How Relationships & Experiences Formed & Enabled this Ag Engineer

Including Some Important Lessons Learned

Gary L. Wells

Professor for a Day Presentation for Celebrate ABE@Illinois 

September 17, 2010

 

Acknowledgement

The episodes, anecdotes, experiences, and facts of my life, only a relative few of which are recapped here, would not have been possible but for the many, many good people with whom I’ve been privileged and fortunate to be paired in positive relationships. Everything about me was formed or shaped or influenced by those relationships, and I thank everyone who took part in this construct. However, there are far too many to allow singling out any particular individuals for mention here. To try to do so would unavoidably result in omissions which would confuse the matter. That notwithstanding, however, certainly there was a distribution of relationships by types, and with respect to impact. See Appendix A for more on this. Writing an account of the important aspects of my life is a job I’ve long felt I’d like to do, mostly for my children and grandchildren. I am grateful to my friends at ABE@Illinois for providing the impetus to me to “Get ’er done!” Sincere thanks go to those friends. Perhaps this paper may lead to a book someday, affording ample space for more history and greater specificity. We’ll have to see.

 

Dedication

This paper is dedicated to my wife Anita, to our four children and their respective spouses, and to our seven grandchildren.

 

Personal Background—My Development Years and What Made Me Become Me

I was born in 1937 to a farm family in Rock Island County, Illinois, the second of eight children that my parents had over a period of about 21 years. Mom and Dad had been high school sweethearts, but they waited for three or four years after high school to be married. After my parents married, they lived with Dad’s mother and father and Grandpa’s brother in their house. It was pretty crowded until Uncle Ned moved out at about the time my third sibling came along, my older brother went into the Army, and I went away to College.

 

It was clear to me as a youngster that my Mom was indelibly steeped in the lessons of the great depression—that is, you must produce and preserve most of your own food; make dresses, shirts, and towels out of seed com and animal feed sacks; live within your means, and to the extent possible, avoid debt. Frankly, I sometimes wondered how having eight kids fit within that framework.

 

Mom was also constantly, and in retrospect, excessively, fearful that Dad may be drafted into the Service in World War II. As a result of her background, and probably as a coping mechanism, she was always a prodigiously hard worker and the staunchest kind of Republican.

 

My father was the same kind of hard worker, but it seemed he was more sanguine about debt, war worries, and change. He was willing to borrow to invest in growth of the farm enterprise. For example, in 1939 he bought one of the very first Farmall M tractors in the year it was first introduced together with a four-row planter, a four-row cultivator and a two-row mounted com picker. All this mechanization seemed excessive on a farm of only 104 acres having a corn crop of around 35 to 40 acres per year. What this enabled him to do, however, was to rent the two adjacent farms comprising more than 200 additional acres of cropland—and also to pick corn for hire for many neighbors who had only one-row or two-row pull-type pickers that had really low field efficiency characteristics and which required them to drive over two or three rows of corn whenever opening up a field or laying out a new land. These characteristics of the pull-type picker wasted a lot of corn, so neighbors were happy to pay Dad to open their corn fields and lay out the lands for them.

 

There was an interesting, repeating, and predictable saga or a kind of ritual that played out whenever Dad wanted to spend big dollars on a new piece of farm equipment. First, he would evince an interest in the new... whatever. He would go look at it, bring home the manufacturer’s sales literature, and eventually allow the dealer to bring out the new “whatever” and demonstrate it. All the while he would be talking to Mom and she would be opposing any such purchase. She would threaten to be very angry. She would threaten divorce. She would ultimately give in and in a few days, say a week or 10 days at the most, they would be embracing and making up, even though my Dad was a Democrat to the core.

 

Mom’s pronunciation of the word “Democrat” made it sound ugly. I am certain that influenced me to be a nicer-sounding Republican long before I could have made that choice for all the more rational and correct reasons.

 

Probably the three most significant relationships in my childhood, with respect to their influence on my developing into the person that I became were these:

 

(1) The love between my mother and father, their work ethic, and the behavior and values they modeled at all times influenced me in a profoundly positive way. Their indomitable spirit in the face of adversity and their “can do” attitude no doubt undergirded the development of whatever resilience, toughness, and equanimity that characterize me even today.

