Today’s interview is with Amity Technology’s Howard Dahl, probably one of the most important farm equipment families our industry has seen. Having done several stories and interviews with Howard over the years, we would describe him as a southern gentleman type, but that doesn’t really seem to fit all that well for a North Dakota guy. Perhaps a village elder works best. Either way, we’re talking about a calm demeanor from a sage leader we respect, who has seen it all and openly and willingly shares with all his fellow men. For a fresh approach with Howard, and with you as well, today’s recording is presented through the Q & A of our own Darrell Bruggink, our long-time Executive Editor and Publisher in our Ag division.
“Steiger went from $2 million to $105 million in sales in 6 years. And the factory sits less than a mile from where we’re sitting right now, and for me, it’s a great deal of personal satisfaction to see the Steiger name still on Case tractors throughout the world, and see Bobcats everywhere I go in the world.”
That’s Howard Dahl talking about his family, with the Steiger Tractor and the Bobcat, among others, secured their heritage in farm equipment history even before he launched the Concord air drill. Today he and his brother Brian lead Amity, and several related companies, including a joint venture with AGCO.
Darrell dropped in to see Howard in Fargo during his recent six-day journey. They met for the morning interview in Howard’s second-story office at the Amity building in Fargo. What follows today is the best of that conversation, including stories of innovation, business, exports, family and life lessons too. It’s a great dialogue, with lots of historic names throughout — Howard’s grandfather, E.G. Melroe, uncle Les Melroe, father Eugene Dahl, the Keller brothers, the Christiansens and some famous equipment brands that many of you won’t realize had origins in the Melroe and Dahl family tree. It’s a great dialogue, with lots of historic names throughout.
Darrell Bruggink: Darrell Bruggink with Lessiter Media, No-Till Farmer and Farm Equipment. We're recording here in Fargo, North Dakota today. We're at the facilities of Amity Technology in Fargo, west of downtown. Howard, just go ahead and introduce yourself on camera, and just a few words about what you do at the company and a little bit about the company itself.
Howard Dahl: Well, I started the company, predecessor company Concord Incorporated. Actually been at this address since April 23rd, 1979. After we sold Concord to Case Corporation, the same day we sold it, we started a new company called Amity Technology. We could not keep the name Concord because Case wanted it, but Amity means the same as Concord. It means harmony, mutual agreement, partnership, working together. Amity and concord are synonyms. With Amity, we primarily built sugar beet equipment in our early years. That's still the major product we have is sugar beet harvesting equipment.
Darrell Bruggink: And now you've got yourself and it's your brother?
Howard Dahl: My brother Brian, yeah.
Darrell Bruggink: Brian, right, and you started Amity back in 1977?
Howard Dahl: Concord — back in '77.
Darrell Bruggink: And Amity was after Concord.
Howard Dahl: Yeah, so my brother and I have been partners really since August 31st, 1977. And he was still a college student at the time but I wanted him as a partner in the business.
Darrell Bruggink: I've been with No-Till Farmer here for the better part of 15 years, and of course work with Frank Lessiter closely. I think it was him that told me that you discovered Concord was really a good product for no-tillers, and direct seeders then was almost, I think he said it was almost kind of by accident.
Howard Dahl: Yeah, I absolutely can recall. Coincidentally, just a couple days ago the board members, the founding board members of the Manitoba North Dakota No-Till Association were meeting at Joe and Gene Breker's lodge just a little over an hour from here. A number of them that I knew very well called to greet me, but I was tied up in meetings. I finally talked to one person at the end of the day, and it was just an incredible reunion for these people to get together on a dream that they created in the late '70s, 1980s, somewhere in that area. Well, I was asked to speak at the Manitoba North Dakota No-Till Association meeting, I believe it was '82. I was not aware at that time that our machine was an ideal machine for direct seeding or no-till. It was designed primarily to be just a really good air seeder that would put seed in the ground at an even depth and pack. Most of the air seeders at that time did not have adequate packing, and so our patented breakthrough was our packing system. It wasn't designed from day one as we're going after the no-till market, but a large percentage of the leaders of the Manitoba North Dakota and then in Saskatchewan, and Alberta as well. So I spoke at many of their conventions over the years and gradually became fully aware of the merits of the product we'd created.
