In this interview, Mike Lessiter, Editor/Publisher of Farm Equipment, sits down with Lars Paulsson from Laforge Systems, the North American presence of the company that he cofounded in 1991 with Laforge owner and inventor Hubert DeFrancq of France. The two go way back, and jokes abound, but so does insight on the company that supplies the hitches you see on the fronts of tractors today.

Throughout the below interview — which manifests as part comedy special and part intervention — Paulsson shares his knowledge on many subjects, but rest assured: some of them include tractors and farm machinery business.

Mike Lessiter: You two were hard to find. You guys don't have a lot of history out on the company on the web.

Lars Paulsson: No?

Mike Lessiter: No. Not like some other ones that I've done where it's been— 

Lars Paulsson: Right, I mean— 

Mike Lessiter: Is that by design or...?

Lars Paulsson: Maybe some, but we're also not as visible as some of the other ones. So I'm humbled that you include me in this group.

Mike Lessiter: You were doing a Midwest around this week, right? Or last week?

Lars Paulsson: Last week, I was. I have to go home sometimes to business, so I can pay my advertising buddy.

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Mike Lessiter: You gotta work harder, Lars.

Lars Paulsson: Yeah (laughs). Yeah.

Darren Foster: I think we're pretty good. We're good here.

Lars Paulsson: So are you actually shooting video?

Darren Foster: Yeah.

Mike Lessiter: Some... someday, you know, the podcast is Phase 1, so that's what we're… the near-term thing is, but we're collecting videos this whole time is because I have a dream of making a documentary, a series of some sort on small business and farming, farm equipment. So we're collecting all the video right now so that we have it someday.

Lars Paulsson: So that's for when you retire?

Mike Lessiter: Well, I hope it's before then.

Lars Paulsson: Before then. Before I forget, thanks to your father for sending the book. It's nice. Very, very pretty.

Mike Lessiter: We're proud of him.

Lars Paulsson: Yeah. It's... special guy.

Mike Lessiter: Yeah, yeah. We got to find something else for him to do now, so he isn't in my office complaining about things all the time (laughs).

Lars Paulsson: That's hilarious (laughs).

Mike Lessiter: Yeah, you need a curmudgeon to come out and do any research in California for a minute?

Lars Paulsson: (laughs) Not really, not really.

Mike Lessiter: Well, I do want... I do want this one to be fun. We've had fun with each other, so— let's have some laughs. Let's... well, I have anyway. We can interrupt each other. You can tell some stories. You can tell your dirty jokes, and the really bad ones I'll clean up.

Lars Paulsson: Okay. I will try to behave.

Mike Lessiter: So, first question, Lars, and this one is about as easy as they come here; but tell us about what Laforge is, and when someone asks you, what do you do?

Lars Paulsson: Well, first of all, like I said when you brought this up, the guy is Hubert Defrangq, so Willy founded Laforge as we know it today. At one time, there was a Mr. Laforge, who started a company, a farmer, who got himself into sugar beet harvesting equipment in 1972, so that's the official founding of the company in Europe.

That was Mr. Laforge, Maurice Laforge, yeah. 1984, Hubert took over, and that's when they started concentrating on the front-hitch concept. And now, if you say what do we consider ourselves, we are tractor implement interface specialists, so... and anything, how you hook a piece of equipment up to a tractor, generally fully mounted. We don't deal much with pull-type, but front hitches fit into that and our guided hitch systems that we have for implement guidance. Both have to do with how do the tractor and implement interact with each other and how do you get them to behave the way you want as an operator. So that's what we do.

Mike Lessiter: Very niche.

Lars Paulsson: Very niche, very niche. That also somehow affects how we market ourselves. Nobody will buy any of our stuff just for the heck of it. You have to have an implement, and you have to have a tractor, and we make neither one; so we kind of follow around trends in... in farming, whether it's a need to combine front and rear implements. There is a need for front hitch, and that's really driven by farming practices, and we can advertise until you're blue in the face. It’s really hard to educate farmers, from our point of view. We are not big enough, you know. The big guys, there are John Deere, Case and New Holland. They can do that to some extent, but for a company our size, it's very hard.

Mike Lessiter: We should try out that blue in the face thing one of these days.

Lars Paulsson: We've been practicing for the last 15 years.

Mike Lessiter: Tell me about the history of the front hitch technology.

