Talk about the “good old days” and things we probably will never see again, during the last month or so, Mike Lessiter and I had the enviable task of interviewing four, now-retired farm equipment legends who were a big part of some of the best and worst times in this business.
We’ve prepared a special report that looks back at a lot of the events that changed how farm equipment dealers do business and shaped the dealership of the future.
These sea changes in the farm equipment business over the last four decades are told through the eyes of Bob Ratliff of AGCO, Jim Irwin of Case IH, Charlie Gause of John Deere and Al Rider of New Holland.
Each had their own take on how we got to where we are today. But it was one story that Charlie Gause told that made me think about how things used to be — for better or worse — when I was young, and how they’ll never be again.
I asked Charlie how Deere got to be the Big Kid on the block and why farmers still feel so much loyalty to the green and yellow equipment.
He said it was a lot of things, but basically it was because the company and its dealers “took care of the customer really well.”
“The farmer said, ‘I can’t pay you anything. I can hardly keep my family alive.’Then he told me a story of when he was a young trainee with Deere and was visiting a Deere dealer is southwest Kansas. “He and I called on a farmer and that farmer’s father comes over and he wants to meet me because I’m a young guy with John Deere. He said to me, ‘You know, during the ‘30s I had no money. I had a family and I couldn’t make a damn thing grow.’ Then he related a story about how a bill collector from John Deere came by one day and said, ‘Sir, you owe us money for a Model D tractor you bought.’
“That John Deere guy said, ‘Well I sure understand, but when you can, we sure would appreciate you sending us some money.’
“That old farmer shook my hand and said, ‘Do you think I’ll ever run anything but John Deere?’ And then he drove off.
“I think we have a history of doing the right thing,” Gause said. “I hope the company keeps doing that.”
Now, here’s my story. I was 23 and not too long out of college. I was working as a laborer at General Motors’ foundry in Michigan. The auto industry was booming and I was working so much overtime, I didn’t know what to do with the money.
I had been driving my dad’s car, but he wanted it back, so I needed to buy my own. I got talked into buying a brand new 1974 Pontiac Grand Lemans. It was $5,600 and lot more than I ever dreamt of paying for a car, but it was so cool.
Six months later, the auto industry went bust and about half of the foundry got laid off, including me.
There was no way I could make that car payment, so I took it back to the dealer and told him he needed to take it back. I told him my story and he told me to have a seat. About 10 minutes later, he came back and said, “Give me the keys to the car.” I did and he handed me another set, and said, “OK. I’ll take it back and you won’t have any more car payments.” Then he added, “You can have that used Vega over there so you’ve got something to drive.” I shook his hand, smiled and said, “Thank you, sir.”
I drove that Vega for nearly three years without a problem or a payment. When I was back working and able to afford it, I went back to that dealer and bought a used Pontiac Ventura and paid cash. If I had stayed in Michigan, I would have bought all of my cars from that dealer as long as he was alive.
That’s a true story, but unlike Charlie’s farmer, whose loyalty was to the equipment brand, mine was to that dealer who got me out of trouble.
I wouldn’t refer to either one of these examples as “the good old days,” but there was something good about them. Something that reminds me how good it can be even in the toughest of times.
Anyway, you can read about how the way dealers do business has changed in the past four decades or so and what forced those changes in the January issue of Farm Equipment.