Darrell Bruggink: Would you say that no-till really played a pretty big role in the growth of your seeders here and even overseas, and likewise do you feel like it helped with the growth of no-till as well — your equipment?
Howard Dahl: I don't think there's any question. I have a lot of anecdotes of individuals that I've known for a lot of years that would come to me and say “I watched my neighbor with your machine year one, year two, year three, year four. I knew he was going to fail. I knew it just couldn't work. He was doing no tillage and just planting into the previous crop residue. I knew he was going to fail. And after six years of him having better crops than me, I finally bought your machine.”
This happened to be a prominent seed grower who was a real close friend of my uncle's, my late uncle. And he just said “Shame on me for being so skeptical, and I love your machine.” And so I had loads and loads of stories. It was a remarkable experience to watch the Concord air seeder develop to where it became... Well, the floating hitch that we had became the standard design, and row by row packing for everybody else. Having a variety of openers whether it was a very, very narrow opener to get virtually no disturbance to where in Siberia and other places people wanted to kill weeds while they're planting so you put a wide sweep on the unit. So we had, I would expect 20 different openers that were put on the unit, and all depending on the requirements.
Darrell Bruggink: Talk about today real quickly again too, what Amity manufacturers today around here in the U.S. — and is distributing throughout the world.
Howard Dahl: Well, in our Fargo operation it's sugar beet harvesters, sugar beet defoliators, and sugar beet carts. That's our core business. Most of our team members have split loyalties. They're on the sugar beet side as well as on the seeding and tillage side that we have in our joint venture with AGCO in our Wahpeton operation. And so we build a shank drill, precision shank drill, and a single disc drill. So for seeding, both those products have gotten a lot of traction in areas. And then we actually build a machine, almost a complete replica of the old Concord, and we sold a lot of those overseas. A number of them domestically but the bulk of them had gone into the Kazakhstan market.
Darrell Bruggink: Now these would be things that were either left over when Case bought Concord, back in '96, or these are some new things that you've developed since?
Howard Dahl: The air till drill we build is very similar to the old Concord. We had a ten year non-compete with case, and won't go into all the details of that but we clearly honored it. And then in 2007 we got back into the air seeder business in a slow way at first. We built a double disc drill, a very conventional one, as well as a comparable product to the old Concord, and then developed our single disc drill which we have running in a lot of countries right now. And obviously there's a big difference from 1996. There's a lot of different companies building air seeders now, and building large air seeders. It was very different in 1996 when we sold to Case.
Darrell Bruggink: Take me back — how you kind of arrived at the name Amity for the company? You kind of alluded to it earlier, but tell me how you came about the naming of the company?
Howard Dahl: Well, the original dream for Concord was to build a small tractor for third world agriculture. I had worked at International Harvester in their marketing research department and became sensitized to extreme poverty in the lack of any mechanization that was appropriate for small farms in Africa, India, various other countries. China at that time. And so when I moved to Fargo, I was going to start working at Steiger in their marketing research department, but it was actually a downturn in the tractor business at that time and I thought it would be not a good thing if I took a job in the same department where a couple good people were being laid off.
So, instead of going to work directly with Steiger, I said “I'm going to go ahead and follow this dream of trying to create this tractor.” And so my wife and I spent an evening Roget's Thesaurus, and we were looking for a word that we felt sounded like a machine and had a really good meaning that could be translated into French, Spanish, various languages. And the word Concord came out to be the ideal word meaning friendship, mutual agreement, partnership, harmony, and so it was a word we liked and we actually are buying... Case had dropped the trademark for Concord in some areas and so we are recapturing the name and are looking at using in a selective fashion.
Darrell Bruggink: But that also translates well you mentioned over to Amity?
Howard Dahl: We could not keep the name Concord because Case wanted it, but Amity means the same as Concord. It's just Concord sounds a little more robust, Amity a little softer, but we try to carry out the meaning of both words in all our relationships with our employees and customers, looking at each relationship very seriously.
Darrell Bruggink: Can you kind of go over each of your various holdings?
Howard Dahl: In Fargo we have all at this one location, a little over 100,000 square feet of buildings, but actually four different buildings and we have just under a hundred employees for our beet equipment business here. We do have about 20 employees in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And in Wahpeton we have 330,000 square feet at our tillage and seeding equipment plant, and seasonally adjusted around 130 employees there.