Lars Paulsson: Great. So it's something that really started in Europe more than 50 years ago. When I was in college back in Europe, it existed, and the first guys really got into it would be Fendt and Deutz in Germany. They, in Germany... I’m sure Germans that are listening to this are going to complain about how I look at Germany. But there is a lot of farms that are in town, and they have a few cows in town, and then they have the fields several kilometers out; and they do green feeds. They go out and cut some green grass every day and drag it back to town to feed the cows. So, they come up with this idea of putting mower on the front of a tractor and the self-loading wagon on the back, and the guy can just go out and mow and load up the wagon and take it home in one pass. And those guys, they made a tractor, they made a wagon, they made a mower, so they could do a turnkey project.

Mike Lessiter: I want to ask you about your path.

Lars Paulsson: Okay. So, like I say, I did not... I was not on the ride from the beginning with Laforge, so Hubert really got into the front hitch business, and I ran into Hubert in 1988 at the SIMA show in Paris; and he was showing— 

Mike Lessiter: Because you didn't want to hang with the pack anymore, is the story I heard.

Lars Paulsson: (laughs) I was practicing my French, I guess, and wandered off and ran into him. He had a display there with a front hitch and front plow and stuff, and so I started thinking. I was in the business importing stuff back then, so why isn't anybody doing this in the U.S.? I didn't see really anybody doing front and rear combinations. Couple of guys made things that were not really... the three-point is Harry Ferguson's idea from 1926, that you can do more with a smaller tractor if you used implement to get some traction, and it is a true interface that can understand the next categories here, one, two, three, four. That everybody is supposed to know, it doesn't matter who makes the tractor or who makes the implement; it's a pretty slick working system; it's well standardized. And what the guys were doing here, like Orthman was probably one of the most prominent one. They had their out of beans. They had it mounted on the front on something that was a little bit like a three-pointer. It had three links, like a three-point fast, but it was not done to Harry Ferguson's idea for meeting standards; but it was three points, and if you welded it together with something else that had the same three points, you could use that for things.

So that was probably the biggest niche that I saw where it was used, and you actually did something on the front. And then out in California, you had bedders, where they're bedded up for the vegetables; they were front mounted, but they used different, what we call, training arms, which are more like loader contraption things. But nobody was doing two, three points, so I thought that would be a niche we could really get into.

Then starting talk to Hubert, and he says, well, he really wanted to expand into the U.S. markets, and he had already contacts with John Deere, was in the process of becoming an allied supplier for John Deere. I think by then he already had or was about to get approval from John Deere for U.S. made tractors sold outside North America. So what he wanted to get in, North America was excluded from that agreement, so having an importer, so that's kind of how I viewed it from the beginning, was an importer. So we had it in 1989 at the, was then, California Farm Show in Tulare. It was the first time we showed, and I sold two right out of the show. It was just… looks like promising.

But then Hubert wanted to actually have dedicated entity in North America, and we came to an agreement, starting that up together. We went... started our business first of January 1991. That's been paying our bills ever since, even to Lessiter.

Mike Lessiter: (laughs) Appreciate that, Lars. Gonna have to get that... we're going to have to record my child's hand surgery on here, why he didn't get anesthesia, at some point in here.

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Lars Paulsson: (laughs) Yeah.

Mike Lessiter: So this happened really pretty fast. You met—

Lars Paulsson: Yeah, yeah. I met him in '88, and by Jan. 1, 1991, we were up and running.

Mike Lessiter: What were you importing at that time?

Lars Paulsson: I had a little company that imported specialty equipment, precision seeders for, you know, seeding carrots and onions and broccoli and that kind of stuff. We did nomadic fertilizer applicators for dry fertilizer, and we actually for a little while did a tractor. The company isn't in business anymore. I don't think that has anything to do with what we did, but was a tractor basically set up as a road grader, so you could have implement in front of the operator cabin; you could have [on the front axle, and you could have it on the rear. That's three.

So just little specialty stuff that we tried to avoid compete with the big guys. Well, then, my biggest competitors were guys like Solex and Gearmere, and well, I was working with Gearmere a little bit. So but, yeah, it was because we were doing what the front agents could fit in that. Started up in the Case dealer in Salinas, sold about 50 units in two or three years. This fellow, we said, “Oh, yeah.” And what were happening is they were doing varied drip tape for drip irrigation, and they do pretty much continuous cultivation, so if you destroy the old crop on the front and you build a bed backup on the back in one pass, you're pretty sure it'll be ripe for the drip tape once in the first place. So we sold a bunch of those. That's a good example. I don't think that came about because of our hitch, and because they needed our reach to do what they were doing.

