. Sometimes you can overreact. So that’s where we really got to just, easy as we go, but that’s what I enjoy is having that speed to market and the ability to react.
Mike: Is that the opportunity that you had seen with 360 Yield Center? Was it because of that that the other players were big battleships and there was room for a nimble…?
Gregg: Yeah, I mean, we know, and it sounds arrogant, we need to be really careful, but we can drive the market, and we can from the back here. We can aggressively change the marketplace with the right solution and we’ll enter in an area, we will key in on a focus and you’ll see the whole industry start to shift. So obviously we patent, and for any small businessmen, I mean it starts with understanding. And a patent really doesn’t guarantee you anything. It gives you the right, Mike, to go into court, raise your hand and say, “your honor I had this idea first.” But after that, you know, you have to defend it.
So, in the land of giants that we live, in OEMs you see a lot of consolidation, and it’s going to come down to just a few handful of players. So, we always are concerned about that. How do we fit in? Who do we align with? And it’s no mystery … we’re aligned with Deere and it feels really good. For 23 years we were just head-to-head. After that, when we sold Precision, we got together and they said, “let’s work together,” and that has been really, really good for us. It feels good. They’re a pleasure to work with, we have a great relationship with a lot of their dealers. They’re different set of dealers than like our 360 dealers, but yet as a combination has really helped us.
Mike: Tell us about your path to where you are. At age 15, age 20 what you thought you were going to be doing and the path to where you ended up.
Gregg: I was never satisfied with the way equipment ran. So, we - from day one we’ve always tinkered. I can remember long before I even had a farm shop, I’d be laying out a white rock drive with nothing but a vice grip and a crescent wrench, trying to reshape and re-bend and reweld. I always enjoyed that side of it. Just always trying to make it one step better. You know, Precision really started when I went to 20-inch narrow row corn in ’93; planters weren’t designed to do that. And so, we immediately started to reinvent the meter so it would singulate at that low RPM. And that’s really what started the whole path. And once I jumped in I said, “man, these meters need a lot of help.” So, in our own shop we just were building our own.
We had a 20-row planter. I was just tinkering and designing and building for that 20-row and pretty soon, neighbors started coming and saying, “can you do mine?” You know how that goes. So, Cindy and I decided - we were raising hogs and that wasn’t fun. We were not making any money and I said, “I see a need here.” And so, we just started custom setting planters and it just grew.
And you know OEMs made the decision, right or wrong, that they weren’t going to sell us planter parts, which is the best thing that ever happened to me … When they said, “we’re going to shut you off, we can see that it’s growing so fast.” We were spending millions of dollars on parts from OEMs. I finally, when they shut me off, I said, “great, we’ll just make our own.” And that’s how it all started.
Mike: Did that happen in the early ‘90s?
Gregg: That happened early. By ’97 we were starting to make our own planter parts because we just couldn’t buy enough, and it is the best thing that ever happened to me. So, a lot of times when you get those disappointments in business, it’s an opportunity. It looks like a real road block and you say, “ah, crap, what are we going to do here? How are we going to meet the demand?” Well, get creative and figure out a way around it. It’s not always the easiest path but it’s usually for the best.
Mike: So that would be – I take it that would be a major defining moment in your career. What were some of the other…
Gregg: Well, I think when we hired our first professional engineers. When we – the year I hired 3 really good crackerjack, young engineers. At that point we knew no bounds and we said, “we’re going to design a precision meter from the ground up,” and then we said, “we’re jumping in the vacuum side.” And once we knew and we developed a recipe – it’s no different than when you bake cookies or a cake. And once you figure out the system of inventing, and you understand how rough prototypes test, smooth or better, second gen – we always call it second gen, third gen, fourth gen and rapid prototyping.
I think it was about 1996 to ’97 - ’97 was when I really built the big shed when we first started to be in business and then Derek came in about then. It’d been a year then we had 2 more. Two from Caterpillar and one from Deere. You know, we’re in a hotbed of really raw talent. Caterpillar’s actually 15 miles down the road, Deere’s only an hour and a half. And so, we look for the young engineer that’s 6 years in the workforce and he is done with the corporate speak, in other words the politics, and he’s saying I’m ready to make a difference in a unique way. He’s willing to take risks.