Darrell Bruggink: So you are the third generation in the family, correct? Walk us through who each of the three generations have been.
Howard Dahl: Well my mother's father EG Melroe was a very, very interesting man who didn't like the way most of his machinery worked so he was continually tinkering, changing, and inventing, and he really invented the windrow pick-up to go on the front of combines and the first patented unit that he developed, he sold to John Deere the patent because he needed some money to pay for medical expenses after he had a heart attack and the amputation of his leg. That was in the '30s. During World War II, while three of his sons were at war, he made a greatly improved windrow pick-up that became the standard for farmers throughout the upper Midwest and western Canada for years and years. Then he'd invented a harrow weeder that became a standard unit for sugar beet farmers in this area and many, many others. Then he died and his sons and my father took over ownership and running of the business. And three years after he died they bought the rights to a very primitive loader that was not a skid-steer loader it was a independent clutch system with sort of a tricycle wheel at the back and out of that came within just three, four years, really the model of the Bobcat loader that we all know today.
They grew that company rapidly throughout the '60s and in 1970 sold it to Clark Equipment. And about the same time it was sold my uncle Les bought control of Steiger Tractor which was a very small company doing about two million dollars revenue and my uncle Les basically exhausted his resources after a year and he persuaded my father to come in as a major investor, CEO. And my dad brought in a team of people and there's a lot that went into the growth but the most significant factor was the Russian wheat failure of 1972. And the amount of income our farmers realized in '73, '74, was so dramatic and farms expanded so rapidly that the need for high horse powered tractor and Steiger, serendipitously it was just great for Steiger.
So, Steiger went from two million to 105 million sales in six years. And the factory sits less than a mile from where we're sitting right now and it's just for me a great deal of personal satisfaction to see the Steiger name still on Case tractors throughout the world, and I see Bobcats everywhere I go in the world so it's... I have nothing to do with either of their success but I certainly claim a heritage that I'm very, very proud of.
Darrell Bruggink: As we go through each of the generations, again your grandfather was EG Melroe. And that was your mother's dad, correct?
Howard Dahl: Yup.
Darrell Bruggink: And then I understand he might've had some equipment dealer roots…
Howard Dahl: Right, they did have a Massey Ferguson dealership in Gwinner for a short time and the farm dealership, well the factory was going, and it was no longer a dealership let's say by the time I reached at least four or five years old but I do remember as a very, very young kid a small equipment dealership.
Darrell Bruggink: And you mentioned too he had some hard times…
Howard Dahl: Yeah, he lost his farm in 1929 and so my mother as a five year old and her siblings, both younger and older, moved from a decent home to a home with no running water, no indoor plumbing, and that's where my mother spent her formative years. So, no, it was not easy.
Darrell Bruggink: Back to the Melroe Bobcat, do you recall kind of the genesis of how that came about and how were tasks being done before the Bobcat came into existence so —
Howard Dahl: Every story has different versions of it and I will try to capture the Bobcat's story as my father believes it to be the case. And my father's been dead now 10 years and if you studied Aristotle when you look at causality, what causes things, there's a whole bunch of final cause, efficient cause and likewise in any product the proper story is many, many people have a part of the success, have a certain measure in creating the successful story of whatever it is. There was a farmer named Eddie Velo from Rothsay, Minnesota, who got so tired of cleaning out his turkey barns with a shovel and pitchfork. And he thought about and he said “I think we could build a machine to maneuver around all these poles in the turkey barns and make it a lot easier.” And Eddie Velo thought about the versatile clutch system. The versatile swather had this independent clutch system where it would just basically turn in a circle. And he thought that's a pretty good idea.
And he went to a blacksmith's shop in Rothsay, Minnesota. They weren't interested, didn't have time to do it. And the guy said “There's another shop.” And so he went to the Keller brothers, Louis and Cy Keller, and they indeed went ahead and built a machine for Eddie Velo that did functionally do what he wanted. And the Keller brothers thought “We could go into business and sell a number of others.” And I believe they did build approximately 10 machines, and they were showing it at the Minnesota State Fair, and my uncle Les Melroe saw it and as we often say about Les, he couldn't read a financial statement, he couldn't read a blueprint, but he saw the future.