Mike Lessiter: You were there to respond to an application, all right?

Lars Paulsson: Yeah. And the thing, like I said, they had been bedding up on the front before, but they didn't use a three point, so they had a bedder tractor, and it was build on there as a bedder; and I couldn't do anything else for that tractor all year long. Build it with a three point is when you're done with what you're doing, you park your implement, and you go do something else with it. Or nothing, just for carrying weights on the front.

The next kind of wave that we came into full application was triple mowers. Are they... that came like late 1990s, early 2000s, and so we... I think Krohn was the first that was interested in working with us. We did some trade shows with them, and we had their mower on our reach. Krohn came along, and he got Claas, J.F., and Feller. They are all now the majors, all offering that concept, so they needed a hitch.

Mike Lessiter: I want to back up to some history on you as well. Tell me about growing up in Sweden, what life was like on the farm and what you dreamt of doing back in the day.

Lars Paulsson: (laughs) So I grew up on a puny, little farm, less than 50 acres. Probably 40-something. We had ten milking cows, kept all the bulls, and ten to a dozen chicken, a couple of sows, a dog most of the time, and we'd grow two acres of sugar beets, five acres of potatoes, because we'd do processing potatoes for starch and for Lapshinit Company. And then, sugar beets, we had a one row sugar beet harvester, I would say, in 1960. We were probably the only one who mechanical harvested around. It was original built for horses. My dad converted it, so he could pull everything. It was a miserable thing, but harvesting sugar beets is really a miserable job. Pull them out of the ground, put them... however you put them on the row, and then you have a woman come and knock them off and put them in a pile, and then you drive home with the truck, and you have to load the truck by hand. That is a lot of work. That's not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But you know, I like farming, and I like tractors better than cows, so I got myself a degree in ag mechanization, and—

Mike Lessiter: And what did you think you would do with that pursuit?

Lars Paulsson: My thinking was, back then, I was tired of growing potatoes and sugar beets and that kind of stuff, so I was looking at getting out, traveling the world, maybe work for FAO or something or grow bananas and coconuts, that kind of stuff.

Mike Lessiter: Tell us how you ended up in the United States.

Lars Paulsson: So I ended up in the United States as a sales support engineer for a planter manufacturer, a Swedish planter manufacturer, and an importer of Gearmore so I was kind of assigned to Gearmore to help them get that going. I mean, the planter was kind of interesting in that prior to that, I lived in France, and I was running a forest tree nursery together with a person, who luckily knew something about trees, because I didn't know anything about trees. But I worked on this planter that was relatively flexible to make seed things, like spruce and pine and the small, small tree seeds, so there were no... nothing like that in the manual for how do you seed this stuff to result for cabbage and broccoli, and so I figured out how to make that thing work.

And then, I was living there, in France. It was a good life. Southern France, I recommend it for visit and living. Good food, good wine, nice people. And that was kind of a project on, I think it was a two year project, to set up the forestry nursery. So when that went up, some guys from Delaval Corporation in Sweden called me, because I'm originally a Swede, and said, “Hey, you got the engineering degree, and you speak half a dozen languages.” Because they were... their main markets were U.K., Ireland, Holland, Germany, and France, and I speak all those languages, so they say, “Hey, why don't you come over here and work for us?”

So I went to work for them outside Stockholm, working in the office and traveling from one daughter company to the other and never saw any farmers or any cows really. Just running around to meetings and writing reports and stuff, and that's not really my style, so saw a little ad for somebody looking for a sales support engineer at a planter I already knew from, so that's how I got that job. And California sounded like a nice place to live, and Stockholm, we had snow up to the windows and scratching the windshield every morning, battery dead and shit in the morning. California, you don't have that, so that's where I went.

Mike Lessiter: Where you married at that point?

Lars Paulsson: I was married at that time. Still with my starter wife.

Mike Lessiter: (laughs) You did well for yourself, I gotta tell you that.

Lars Paulsson: (laughs) You think so?

Mike Lessiter: Yes.

