Interview with Susanne Veatch, Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer, Kinze Manufacturing, Williamsburg, Iowa

Since John Kinzenbaw founded Kinze Manufacturing in 1965, it’s grown to become one of the most innovative and respected developers of planting and grain handling equipment worldwide. With his daughter, Susanne Veatch, representing the next generation of the family to run the company, she knows she has ‘big shoes to fill.’ She believes she can fulfill the company’s mission and add to the Kinze legacy by following her father’s example of listening to customers and dealers.

“We’ve positioned ourselves as the planter experts, and planting equipment, along with grain carts, represent the majority of our business. We’re the only equipment manufacturer of planters that really focuses on planters. What makes us unique is that we understand, live and breathe planters. It’s the focus of everything we do.

“Market research is huge for us in understanding the planting needs of farmers, especially today because we’re in an environment where technology is constantly changing. Customer research was key when my father started the business in 1965, when he got down in the trenches with the farmers. He understood first-hand and what it takes for a farm to be successful. He understood farmers’ needs, which allowed him to create solutions to meet those needs.

“Market research is increasingly more important today, now that we’re a nearly 600-employee operation. We know we can’t rely on one person to be able to know the needs and the demands of all of our customers, especially in such a rapidly changing environment. That is why research is a key piece of what we do, but we also need to focus on the objective of the research and what we want to get out of it. It drives what we’re working on as far as product development goes, so we can make sure we’re focusing all our efforts on what the big needs are.

“As a family, we also maintain a farming operation. Up until a couple of years ago, my dad farmed 2,000 acres, and today my husband and I farm 330 acres. This personal experience gives us an understanding of what it takes to have a successful farming operation, how input costs affect everything and how having a planter do exactly what you need it to do will impact profitability. These things are very important from our standpoint as manufacturers to really understand farming inside and out.”

Dealers as Business Partners

“It’s really about a partnership with our dealers. We do a number of things to maintain and encourage an open dialog. “Our dealers are our link to the customer. They’re dealing with the customer day in and day out. Our dealer advisory council is extremely important to everything we do. In fact, we’re working on some initiatives right now that they’ve identified as important customer needs.

Kinze Manufacturing

Location: Williamsburg, Iowa

Year Founded: 1965

Employees: 600

Product Segments: Planting equipment and grain carts

“We’ve instituted several channels of communication to keep the lines open. In the last year, we’ve enhanced our dealer communications with our Between the Rows newsletter, and introduced a new web site. We’ve reconfigured our dealer meetings to make them more effective for the dealers. We’ve instituted quarterly conference calls because communication with them is critical. We’ve made it clear that we want them to succeed, because obviously if they’re not successful in their business, we can’t be successful in ours.

“Maybe the most important thing we do is to look at our dealers as business partners. By viewing them in this way, we look at our relationship as an opportunity.”

Responding to Market Needs

“As a shortline manufacturer, we’re far more nimble and capable of responding to customer needs than the majors. It’s an edge that we can exploit if we listen to the feedback that our dealers and customers give us. I can’t emphasize enough how critical our dealer advisory council is in helping us understand and respond to customers’ changing needs, especially in this dynamic and changing market.

“Because of our size and flexibility, we can bring new products to market very quickly. A recent example of how being nimble pays off was last summer and the 3660 TS model planter that we launched at the 2009 Farm Progress Show.

“We received a lot of feedback from our dealers and our dealer advisory council who felt we had a gap in our product lineup. Customers wanted a bulk-fill planter that was simpler than what we offered. They wanted one without all of the high-tech bells and whistles. Starting in July, we worked on the new model, and 2 months later we had it ready to introduce in early September. Instead of having individual row clutches, it has two section clutches. And instead of a high-end vision monitor, we outfitted it with a mid-range Cobalt monitor.

“We’ve received positive response from that, as well as a lot of orders. This speaks volumes for the people that we have here. Their willingness to say ‘yes’ to a very big opportunity and rise to the challenge makes us, and our dealers, more profitable. It didn’t involve developing a new product, just configuring an existing one to fit what customers wanted. It demonstrates how listening and being open to ideas leads to opportunities.”

Give Dealers the Tools

“There’s little doubt that new and emerging technology drives much of what we do when it comes to product development. Farmers are looking for planters that will help make them more efficient and accurate: GPS systems, individual row-unit control so every seed is accounted for and accurately placed, automatic section control and hydraulic drive.

“Each of these is becoming more and more prevalent and widely accepted as the best system to handle different sizes and shapes of seed. Obviously, being responsive to customer demand is critical.

“But putting it out there and not backing it up isn’t going to get it done. Along with the new technologies comes the need for service. Most of that takes place at the dealer level.