And he was just so excited about it and persuaded his brothers, my dad that this is the future. And so our family made an arrangement with the Keller brothers. They moved to Gwinner. They and a team of engineers worked on it. I actually have it here and it's like this. I used to drive this as a 10 year old and very, very unstable. If you'd go up on a side hill it was easy to tip over. And over the course of the next few years the Bobcat as it's now known was created with the independent clutch where it would turn in its tracks. And the first ones did not have a roll cage so you still could tip them, and the first ones were all mechanical chain drive as this 610 model that was built all the way until I believe 1979. But hydrostatics took over very quickly and the Bobcat as we know it today is obviously the standard that all skid-steers compare themselves with.
Darrell Bruggink: To look back at that, and we see how many are out there, it's got to be quite amazing to know your history, the family was involved in part of that and bringing it to the market.
Howard Dahl: Well it's clear the Melroe family committed the finances to make it possible. And there were times they questioned whether this was smart decision because it did take a lot of resources but today there are I believe 1.4 million Bobcats that have been built and it's still by far the dominant player in the market.
Darrell Bruggink: Then your dad and your uncle, more or less, their claim to fame is Steiger. And my understanding is they in just five years took it from sales of two million to 105 million, so what do you recall of that as far as what they were able to do with Steiger and why they were able to grow it like they did.
Howard Dahl: Well, my uncle Les basically took... and the Bobcat company was sold for a lot of money. In today's dollars it was a very high sum. But my uncle Les was completely out of money within 12 months buying 1,000 head of Charolais cattle, real estate in Phoenix, Steiger, and who knows what else, and he came to my dad and said “We can't even complete a tractor.” And so I've read the transcripts of a anti-trust lawsuit that Steiger was involved in, in International Harvester. I actually sat in the case in Chicago in '75. But as I recently re-read the transcripts, on day one when dad went into Steiger he had to guarantee $6 million of credit just to keep the company... in today's dollars, $6 million. And he took no salary, and most importantly he hired a team of people that he just believed in deeply.
And Jack Johnson had been head of production for Bobcat. Len Odie had been a close friend of dad's and head of purchasing, and then became president of Wil-Rich. And dad said “I'm not going to go into this and make all the financial commitment without a team of people.” So when Jack, Len and a couple others agreed to come on board, he made the commitment financially. And he told me “I'm going to risk my fortune on this but,” he said, “Blood is thicker than water and I need to help my brother-in-law.” And so it was a real challenge at first but because of a great team of people they became the leader in four wheel drive tractors.
Darrell Bruggink: You had mentioned that your dad died in 2008. Are there some specific lessons or traits that he left with you that you learned from him?
Howard Dahl: All who knew him would agree with my cousin David who became treasurer of Bremer Bank in the Twin Cities. At dad's funeral, David came to me and he said “Your dad is the only person I have known in my entire life who I never heard a bad word said about, and I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.” I thought about that, and that is a very profound statement. He was very, very smart. He was a math and chemistry major, a chemical engineering major at Michigan State. His class was drafted into the infantry but because of his skill set he became a cryptographer at the Battle of the Bulge and still could do calculus at the age of 75. But very quiet in the way in which he did his leadership. He felt his role was a coach to put the right team on the field and just to make sure he had the right people. And a big part of his role was to encourage them. And then when the tough decisions needed to be made he was there to make them.
Darrell Bruggink: And what attracted you to wanting to continue in the... you know, with the family and being the next generation—
Howard Dahl: Didn't have any expectations like that. I was originally... I'd finished a masters degree in philosophy of religion thinking I wanted to teach, and then by working at International Harvester in their marketing research department became really interested in global agriculture and so I guess part of it is DNA. I grew up in this family of equipment manufacturers but part of it was seeing that food production could be a wonderful thing to give assistance to and so those factors resulted in a change of career. But actually did continue to teach for four years while starting Concord at Concordia College, locally.
Darrell Bruggink: Compare each of the generations as far as their style, or their business style and maybe what each learned from each other?