 

(2) My Grandma almost always sat down after the noon meal, which was called “dinner,” and after the dishes were washed, to read the Chicago Daily News which was delivered six days per week by the “mailman.” When I was about three years old I discovered it was fun to snuggle up close and have her read the comics to me just about every day. She had been a school teacher in her earlier life and she also apparently enjoyed it quite a bit. By the time I was four, I was reading the comics by myself, and by the time I started first grade at age six, I was reading much of the rest of the newspaper as well, plus most pages of the Prairie Farmer and Successful Farming magazines which came monthly. There is no doubt in my mind this early reading ability and practice made all of my educational experience for the rest of my life far and away more effective.

 

(3) Because I was a skinny baby and had an ectomorphic body type as a child, my Grandpa took to referring to me by what he ostensibly thought was an endearing and sympathetic term or nickname. The nickname was “Runt”—not “a runt” or “the runt,” but Runt with a capital R. On our farm we raised hogs, and you may be sure I knew exactly what a runt was, and it was not a good thing. There is no doubt the derision I felt caused me to always want to work harder, do more, and be able to carry more responsibility even than my older brother to prove my worthiness. It was a case similar to that described by Johnny Cash in his song “A Man Called Sue.” It made me tougher, and I’m now convinced this factor significantly affected me throughout my life.

 

By the way, this self-analysis of causal factors in my formative years was done by myself, completely without professional or any other help. But I did not arrive at this analysis until a relatively few years ago. I guess it never occurred to me earlier to think about things like this, nor would I have trusted anyone with less experience to have gotten it right.

 

On the farm we had an intensive operation:  24 dairy cows, 44 beef cattle, 20 farrowing sows producing annually about 275 market hogs, 14,000 laying hens producing around 12,000 eggs per day—that’s a  thousand dozen eggs, most of which Mom retailed—14 sheep, many cats, one dog, abundant child labor, and lots of unremitting work, much of which had to be done every day of the week, no exceptions. We milked our cows three times per day (4:00 a.m., noon, and 8:00 p.m.) to gain about 20 percent more yield.

 

And we had a very extensive array of mechanization. Our complement of equipment included one truck, three tractors, one combine, a forage harvester and ensilage blower, a stalk shredder, a baler, three wagons, a manure loader, a conventional manure spreader for the hog and cattle manure, an 1,100 gallon liquid manure spreader and lift pump for the chicken manure, two moldboard plows, two tandem and a field cultivator, a grain drill, a fertilizer distributor, a 10 million BTU per hour grain dryer, several auger elevators, a self-propelled crop sprayer, a hammer mill, a burr mill, a grinder-mixer, a grain and bale elevator, a sickle-bar mower, a hay rake, a milking machine and a milk cooler, an arc welder, a 30 kilovolt-amp PTO-driven generator, an orchard sprayer, a powerful walking garden tractor, and a seriously balky power lawn mower. That’s more than 40 pieces of equipment in all, and in some cases we had a succession of models over the years. For example, we had 12 different tractors during the years that I was active on the farm. Yet Dad did not flip any of this equipment. The average tenure of the machinery on his farm was probably north of 15 years. The M tractor was worn out three times and rebuilt twice. It was used hard! One of the 806 Tractors had over 9,000 hours on it and was still going strong at the time of Dad’s retirement from farming in 1974. The chicken house itself had mechanical feeders, mechanical egg handling and processing equipment, mechanized manure removal, and automated environmental control, lighting, and watering systems.

 

This was truly an intensive and diversified farming operation, and it was an outstanding educational and developmental opportunity for me and my five brothers and two sisters! In many respects it was like a small university teaching living communally in close quarters, interdependence, very hard work, animal husbandry, crop and food production, and farm mechanization.

 

Education

 

Pre-school as mentioned earlier; that is, learning to read at my grandmother’s side.

 

Grade school. Grades 1-6.  