When you come to a small family operation there is no guarantee. I remember when I hired the first one out of Caterpillar, his family was having a fit, they said, “you’re going where to what? A farm family in central Illinois?” And he became an all-star, unmatched. The products that he designed - unfortunately he had a young family and he got severe cancer and we lost Derek but his family is basically like our family. But the impact that he had, I’ll never forget, about 2 months before he passed away we had a large gathering, and I did the math. And he had a real heart for the Lord, too, and he helped a lot of people, but the impact that he had in agriculture, when you look at the massive numbers of all the things that he did at Precision Planting it was unbelievable. So that’s what it’s about. It’s people that make a difference.
I’ll never forget the year we figured out that we could rapid prototype something in 7 days, and with the new 3D printers at that time was just brand new, we were sending it off to Chicago. We could send a print and in 7 days we could get back a plastic part, true, not very strong, but enough that you could test it for 15, 20 minutes before it broke. That changed our whole world. Once we discovered that rapidness of what we could do, then we were off to the races.
And so, then we said, “well once we did it once, why wouldn’t we follow the same path?” And so, we would start the IP path - we would start gen one, prove it out. Gen two, a little better. By gen three we’d say, “this is going to work,” and we would start – we’d get it in the field, put it to test. In fact, one of the gentlemen here we work close with, New Zealand is here, we’re hosting his family. Great family from New Zealand – so we’ll start planting corn in October, we’re harvesting corn in May. So, we’re around the world. We’re constantly planting and harvesting all the time. So, there’s never a time where we can’t find a spot in the world to harvest. And you build those relationships and they’re farm families just like Cindy and I. They’ve got 3 kids, they do a lot of custom work, farming 13,000 acres and they have a passion for getting it right. So, they’ll work with us and they know the pain of a first-time product. Corn heads stop, combines sitting, our engineers be climbing all over it and they got to be just tearing their hair out. And we laughed with them yesterday when they were here, we said, “how painful is it?” and he said, “don’t ask.” But he said, “I love it.” And so, they’re the first in, they’re early adopters, so then of course we provide product and we keep them running.
You build those relationships and that’s what keeps your company on the cutting edge. You have to move fast. So, I don’t know if I ever answered the question why we didn’t go to the beach, it’s just not in us. I’m just driven to make things better and there’s something about meeting a grower. When a grower walks up to you and says why drop, change the way I farm. And he’ll have a story and he said, “Gregg, I got an $80 an acre income. There’s something inside of you. It’s not about the sale so much, it’s about the fact that you made a difference.” Not maybe everybody’s DNA is the same. I’m not saying that Cindy and I don’t want to make money, but at the same time we realize you got to build a business before – the books aren’t going to be in the black day one. If they are I’d look at you, so it takes time and you got to be smart about it and you build. But that’s why you surround yourself with people that have unique talents. Our CFO is unmatched, the finance side, he’s as sharp as they come. So, our project leaders are quality people that we’ve taken out of the industry that have come to us, and they don’t come for money, they come for the thrill of the hunt, to say can we do something that no one’s ever done before.
Mike: If you were to inventory both the good defining moments and the challenging ones that made you in your businesses who you are, what are the other ones?
Gregg: You know, when there’s times when product just flat out won’t work. I’ll never forget, we designed a special backing plate and thought we had it, we tested it, tested it, we got in a certain spot and it flat out just wore out. In 100 acres it was wore out. And I’ll never forget those first calls and then how you react at that moment. There was a time when we had a bad roll of steel go to a supplier and all the fingers, the mechanical fingers were all of a sudden were starting to break.
There’s about 30 hours there once you hear it, it’s what you do that next 24 to 30 hours that’s going to make the difference. You draw your team together, you usually bring three of your best together and you have to find, first of all you got to find the solution and then okay then once we find what we think the problem is, how are we going to fix it. When you bring those people together, it’s never about, “Mike, what did you do? How did this happen?” If you do that, you’re done. You bring them together, you say, “team, we have a major issue.” What do – we need to – in the next 12 hours we have to discover, nobody goes home, and we stop sales, you put out a notice to dealers, it’s painful, and you say, “look, we think we have an issue, we’re going to hold.” So, you have about, like I said, 30 to 48 hours to come up with a solution, and eventually you’ll find it. And you bite the bullet and you do it. And if you have that, and the word spreads, that – a problem can turn into the best thing that ever happened to your business. It’s how you handle it.