Lars Paulsson: Yeah, I met here in college in Holland, so we had been together for a long time. Long, long time. So they say being married is like having cable TV with just one channel.

Mike Lessiter: (laughs) You're lucky to get that channel, Lars, I'll tell you (laughs). And by the way, you got to give me more dirty jokes to tell my wife, because she's familiar with the Lars collection (laughs).

Lars Paulsson: Oh, man.

Mike Lessiter: Tell me about growing up in Sweden, what life was like on the farm and what you dreamt of doing back in the day.

Lars Paulsson: (laughs) So I grew up on a puny, little farm, less than 50 acres. Probably 40-something. We had ten milking cows, kept all the bulls, and ten to a dozen chicken, a couple of sows, a dog most of the time, and we'd grow two acres of sugar beets, five acres of potatoes, because we'd do processing potatoes for starch and for Lapshinit Company. And then, sugar beets, we had a one row sugar beet harvester, I would say, in 1960. We were probably the only one who mechanical harvested around. It was original built for horses. My dad converted it, so he could pull everything. It was a miserable thing, but harvesting sugar beets is really a miserable job. Pull them out of the ground, put them... however you put them on the row, and then you have a woman come and knock them off and put them in a pile, and then you drive home with the truck, and you have to load the truck by hand. That is a lot of work. That's not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But you know, I like farming, and I like tractors better than cows, so I got myself a degree in ag mechanization, and—

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Mike Lessiter: And what did you think you would do with that pursuit?

Lars Paulsson: My thinking was, back then, I was tired of growing potatoes and sugar beets and that kind of stuff, so I was looking at getting out, traveling the world, maybe work for FAO or something or grow bananas and coconuts, that kind of stuff.

Mike Lessiter: We'll talk about Hubert, and you've introduced me to him before…

Lars Paulsson: Have you ever met him?

Mike Lessiter: We had dinner in Jacksonville a few years ago if you remember. Tell me about his story and how he got into Laforge, and some of how he got to where he is.

Lars Paulsson: He's a more interesting individual than I am, very similar background. From a small farm in the southern part of France, and he came up with this idea that you could have a plow on the front of a tractor as a teenager; and he did prototypes by backing up with his dad's tractor. He tells me he backed up for hours and hours and hours before he figured out how to do that, because if you have a mobile plow front or rear, you probably don't figure out a way to do it not in furrow. You know what I'm talking about when I say in furrow? And pretty much everyone in Europe plows in furrow. So you put one set of wheels in the old furrow, and if you have a front in the rear plow, then you put the gauge wheel of the front plow in the old furrow; and you drive the tractor in the furrow that the last moldboard is making on the front. So it becomes an in furrow plowing setup, except the front plow is actually kind of on land.

And they have, you do flip plows or reversible plows, so when you turn around, the front plow has to... from being here, it only has to flip over. It has to be there when you go the other way, so it takes a little mechanism to make that happen and happen without getting screwed up every time. So he got a patent on that, when I think he was 16 years old, he got a patent on that front plow. And that's kind of part of his folder of patents that he has. He has quite a few patents, and so then he pedaled that patent to some plow manufacturers in Europe, and I think there is probably three or four left that still make from that plows. For a while, every time they sold a plow, there was a little check going to Hubert.

Mike Lessiter: So he had came up at this invention and sold the manufacturing and distribution rights to another?

Lars Paulsson: Yeah, for the plow, he did. That made him interested in front-mounting stuff in general by some kind of coincidence. He ended up doing a project during his study time at the factory, at the Laforge factory, and Mr. Laforge had to offer him a technician to help him to weld and do things. He was doing automatical sampling for sugar and sugar beets, because the way they take samples is usually at the sugar factory, and they take that in the corner of the load, and that's not really a representative sample for all field, so he had this idea… And eventually, they got in a discussion... most people do in France, and Mr. Laforge told him, “If you think you can run this company better than I can, why don't you come and do it?” And he started working there, and eventually became the owner.

So and then, the way the sugar beet equipment worked that he mounted the defoliator for the sugar beets on the front of the tractor and had a digger on the back. He needed some kind of a three point hitch on the front. So, the first Laforge hitch was built in 1979. We're coming up on 50 years of operation. And it was a little different from the Germans, the Deutz and the Fendt guys.