One-room school. 1-1/2 mile walk from home. Enrollment of 13-14, spread across all eight grades. Good teacher every year, but none over two years in a row. Only eight months of school per year so the kids could help with Spring farm work.

 

Grade school. Grades 7-8. 

Unitized Township school. Still one room, but with enrollment of 23 spread over only seventh and eighth grades. A living legend of a tough-loving disciplinarian for a teacher. Forty minute bus ride each way. Competitive peer group.

 

High school, Freshman and Sophomore years, 1951-1953. 

Attendance at out-of-district Hillsdale High was allowed because they had vocational agriculture classes while the in-district Port Byron High did not. I had no well-thought-out vision regarding my life’s work, so the default vision was to be another farmer like my Dad. Hillsdale High was a small school with enrollment of just around 100—over 50 percent farm kids, but with town kids as well—a couple of whom were pretty vulgar types from the wrong side of the tracks. My two years there were largely unremarkable, unless we count the small number of near-collision episodes and sliding off the road experiences my older brother and I had driving the 14 miles to or from school.

 

High school,  Junior and Senior years, 1953-1955. 

Attendance at in-district Port Byron High now became required because a vo-ag course was initiated there. Enrollment at this school was about 140. My senior class comprised 33 students at the start of the year. For a wide variety of reasons only 26 of us graduated. I was the class Valedictorian. However, since just one other person in this small group beside myself went on to college, there’s no way that one can impute much significance to my being at the top of the class.

 

Pre-College during summer of 1955. 

On the evening of my high school graduation, my Aunt Lois talked to my mother and father about any plans there might be, could be, and should be for sending me to college. Because no one in my parents’ immediate family had ever attended college or had even a fundamental understanding about such matters, and since my parents knew in their gut the expense would be simply unmanageable, college for me was never seriously considered. But Aunt Lois (who was, as far as I know, the only person in our large extended family to have gone to college—it was the University of Illinois) was strongly convinced that I should go. Aunt Lois was married to Uncle Curtis, my mother’s brother, and she was also a sister of my Uncle Jim, who was married to Mom’s sister, Aunt Wylma. It was a big but close extended family.

 

Uncle Curtie, as we called him, was a successful and profitable hog farmer, so not only did Aunt Lois know what college was all about and what it cost, she knew that she and Uncle Curtie could afford to put me through it. They offered to provide me a long-term loan at little or no interest, repayable whenever I could do it, and the amount would be “whatever it takes.” My Mom liked the idea because she dreamed that I could whip right through, get a good job, earn lots of money, and then fund the educations of my younger siblings. As things turned out, that part of the scheme never happened. It wasn’t necessary, and in retrospect, it would not have been a good paradigm for any of us. With the mental block regarding a college education for me thus broken, I started seriously working throughout the summer of 1955 to improve the funding outlook.

 

I measured cornfield acreages all over northern Rock Island County for the county Agricultural Commodity Stabilization Committee (ACSC) to establish eligibility of the respective farmers for federal crop subsidy payments that required compliance with acreage limits. The presence or absence of a crop of growing corn had to be verified and recorded in every field on each farm for which an application for enrollment in the subsidy program had been made. The corn acreage had to be measured. If there was a current aerial photograph that accurately portrayed the current field configuration “on the ground,” as we say today, the area could be measured using a planimeter on the map. In those cases where there was no correct photograph, the corn field had to be measured using a 100-foot steel tape. In these cases, the farmer had to help, walking all around each such field with me and running the other end of my tape measure. Sometimes the farmer would delegate this job to his wife. This was generally not a distraction. This job paid fairly, but fair pay for a high school kid in those days was not much. My Dad subsidized my job by loaning me the family car and donating the gasoline.

 

In the early spring of 1955, I applied for a lavishly generous four-year scholarship in highway engineering that was awarded annually by the Associated General Contractors of America. My high school grades and class position together, with the essay required for entry in the competition, earned me a position among five finalists. These five were invited to an all-day visit to Engineering Hall for an exhaustive interview by the selection committee who were mostly civil engineering professors, and a scholarship award administrator for AGCA. I felt I had made a very good showing in this evaluation process. It turned out, however, that neither I nor any of the other three candidates who were not sons of a prominent contractor/member of the Association actually had much of a chance. We lost; he won the scholarship. But he flunked out by the end of the first year, and I had learned a lesson.