So, the team’s got to rally, they got to get over it. Give them about 5 minutes of disappointment, and say, “okay, now we’re ready to go to work, let’s fix it.” And we’ve all had those moments and you think at the time the world’s coming to an end because the phone lights up and if you’re in software you’re going to have those moments.
I’ll never forget, we had a software program, our planters all of a sudden just stopped. And when you stop a planter, that’s a bad day. And we had figured about 8 hours to get it and we got the bugs fixed, it’s all hands on deck, it’s painful. And it’s how you react and how you come out of it is going to set your tone for your business. Those things sharpen you and your people then start to trust you to say, “you know what, there isn’t anything we got.” It almost sounds cocky, but we got so confident at Precision, we’re getting that way at 360, we say we believe we can fix about anything of our products that are miss-performing. But it’s going to be pain. We’re going to have – it’s going to cost us more and we’re going to have to put the effort in.
So that’s what you get. You surround yourself of people that don’t back up. If they get in the truck and go home and it’s 8 o’clock at night, you’re in trouble if you’re having trouble. That’s just the way life should be.
Mike: So then surrounding yourself with people who don’t back up, what have you learned in terms of the people you bring into your organization?
Gregg: I have people ask me all the time, “how in the world did you find so many talented people?” Obviously, I’m not the only one in the interview, but I’m looking them in the eye. It’s as simple as that. So, the ball is going to go across the line out of the court are they going to dive for it. Your degree is somewhat important. I mean you got to have the basic fundamentals, but if you have a Master’s or a Doctor’s degree in engineering I couldn’t really care. I look at you number one is will you fit in the team. You can never bring somebody in a team of 12 to 20 that’s going to be dynamite and blow it up. They could be the greatest single all-star 3-point shooter in the world, but if the team then fractures, you’ve really lost. I’m always watching for that. I look at them in the eye; I want to see some spark there, I want to see some drive.
Usually we’re hiring young and when I say young I mean 5, 6 years out of college or even younger. We also run 6 interns every year from Purdue, from Iowa State and Illinois and I’m test driving them. You know, if I was a young engineer and I wanted to really learn, I would go to a company like ours and say, “don’t pay me, I just want to work for you for nothing.” Now we pay them obviously, but we’re only going to take 6 and we might have 15 that we interview. If you really wanted in with Gregg I would just come and say, “I want to do everything – learn everything I can this summer and I want to be on a project that matters. I don’t want to be over in a corner measuring increment parts, I want to be where it matters.” And so, we really work hard on hiring the right people and getting the right team assembled.
Mike: You’re cut different than a lot of the people in the industry, in the drive, the ambition, the appetite to do more. If you were to shrink that down into look at your own DNA, what do you think contributed to that?
Gregg: You know we were raised as kids, we didn’t have much and it never bothered us. I didn’t even know in all reality, Mike, that we didn’t have a lot. And I think it was we learned to work first. That’s why we dairy. I’ll just yell you, is we dairy so we can raise our kids to learn how to work. Our dairy has done very well. I mean we’re in genetics and that, but you set that foundation how you work and how you think and that’s really critical to Cindy, I and our children. And I think I had that from my dad. We were struggling farmers, we built grain bins on the side. We knew what hard work was, how to pour concrete, how to build a bin a day and it was always about figuring out a faster, better way. That’s what’s always driven me.
