Anyone who's been around the industry for more than a few years can attest to the fact that selling ag machinery isn't the same business as even a decade ago. The shifts that are transforming dealerships from local mom-and-pop stores to sophisticated regional - and in some cases beyond - businesses are stretching the talents and resources of dealer-principals that few could ever have imagined.

It wasn't that terribly long ago when no one knew there was such a thing as absorption rate. When market share was a good thing, but not the reason you were in business. When the term "dealer purity" needed an explanation, and no one dared to suggest to a dealer that he could carry only one brand of equipment. Or when the only ones who alluded to succession planning were a dealer's son or daughter who wondered when their old man was going to retire.

For this special report, Farm Equipment editors interviewed four retired manufacturing executives to explore what's different about today's farm equipment dealership compared to when they started in this business. What were the milestone changes that set the dealers of tomorrow apart from the dealers of yesterday?

In all, we spoke with Charlie Gause, retired vice president of marketing for John Deere; Jim Irwin, retired vice president of North American Business for Case IH; Bob Ratliff, founder and retired chairman and CEO of AGCO Corp.; and Allen Rider, retired vice president of North American Agriculture for New Holland.

To a person, each agreed that the world of farm equipment has changed for the dealer in various and significant ways. With little urging, these retired executives recalled a time when manufacturers believed their dealers were their customers, maybe even their friends, a point that's been lost on several of their successors.

Or, as Ratliff pointed out, how it was farmers' loyalty to their dealer that actually built the equipment brand. A fact, he said, that has been proven over and over by dealers that should have failed but survived instead.

Maybe Charlie Gause summed up the then and now best when asked how John Deere got to be the biggest ag equipment maker in the world. His response was, "It's just a history of doing the right thing. I hope the company keeps doing that."

As these industry legends share their thoughts about then and now, it's clear memories of building their dealer networks and the personal relationships that developed remain some of the fondest of their careers, and which they still treasure today.

Were the changes dealers have gone through necessary? Is the farm equipment business better or worse for all the changes? Are there more ahead? We'll let these industry veterans tell you what they think about it all in their own words.

Charlie Gause, John Deere
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Jim Irwin, Case IH
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Robert Ratliff, AGCO Corp.
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Allen Rider, New Holland
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David Kahler, Ohio-Michigan Equipment Dealers Assn.
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