 

In the late spring of that year, a countywide competitive academic test of what I recall was of serious breadth and very challenging difficulty was administered to all new high school graduates who cared to apply. The purpose of the test was to determine who would be the recipients of both the general scholarship and the agricultural scholarship from RI County. Each one of these scholarships comprised free tuition for four years at the U of I. My score earned for me the County Agricultural Scholarship! Tuition at that time was $65—not $65 per semester hour, but $65 per semester. Even so, this was important money to me, and it probably had an important influence on my course registration choices later on.

 

We lived almost exactly 200 miles—mostly via Route 150—from Urbana-Champaign. In those days that was a really long trip for my parents. It was hot in late August, 1955 when we made that trip to get me enrolled, get a room rented, and say a tearful goodbye when Mom and Dad left to hurry back to their life of work. That work would thenceforth be exacerbated by my absence from their crew roster. It was the first time I’d been away from home for more than three nights in a row at the county fair since 4H camp for a week at the age of ten. Someone else would have to milk the cows, fill the silo, pick the corn, drive a tractor, and do machinery maintenance. I was scared for them, wondering how my folks would be able to make it without me there to help. I was also scared for myself—could we really be doing this?

 

Aunt Lois had set up a checking account for me with $500 in it. After buying some clothes for college, I had also put in the little remainder that was left from my job with the ACSC. Tuition was “on the house,” and the room I had rented was $21.50 per month. Entertainment and miscellaneous expenses were expected to be near nil. Books, food, and laundry would be my only significant expenses. However, the question remained in my mind, “How is this all going to work out?” My aunt reassured me that she would replenish the checking account as needed, for as long as needed. I did not know God then, but I think I do now, and even today I thank Him whenever I think of it for the generosity of Aunt Lois and Uncle Curtie.

 

My college career was launched in late August, 1955.  A helpful person encountered somewhere along the way during registration told me about “meal jobs” in the food service operations at the Illini Union. I opined I could handle the time requirements and the technical aspects of this work, and was fortunate enough to land such a job. Working Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights was all it took to pay all my meal expenses except for Sunday evenings, when a McDonalds hamburger, French fries, and a strawberry shake, all for 99 cents, did nicely.

 

My class schedule was pretty routine for a freshman in the College of Agriculture, and that’s a good thing, because it included Ag 100, a broad-based overview of the various aspects available in agricultural education. Ag 100 was where I discovered Ag Engineering, and thanks to Wendell Bowers, it was exciting. Another exciting discovery was that it would be possible for me to enroll in a combined agricultural engineering/general agriculture program requiring five years and still use my County Agricultural scholarship. And so that is what I did, and from that point on, my focus was on engineering. The possibility that my decision to stay five years in college instead of four may concern Aunt Lois was not an issue because I finished that first year with some of her first tranche of $500 left unspent. However, I’m sure it must have concerned her, and my mother as well, that I spent it on an ancient Indian motorcycle. But I never used borrowed money in financing my college education from then on.

 

In those days General Motors had an extremely generous scholarship program based on academic excellence at a number of Universities around the country—including at the U of I, where GM awarded five scholarships per year, each good for four years of school. Near the end of my freshman year, I learned about this program, and also the fact that one GM scholar had withdrawn from school near the end of his first year, and GM was interested in awarding the residual of his scholarship to a new recipient for the remaining three years. Selection would be based on a competitive exam and other relevant factors, such as apparent leadership potential. I applied, took the test and had an interview, and won the scholarship. Very soon thereafter, when GM learned that I wanted to stay in school four more years and not just three, their Executive VP (an Illini engineering alumnus) together with their scholarship administrator told me I could be assured the scholarship monies would be available for that additional year. It seemed to me that they reached that decision in about a millisecond—possibly two. And for the next four years, I received two GM checks per year, each one a few weeks before the start of the ensuing semester.