So, my DNA is not to back it up. I love the growth. If I can buy a poor farm and fix it, that’s probably what gives me the – if you say what’s your recreation, it would be buying a farm for $4,000 less than any other farm in the area and then end up within a 4-year period make it a better one. Pattern tile it, put irrigation on it, do all the environmentally correct things. Fix all the ditches and the drainage ditches and do that. That drives me and it’s that reward and then knowing for the next several generations the success that our grandkids and their kids will have. So, I don’t know, that’s just the way I’m made. I probably got more energy than I should have, I don’t know. I don’t ever think about how old I am. That’s not something…and we work all the time. So on weekends we’re choring, but that’s what we enjoy because we’re doing it as a team. All the kids, all of us are together, so that’s what we like.
Mike: Could you tell me briefly a little bit more about Cindy, describe her.
Gregg: So, here’s a farm girl, she was a dairy girl and when we first married she worked beside me every day. I mean she drove the grain cart. My dad would drive the semi and she drove the grain cart, I’d drive the combine. She had 2 little boys with her and I had the baby girl with me in the combine and then when she wanted to eat we’d trade and back and forth. Those were the days we’d laugh. I remember sitting and eating lunch in the field, which we don’t do anymore because now we have 3 combines running and it’s just craziness. And you know we would stop and we sat on the dual of the auger wagon tractor eating lunch and we celebrated every load. And that was the days.
And then over time, you know as you get more and more kids, but she was always extremely involved in the business. Knew everything about it, we share everything, so she’s on her way down. So, she did chores this morning, dairy chores, and so she’s on her way down, she’ll be here at the show with us and she’s very shy, very reserved, but a tremendous resource for me. She’ll look, she’ll understand other booths, she understands the competitors, she’ll watch what we do, she critiques us, and it’s invaluable for us. So, our head – Mark and I really listen to her and we’ll ask her point blank, what do we need to do different? And having someone that smart in business is really good. So, in the early days she was the business side, she did the finances. So, she knows that side of it so it’s a lot of fun. To have a life partner like that, I don’t know how you put a value on that. So, she gets a lot, a lot of credit. If she heard me say that, she would not like it. But that’s fun, that’s what it is.
Mike: Some of these other interviews I’m doing for this special project, there’s always been some touch and go moments where it looked dark and there was a decision to go forward and sometimes that harder thing was to stay with it. Do you have some touch and go moments?
Gregg: Let me think a little bit. We had touch and go moments farming before I started that drilled me. I can remember laying in bed and I remember the first year we didn’t pay off the bank line of credit. I can remember it vividly. So, we’re farming, raising hogs and I carried over $20,000 over the bank into the next year and I was beside myself. The vice-president of the bank is a very close friend of mine, he said, “Gregg you’re doing awesome.” Compared to everybody else he said, “you’re having a great year,” and I said, “Brian, how can I be having a good year if I’m $20,000 in hole starting this next year?” I saw no way to get it out. I remember laying in bed at night just praying, I said, “Lord I didn’t marry Cindy to bankrupt her.”
And at that moment I said, “I’m going to change,” and that’s when we started to really grow, and that’s the year I started Precision Planting and it – probably by divine intervention but once I started and I saw how much need there was out there for other growers, I just threw caution to the wind and we jumped in. I did a meeting in a local area about setting meters, and that meeting I got 600 rows. First year, we didn’t have a clue of what we were doing, all of a sudden, I had 600 meters in the shop and I looked at Cindy, I said, “whether we like it or not we’re in business.” And so those were the things – we were not going to make it in farming the way we were going. I just was not going to make it raising hogs, it was just those years. My interest was 20% and I know that sounds…
It was tough. We got married in ’81 and we jumped right in and it was hard, it was hard. And so I think that’s what you find in business itself I think Mac. I mean there’s always moments of struggling and you get a letter from somebody saying we think we invented this before you, you know there’s sleepless nights and things, but all in all we’ve been very fortunate.
You know, I get that all the time, well why did you sell? It was why did you sell and when Monsanto come it seemed like of lots of thought. I mean a year and a half we took to decide. We believed it was the right thing to do for all of our people, for the farmers, because it looked like a system that we could work together on. And it didn’t work out all that well. The field scrips didn’t come out to be what we hoped it would be.
I get the question all the time, would you do it again, would you sell again? I don’t know how to answer it. At the time it seemed right. It was never about the money. It’s unfortunate it was ever announced because people know, people come up to you and say, “oh,” - it’s like I’m the same Gregg I was when I didn’t have a dime. If I can help you, I’ll help you. So that’s a little weird to me, that aspect of it. I know a lot of people kind of…
Mike: The 200 million.