“So, going hand in hand with creating and recognizing opportunities is giving dealers the tools they need to effectively sell and service our equipment. To bolster our selling and service training efforts, we made a major investment in our new product training center a few years ago at our headquarters in Williamsburg, Iowa.

“It’s had a major impact on our business in that it enhances our ability to keep our dealers up to date on the equipment in a hands-on way. Our vision was to have a state-of-the-art training facility and that’s something dealers find very beneficial with our organization. As our equipment has become increasingly sophisticated, dealers need more training than ever to successfully sell this technology.

“We’ve seen how training increases dealer confidence. When they understand the product thoroughly, they believe in it. That’s what our training gives them. It also gives them credibility as product experts with their customers.”

Coping with Dealer Purity

“Right now, we have about 250 dealers. That number has stayed consistent over the last 3-5 years, but we’re constantly evaluating where we might have gaps in our sales coverage. A majority of them will carry a major line, but a few are purely shortline dealers.

“We understand that our dealers are under pressure from the majors to carry only their equipment, and we certainly won’t minimize what’s going on. I would say that the number-one way shortliners can help their dealers withstand pressure from the majors is by offering the most innovative products in the market. If customers demand certain equipment, then dealers can justify selling it. This is going to help them stand up to the pressures and say, ‘Our customers are demanding it.’

“We know it’s not always that simple, but good dealers always try to place customer demands ahead of supplier demands. “There has always been a high level of loyalty to color in the farm equipment industry and it’s very much there today because, in an ideal world, what farmer wouldn’t want his tractor to match his planter? But when there’s a truly innovative product at stake, we hear farmers saying, ‘I don’t care if my planter matches my tractor color because it solves the needs that I have for my farming operation.’

“We believe this is where more farmers are today. They take a lot of pride in having a blue planter because we’ve become known as the leader in planting and in having the quality, innovation and reliability that farmers look for.”

Row Widths & Trends in Planting

“We’re constantly monitoring the new thinking about planting techniques and varying row widths, recognizing that what might have been true 6 months ago may not be true 6 months from now. This goes back to the research we conducted last spring. What we found is 30-inch rows are still the favored spacing by most growers. So, as an organization, that’s what we have chosen to focus on in our product offerings. That’s not to say that we aren’t going to look at 20-inch or twin-row planting if they start coming on strong.

“One thing that we have found with twin row is that there’s a lot of talk about it — it’s become the big buzzword — but when you really pin customers down as to if they’re ready to buy a twin-row planter today, the answer is typically no. They still want to watch it another year or two and see if it’s something that would really enhance their profitability.

“We also dialogue with agronomists and look at the research at the ag colleges. They’ve found that while twin rows is something that’s possible, it hasn’t been proven that it will maximize yield and improve profitability in most areas. The seed companies seem to be in the same camp in that they’re monitoring its progress. But until we really see that the market is widely embracing it, we’ll continue to focus our efforts on what the market demand is right now, which is 30-inch rows. It will be interesting to see a year from now if interest in twin row remains, or if it’s proven to be a significant trend.”

Dealers Embrace a New Era

“We are fortunate to have a very strong dealer network — a group of businesspeople who are always hungry to find innovative ways to be more profitable. Many of our dealers are really embracing the new technology.

“They’ve set up kiosks and active displays in their dealerships that show farmers how the new technology works so they can see it hands-on, and help the farmer understand why he needs the technology.

“Our dealers also understand the need to be responsive, whether in service or sales. They strive to be nimble and adaptable because they understand that this industry is changing constantly.

“Today’s farmer is far more sophisticated and their operations are bigger than they were just a few years ago. They’re much more business-oriented and technically savvy in their use of the Internet and in gathering information.

“Whether today’s farmers are getting that information from seminars they attend or the media they subscribe to, they know what’s the latest and greatest in agricultural trends. Our dealers see this evolution in agriculture, and they work hard to stay a step ahead. Ten years ago, the farmer may have had come to ask the dealer for more advice on all sorts of things, but now that information is at their fingertips.

“Another thing we appreciate about our dealer network is their ideas — they provide us with a constant flow of ideas. They’re looking toward the future and what’s coming next in agriculture.”

Stepping into ‘Big Shoes’

“I recognize that I have some big shoes to fill, considering everything my father has accomplished and how well he’s regarded in the industry. But for people to expect me to be my dad, or to understand everything overnight, is unrealistic. I’m fortunate that my father is still involved on the engineering side — his first love — and as an owner.

“Coming in, I feel like I’ve been accepted, not because of who I am, but due to the great group of people that we have here and the fact that I grew up in this business and have lived and breathed this company for a very long time.

“My dad recognized that one person can’t do everything. It goes back to his philosophy of having a team of people that you believe in that are really the support system, and that help us operate our business. We’re very fortunate that we have that.”