 

During four consecutive summers throughout my undergraduate college years, I worked in the Test Engineering Department at the East Moline Plant of International Harvester Company. This plant was their combine factory, and it was only nine miles from my parents’ farm. At that time this was the perfect fit for me, and I got that job because the wife of the local IH dealer—where Dad was a customer and friend—worked in the personnel department at the IH factory. She pulled some strings, so to speak, to make sure my application was duly noticed. Talk about the good that comes from good relationships! The aggregate effect of the GM money, my free tuition, and savings from the job I had each summer in the East Moline Plant of IH, was that my financial needs were oversupplied by a greater percentage than ever before or since.

 

The good times for me at the University of Illinois, August 1955 – late 1961. 

Things went well for me over the six years at the U of I. A resume covering those years would include the following items and others too numerous to mention:

 

  • Completed the requirements for three degrees: BSAg 1960, BSAgEng 1960, MSAgEng 1962.

  • Graduated with Honors and High Honors.

  • Joined Phi Eta Sigma, Freshman Honorary Fraternity.

  • Joined Phi Kappa Phi, Sophomore Honorary Fraternity.

  • Joined Illinois Student Branch of ASAE. Served as President one year.

  • Helped form Illinois Chapter of Alpha Epsilon, Ag Eng Honorary Fraternity and served as its first President.

  • Joined Tau Beta Pi, Engineering Honorary Fraternity.

  • Was a member of the B and B Club sponsored by Dr. Lanham every cycle from the start.

  • Organized student branch members to supply labor to build a bridge over a stream on the South Farms. That bridge is still there and working today, 52 years later.

  • Joined Illiknights, a social club for men of the “Gamma Delta Iota” (known as GDI), ilk

  • Served as President of Illiknights for three years.

  • Was selected as a Knight of Saint Patrick, an honor bestowed on just a few engineers.

  • Served on a small committee to create the first issue of the annual publication “Agrineer.”

  • Socialized a lot—learned how to drink and how not to do so, (this mostly in only one night).

  • Maintained a meal job until transitioning into graduate school.

  • Secured the Hackett Fellowship to partially fund graduate school.

  • Worked in the Ag Engineering Department 20 hours per week while in grad school.

  • Learned to cope with as many as six 8 o’clock classes/week—it wasn’t too hard for a farm boy accustomed to getting up at 5:00 a.m. to milk 24 cows before going to high school.

  • Ushered at nearly every home game of the Fighting Illini. Ushers were allowed in free.

  • Secured a ’56 Chevy 210 in 1958 and dressed it up with changes to make it really sporty.

  • Drove home many weekends during planting and harvesting seasons to help on the farm.

  • Found a U of I girl I wanted to marry, which was good luck because in those days the ratio of male to female students at Illinois was 5 to 1. I courted her for three years, then we were married on December 18, 1960. Her salary as a starting third grade teacher at Bottenfield School in Champaign enabled us live very comfortably.

  • Designed and built from the ground up a field-going ultra-high-pressure direct injection anhydrous ammonia fertilizer applicator. Also designed and built a unique complement of performance measurement equipment for the applicator and field tested the applicator for proof of concept. By the way, it worked.

  • Completed the course and thesis requirements for my MS in 13 months. Moved to Rock Island to start my new job as a Test Engineer at IH in East Moline on October 16, 1961.

 

Highlights of Professional Career

 

At East Moline Plant, October 1961 – January 1972

  • Completed the course and thesis requirements for my MS in 13 months. Moved to Rock Island to start my new job as a Test Engineer at IH in East Moline on October 16, 1961.

  • Was granted one year’s service credit as a reward for four summers already worked.

  • Went through a six-month orientation program, spending one or two weeks in each department.

  • Planned and executed the complete 1962 field test program for the 403 Hillside Combine.

  • Managed and conducted field and lab tests on Windrow Special and Rice Combines.

  • Advanced from Engineering to an entry-level managerial position in Manufacturing in 1963.