Gregg:Yeah, and they’re saying, “oh” – and it’s like you don’t think about that. You just keep doing what you do, and you start the next business and you just go for it. So, it’s just part of it.
Mike: How long did it take you to realize that you needed to do something else in this business?
Gregg:I worked for Monsanto for a year, not as an employee, as a consultant. I would have been a terrible employee because I just don’t fit into that culture.
Mike: Too entrepreneurial.
Gregg:Oh, yeah, you know and we’d have a meeting and then at the end of the meeting we decide – I thought the decision was made and they would schedule the next meeting, and I’m like are you stinking kidding me? In 3 weeks we’re going to meet again? Let’s just go! We know the answer but we would have to get alignment from 6 different groups and managers and I’m not much on alignment. I like to go for it. So, after a year I could see it was time for me, and in that time, we had built this idea of 360, so we pretty much drove in and went for it.
We’ve been very fortunate. There’s always challenges. The biggest challenge we got is just the commodity price, which is a real blessing for us because it drives the need to change. An $8 corn – and I remember when we were here the first year, I don’t remember exactly, the first year I can remember being on the grounds and a guy telling me, he called the elevator that morning and he had 8.05 and he did not sell. But I remember looking at him and saying 8.05, what – he said I think, Gregg, it’s going to go to 9, and you and I all know the story of what happened.
And no one was looking to make improvements in their farming operation, $8 corn, or even $6 corn. At $3 corn everybody in this ground, I farm, I know costs, and so I know the pain and so I’m really excited about what we can do here today to add value. So that’s what gets me going.
Mike: And I know it’s early in 360’s new business, but if you were looking ahead and a son or grandson would be picking up this thing, what would be the core basic tenants that you would insist that they had been well exposed to, to know where the business started and what could keep it successful for future generations?
Gregg: First of all, they got to know that they have the ability to design technology that’s real, that it is going to work. Second of all you got to be – surround yourself with people, no matter what, you’re nothing without the right people. And third, it’s always the customer’s right and he always wins. And you hear that all the time the customer’s right and you say, “what’s that mean?” That means – I remember we were in the harrow business and I had a grower call from Iowa and he said he tore the hitch off the harrow and I couldn’t believe it because we built it really heavy, over-built it. And we went out and put a new hitch on, no questions asked, took a set of welder, mobile truck, and we welded it on. Another neighbor of his say to me then that winter, he said, “do you know what happened there?” And I said, “no,” and he said, “he got that stuck in a wet hole and he unhooked and pulled his tractor out and they hooked a cable on from a – perpendicular. And they got 2 big crawlers on it and they pulled it out sideways and made that spin in the mud and that’s what tore that hitch off.” But you know, that guy did me more good. He spread word everywhere that Gregg come out and put a new hitch on, no questions asked. At the time I knew, and it was a pretty good sized bill and I wasn’t happy about it. Never said a word, but that sold me more product than anything I ever done. That’s better than advertising – well that hurt – that’s better than advertising.
But that’s the things you do, so I think if a grandson was ever going to start in business, those are the 3 things. First, above all, you got to have the right product. If you don’t have the right product, you’re dead in the water.
Mike: Every leader has one thing that they would hang their hat on. Some are design people, inventors, marketers. If you were to slug yourself with one word that sums up Gregg Sauder, what would your word be?
Gregg: I like the marketing promotion side of it. Obviously, I’m an inventor. Tim and I we come up with ideas and we have whole pipeline of ideas but designing this show booth and working in front of that crowd today is what I like the most. Can I make guys think? My job, Mike, is to make them uncomfortable. I better not be patting them all on the back. I need to be challenging them to say what’s your weakest link? I’m doing a meeting for Kentucky young farmers having a Master’s class. I have them usually every year for about 5 hours and the first thing I start the class I say you must tell me the weakest link in your operation. And one young man about the sixth one in said, “Dad.” I said, “no, no, I’m not letting you off like that.” “No,” he said, “my dad is my biggest, weakest link,” and I wouldn’t let him off of that until he told me that Dad doesn’t believe he should ever plant corn narrower than 38-inch rows. Okay, I gave, I said, “okay maybe we do have a weak link here.” But you have to determine your next step.