Howard Dahl: My observations of the Bobcat company would all be as a very young child — going out taking lunch to my uncles and hired men when they were combining because our family had a very large farm and that supported the Melroe factory in the early years. So, in all three generations, hard work would be a central factor. I'd say the main word would be innovation, just a passion for innovation and maybe the second word was an optimism that when somebody says you can't do something, it's just a greater challenge that I think we can do it in spite of all the odds.
And so if you look at the budget, engineering budget of the Melroe Company, if you look at the engineering budget of Steiger vs. Deere… Deere had a much greater four wheel drive engineering budget and could not create a great tractor. In fact I met Deere executives with my father in '85 and they said “It's embarrassing to us that you with a much smaller budget have created such a superior tractor.” Direct words out of Bob Hansen's mouth. And so it was a sense of we can do it and this can do attitude, and we've tried to emulate that — imperfectly — but I guess innovation and just an optimism that it can be done would be—
Darrell Bruggink: It probably goes back to farmers, quite often are the ones who have to figure things out on the fly and find better ways.
Howard Dahl: And every farmer's a risk taker. I mean you put in a crop every year, it's a risky business, and so in that respect, the manufacturing business we do understand our customer. And I think that's one thing we've, in all three generations, tried to be very close to your customer, listening to them as to what they want.
Darrell Bruggink: Do you recall the decision behind selling the Melroe and the Bobcat product, and selling that at the time?
Howard Dahl: Yeah, I sure do. Success is sometimes not handled well and a couple of my uncles started messing around, got a divorce, so my cousins were sent to boarding school. What was once a very happy family it was a very, very tough time, the late '60s. And so to have some liquidity to finance some divorces was part of the factor. But I think part of the factor was realizing all of a sudden you have a global company and can we really do all that's necessary. But I was not involved in any of the decision making, I just know what my dad said. And it was a divided opinion. My dad did not want to sell, and at least one of my mom's brothers did not want to sell. And so there were five votes, and the decision was made to sell. But I'd say a big part of it was some realization that either you needed to do an IPO or bring in some ... to grow the business to what it really could become.
Darrell Bruggink: As we go back to your dad, Dave Kanicki, he was our senior editor at Farm Equipment and Mike Lessiter had told me you shared a story about a preamble I think that your dad wrote on every contract that lawyers would've advised him probably not to do, and can you tell us about that and what it said about his personality too?
Howard Dahl: He said a lot of the contract... Well he said business stopped being fun in about 1965 when no longer a handshake and “I give you my word, I'm going to do this.” So, at least in rural America there was a sense that your word is your bond and if you had a choice of being an honorable person with a great reputation or having $10 million, you would have taken the honorable reputation. And he uses the year 1965 to say things. And maybe part of it was the Bobcat was growing so rapidly all over the world and contracts were becoming much more necessary.
But a number of times, if we get this big contract, even when we sold to Case and he'd say “I want to be able to write something. This is the intention of the contract. This is what we're trying to do.” And he always had that view even when we... He was dead already, but when we did our deal with AGCO, his thoughts were central in that five years from now, we want to look back on this contract and say it was a win win. He said “Anybody who tries to have a win lose on a contract, it's going to be a bad thing.” And so we always tried to express this. The only reason for this contract, it has to be best for both sides and we need to make sure that five years from now we can look back and say, “We're glad we did this.” And so a lot of people think “I need to get everything I can out of this contract and if it goes bad in five years I'll have won.” That's really the part of his thinking about a preamble.
Darrell Bruggink: Interesting. I understand even before the Bobcat, there were, I think you alluded to some of these, were several inventions that came off that Melroe farm… Can you recall some of the product innovations that just came off that farm?
Howard Dahl: Off the farm really would've been just the windrow pickup and the harrow weeder. There were some other products that the Melroe company, and some they bought. The spra-coupe. It was a farmer from North Dakota who had invented the Spra-Coupe. And it was pretty crude when the Melroe company bought it but grew it to be a significant product. The Righton plow, again Ed Righton from Cooperstown, North Dakota, sold his business and became part of the Melroe product offering. There was a grain drill that eventually became I believe part of Loeston Corporation and so there were a number of other products added to... But the Bobcat dwarfed everything else and so Clark Equipment eventually realized all the farm equipment was such a tiny part that they divested themselves of each of the products.