A mower is really the nicest thing you can carry around out in the field. It usually sits on springs and is just floating out there, as opposed to a sugar beet defoliator that rattles and shakes, and so you need a starter hitch, not to speak about, if you're going to plow with it. You need a stouter hitch, and we run into that all the time, even now. We get situations, say “How much can it lift?” Well, if you sit in the yard and stand still, you can lift all kinds of stuff, but do you actually want to push something? That's when you need some beef in your stuff, so that's kind of where Laforge has prided itself over the years, that we build stout stuff that lasts. And probably also why we have been relatively successful in North America in that we are a little tougher on equipment here than Europeans are. Some of it has to do with the quality of the drivers and a lot of owner operators in Europe.

Mike Lessiter: What year did Hubert buy Laforge?

Lars Paulsson: I would say it was '84.

Mike Lessiter: But you have three facilities in the United States, correct?

Lars Paulsson: Sure. So we started out in California, because that pays the bills. That's where I was at by the time when my import business that I had before... so it really started out as a Laforge Systems, Inc., which is the North American company. It started out as a one-man operation, me unloading trucks and loading trucks and demonstrating and driving around doing stuff, and then I got my family involved in it. Kids started getting a little older, so... I have two certified forklift drivers that put that one their college applications.

And business started in the '90s to become more spread out. In the very beginning, we were just on the west coast. Especially snow removal made that happen. It made sense to have a snow blower on the front as opposed to backup. A lot of people get tired of backing up with snow blowers. And we also got into business on the east coast, especially crops and New England and the Southeast.

So the French were thinking about getting something more central for distribution point of view, and we really didn't want to start building a factory from scratch. Looking to buy a company somewhere in the Midwest that was already up and running and doing bending and welding like we do and machining, but we didn't really want to get into equipment manufacturing, because it makes you a competitor of whoever. That's one reason why we didn't go with importers and distributors. They tend to be carrying a line of hay equipment. Well, then you become a competitor of all the other hay equipment manufacturers, because you are seen as part of their business.

So we find this company called Bruns Machine... Bruns Machine in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and on the map from France, looking at it, it looks to be nice, in the middle of the country. All our three point systems are based at the factory in France. We take them in by ocean containers. The quickest way and the smoothest way to get them to Iowa is through Halifax, Nova Scotia, take a train from there to Chicago, and then a truck from Chicago out to Iowa. That's part of why I have gray hairs, the transport challenge, just being located where we are, but you know, it's nice to have a facility in North America with a factory backup. So we moved our warehouse over there, our warehouse facility, and people there to take care of shipping and receiving. And our Dynatrac classic guided hitch systems are made there, and that is a North American product where the volume is really here. Makes sense.

Mike Lessiter: Is there a third location?

Lars Paulsson: In Iowa, technically, there are two.So we... we bought a company. Bruns Machine is located in Cedar Falls, and we needed to expand somehow, and it turns out it was more advantageous to build a brand new factory; so we did that, and that happens to be in Waterloo. As far as the Waterloo and Cedar Falls operations go, there are kind of one. It's kind of like having two buildings in the yard, so you know, some stuff is made... main of the CNC machines are in Waterloo facility so it definitely needs to be... run through that, goes there. But it's really the Bruns Machine and Waterloo are operating as one. You can get a lot of front hitches in a container. But then, you know, the factory in Waterloo is really kind of a miniature copy of what we have in France, so we can make everything we do in France, we could make here. And then of course, we have a factory in France making our two distinct, separate operations in France.

Mike Lessiter: Is there something technically challenging about the front hitches that you chose to bring them in from France rather than make them here, or is it—

Lars Paulsson: No, it's the sales volume. It is infinitely higher in Europe, there are take rates in some areas that are like 50%. Half of tractor sale in front hitch in Europe. In U.S., it's like single digits, so and like I said, since transport is not the issue, just build all farm equipment. Shipping costs are not really a big issue. Basically, this thing you can get volume; you can get significant cost advantages.

Mike Lessiter: What are the manufacturing operations that we would see in Waterloo?

Lars Paulsson: Get plates in tubes, cut and weld, machine assemble and paint, or paint and assemble, depending on the product.

Mike Lessiter: You're kind of a frequent recipient of the AE50 awards, correct?

Lars Paulsson: We've racked up something like nine now total, all the years. We also tend to get awards in Europe that are... I think awards are more valued by customers in Europe than here. There's the AA50 award. It gets some peer recognition, getting awards.