We were meeting with a family from New Zealand and they’re struggling. It is really painful over there. I mean they’re way below their breakeven. And we were talking about what is your next step. And for them their next step is figuring out nitrogen. How are they going to make nitrogen effective but not cost so much for them. And that’s his next big step. He’s got the population, they’re planting 40,000. In New Zealand you got all the perfect – never gets above 70 degrees, rains all the time, but they’re just mismanaging their nutrient.
That’s what you got to discover, so my job is to help them do that, so that’s why I like marketing, promotion and showing, the show business, that’s what I really like. Like in Precision we designed a mobile marketing truck. Extremely successful. Eight, nine thousand people a year we could put in that classroom and it was almost like Disneyworld. You’d give them an experience where when they left they were just in awe. That’s what you got to do. You got to impact people’s lives. So that’s what I like.
Mike: You’ve always taken a different approach at these events that where it’s other people are glitz plan, shining the machine, you’re in the pit teaching and educating.
Gregg: I like that side of it. I like that side of it. Talking about - corn is a great crop. Corn’s my favorite. I love soybeans, but corn will humble you every time. Any time you go to the field you learn something because you’ll see your mistakes, whether you like it or not. And you got to open your eyes and see it, and you should take your wife along because nobody’s better than your wife at pointing out your errors and they can keep you humble in a hurry. So, take somebody with you, they should ask you, why do we have 3 small ears here in a row. Take it back to the source. Was it the planter? Was it we planted on a really cold going into a cold, rainy spell? We shouldn’t have because we were so nervous and that’s how you learn. So that’s what my job is to do with the company. As a leader I should be the sparkplug. I should take our young sales folks and when they leave here after 3 days of working with me, there should be nothing they should be scared to answer about our products.
Mike: 360 – how many employees do you have?
Gregg: I should know that off the top of my head, I’d say we’re about 60 employees right now.
Mike: So, it’s a small business…
Gregg: It is, it’s very small.
Mike: The way ag is going, how often do you think we’ll see a small business start up with the scale that you can create?
Gregg: You know, it’s tough to get in and get noticed. It’s a brutal game, I mean the big fish will eat you if they can. And that doesn’t make them bad guys. They’re doing the same thing I’m doing today. Every big booth OEM here is trying to have an impact on a grower. All of us are saying, “how do we get these guys to come in off the street and talk to us?” So, you have to make a difference. Can it be done? Absolutely. If you have good ideas, it can be done. Too many times I’ll talk to people that want to start a business and it’s not a great idea, and the hardest thing for me is to tell them I don’t think this is going to work.
And I’m not going to pick on anybody, but there’s a company I’m thinking of directly in my – and I know the father, son, and they basically have sold the farm to make it go. I’m not a prophet, but I’m telling you I feel for them. I drove by their booth this morning and I looked at it and I said there’s a part of me I want to stop, I want to just say, “I know nothing, but can I help you?” And that sounds arrogant, but we’ve been in the game long enough, you can just sense when you need to do something different. So, when people come to us we try to help to help them if we can. A lot of young farmers will come with an idea and they say, “will you help me patent it?” Absolutely, we’ll give them our patent attorney and we’ll get them started. Some of those turn out and some do not. The reality is you’re going to spend $12,000 on a patent, you better hope that you got something worth working at.
Mike: Even when you have a great idea, it’s so much more challenging.
Gregg: Yeah, and then who’s going to sell it? That’s what I told the last young man, I said, “well who’s going to sell it?” He said, “well I’m going to sell it.” I said, “what do you mean by you’re going to sell it? Are you going to do direct sales, and who’s going to be your channel? How are you going to represent that in the marketplace and who’s going to represent, service it and that’s the key. How are you going to advertise it?” So those are things that we use.
