Late last night, Dave Kanicki and I rolled back into town after attending a retirement party for Birkey’s Farm Store CEO/President Ron Birkey. Time has flown since we profiled him in our second edition after acquiring Farm Equipment, and the event’s slide-shows, videos and anecdotes reinforced how fast our industry changes, at times almost blind to the naked eye. So, looking back as a means of looking forward is on the brain today.
We’re pleased to bring you a special “retrospective” report in this 43rd Annual SHOWCASE edition. We’ve been rolling this idea around ever since major-line farm equipment execs with dealer network responsibilities (and whose tenures spanned some of ag’s most meaningful eras) began retiring in the early 2000s.
The time was right to sit down with these iconic names who, I’m afraid, are less familiar to new generations. As the maxim goes, “those unaware of history are destined to repeat it,” so we have an obligation to ensure memories are not short.
After studying these 66 pages of interview transcriptions, I’m confident I’ve extended my industry experience by at least a decade. You’ll want to consider these summaries as “required reading,” particularly for the younger personnel.
There’s gold in these recordings, and the anecdotes alone will be worth another listen. Things like when there was more money in saddles and horse blankets than in farm equipment. When a $50 margin on a new tractor was worth bragging about. When dealers were so hard to come by that OEMs counted a farmer’s silos or walked into a bank ready to make a pitch and put “outsiders” into the dealer business.
It’s clear that this era is more demanding on the dealer. Being a good iron peddler and wrench turner may have “given” one a business, but mistake-free inventory control, cash management and people-development skills are the only way to stay there. Still, we’re wise to intimately know our roots, and what our predecessors endured.
From these recordings, the events leading up to and through the 1980s must not be forgotten. Here are a few nuggets pulled from those discussions, and their relevance to today (in italics):
• Things were so good in 1970s that few could conceive of leaving the equipment business. Once again, marginally profitable dealers have been getting a pass, delaying Darwinism’s effects.
• Factors that rocked the industry included a political decision (1980 grain embargo), banks who weren’t lending and demand that screeched to a halt before OEMs realized production should cease. I’m only going to address what we all know for sure: We’re no closer in 2013 to ridding ourselves of political foolishness.
• Dealers faced a steep learning curve with both the more advanced products (remedial by comparison) and a new operational landscape, both which soon became non-negotiables for remaining in business. Precision farming anyone?
The interviews deserve more coverage than we can devote, and perhaps only when historians get their hands on them will they get their due. But if this report whets your appetite for understanding the past, it’s still better to ask the questions yourself. Grab a coffee with (or better yet, bring in) “old-timer” dealers, farmers and manufacturers and get the story first-hand. I guarantee you’ll bank intel to help you make wiser decisions in future days.
High times can breed hubris. Sometimes, the right questions aren’t asked until you’re backed into a corner. But no one said you have to wait.