We watch social media for example, we’re using that really…I made a gutsy call this year. We’ve always had 2,000 farmers come to my farm for 4 days and I decided that we’re going to radically change that and we’re going to do a virtual with social and YouTube and that, and it’s gutsy. I think we’re going to be very, very fortunate and lucky. I think it’s going to work better. And so, we’re going to reach tens of thousands instead of 2,000, and that’s the goal in how do we educate.
Mike: When you – you know they have you just put this through the filter of the business world here - when you’re done, when you call it quits, what are you hoping that your employees and customers have to say about?
Gregg: Well you know obviously first and above all they know that we exhibited Christ in our life and that we helped in time of need. Life isn’t perfect and we have families that are struggling, either a sick child or themselves or a wife, there’s where you step in. But after that hopefully they say, “Gregg made me – he challenged me to do things I never thought I could do.” That’s what drives me. If I can stretch them, take them out of their comfort zone and make them do things they never thought they could do. At Precision I would take local farmers and put them in a role, and it wasn’t long we would turn them into a professional regional manager. It took some time and I can think of one in particular, awesome individual, really good at what he does. There had been a time he’d look at you and said, “I can’t even speak in a crowd.” And now he’s out doing meetings. So, give people an opportunity. So I’d like to have them say, “you know, Gregg gave me an opportunity and he believed in me and it worked and I’m a better person for it today.” I sure hope that’s what they would say, we’ll see.
You have to have some humility in this business. If you get thinking too much of yourself, you’ll find out pretty quick you’ll fall. If you don’t think you need to be humble, just go on social media and listen to farmers and you’ll find out pretty quick what people think. So hopefully my – at the end of the day they would say that our family had a positive impact on a lot of people.
Mike: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like – while we got the cameras rolling that people understand your business, where you’re coming from?
Gregg: Well, you know, this I would say. We were talking in that one segment about starting a new business and you said, “is there opportunity?” I’ll just say this, “don’t ever give up.” The first farm show I ever went to, a pretty prominent businessman come and said, “I don’t know if I should say this to you and Cindy, but you’ll never make it.” And I just smiled, because he didn’t know the constitution of Gregg and Cindy. I mean we did on the road, we home school our kids because we traveled, and they were at shows, they were raised up at farm shows. They were babies and Cindy is 90% of the reason of my success, she wouldn’t give up, and she knew the business and we’d work till one o’clock at night in a motel processing invoices while the kids were sleeping. The next day we’re at the show again and so never give up.
Gregg Sauder should never say to you I don’t think that’s a good product, it won’t make it. Only you know what you have inside of you to make it work. We need small businesses. If we think the John Deere’s, the Case, the Kubota’s, the AGCO’s have all the answers, we’re mistaken. Not that they don’t do good stuff, but we need small inventors of products that are willing to take a shot. I don’t want you to risk the whole farm, but be willing to put the hard work in. It’ll be harder than you ever thought was possible. You better not want a lot of sleep and you better be willing to have disappointment. And when that happens, you just start over again. And when a product fails and it doesn’t work, I mean chain row, we worked thru Christmas every day, our whole family, Cindy and the kids and I and we had 3D printers running and we would print a new one every night. It didn’t matter it was Christmas break. And we had one young engineer that came in every day over Christmas and we worked thru that whole Christmas break. And we had so much fun I can’t tell you. And that day that it happened, when Cindy and all of us, and when we got the right curvature and when it worked perfectly, I remember we just like, “YEAH!!” Everybody was cheering and psyched and went home that night late and we said we got it.
How do you put a dollar figure on that? That’s a family moment. I remember one night at one o’clock in our kitchen on the island, Cindy and I were pushing finger pickup units, fingers in the play dough. The kids had some play dough there and Cindy started pushing in and we were looking – and we shaped a finger of what we saw in play dough. All of our kids know that story, now I guess everybody else does, too. But those are moments that that’s what defines your family. And that makes them so they’re maybe – our youngest is 13, our oldest is 31, and they don’t quit. They don’t quit. And there are going to be disappointments in life and you don’t quit. So I think we need to be careful, we make it sound like this is so hard. What you don’t know is okay. Maybe it’s good you don’t know how hard it is, you just get in and go. That’s okay.