  • Handled manufacturing quality and reliability issues all over the plant. Came to know over 2,000 of the 3,600 hourly workers, nearly all of the 240 managerial employees, and most of the 100 or so engineers at East Moline.

  • Became established as a principal trouble shooter and “go to” resource on any product issue, be it design or quality deficiency, whether in the plant or at the dealer or retail customer level.

  • Served three years as President of the Managerial Club. Revitalized the club, raising membership from fewer than 100 to over 200 of the 240 eligible.

  • Maintained membership in the Quad City Chapter of AS AE and chaired the Program Committee one year.

  • Served three years as an adviser in the local Junior Achievement organization.

  • Became the Plant representative on the Combine Product Committee out of World Headquarters in Chicago.

At new IH Product Reliability Center in Hinsdale, January 1972 – August 1972

  • Organized, staffed, and operated centralized warranty claims processing, vendor recovery, reliability tracking, and reliability improvement teams for all IH crop harvesting equipment.

  • Broke the practice of many of the more than 100 company-owned retail stores supplementing their P& L’s by filing too-liberal warranty claims.

 

At IH World Headquarters, 401 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, August 1972 –September 1978

  • Served as the Ag Equipment Div Manufacturing representative on a five-man team of “Business Planning Coordinators” to implement a new “Planning/Management” system sponsored by the VP of Corporate Development.

  • Trained the staffs of eight Farm Equipment Division plants (Canton, East Moline, Rock Island, Memphis, Louisville, New Orleans, West Pullman, and Waukesha) and helped them prepare comprehensive business plans for 1973, including initiatives and projected P & L’s.

  • Had a change of bosses from the VP of Manufacturing who had recruited me to be his Business Planning Coordinator to a different individual who had been VP of Manufacturing in the company’s fabulously successful Truck Division. This new VP was the quintessential mean, rough and tough, bull-of-the woods type. He had all the subtlety of a red hot branding iron. My new boss didn’t know why he needed a “business planning coordinator,” and he certainly didn’t know why he should tolerate an uppity kid like me in his organization. It was tough going for a while, but within a couple of months the VP brought over two assistant VP’s he had had in the Truck Div. They both proved to be very astute and they were real gentlemen. They recognized my value and they saved me. Before long, I was writing every one of the many speeches that my VP needed in his job, and he came to like me quite a bit. He continued coming to me for speechwriting for a couple of years after I was promoted out of his organization. A big reward from this relationship and the favors came later.

  • Worked with the Divisional team and Divisional accounting to consolidate all the functional areas’ plans (Marketing, Engineering, Reliability, Parts and Service, and Manufacturing) into a Divisional plan to be submitted to the Corporate level.

  • Traveled with the Divisional Staff and Manufacturing management to the plants for reviews of their respective business plans. On one such occasion, an overnight blizzard dumped 15 inches of snow all over northern Illinois while we were staying in Davenport. It caused the grounding all airplanes at the Moline airport. Snow was continuing to fall heavily in the morning. My boss’s boss, our Ag Division President, was scheduled to be back in Chicago for a Corporate Staff meeting at 1:00 p.m., and there was considered to be no excuse good enough to justify being a no-show. In a zealous showing of the intrepidity of the great Manufacturing Department, my boss, the VP of Manufacturing, appointed me at 5:00 a.m. to drive the President from Moline to Chicago. Frankly, it was lucky that we made it, but I got him to his meeting with about 10 minutes to spare. That episode was extremely serendipitous for me because it started a new and enduring relationship with one of the most respected and capable executives in the Company. We bonded on that trip, and though I didn’t know it then, a big reward was to come later.

  • Developed much of the material for presentation of the Divisional plan to more than 300 of the Ag Division management organization in January 1974 at Scottsdale, Arizona.

  • Redesigned the whole “Planning/Management” concept to reconcile and merge it with another similar, largely congruent but yet quite different management system called “Accountability Management” that was simultaneously and ill-advisedly being sponsored by the Corporate VP of Human Resources. My simplified version was adopted by Ag Division Manufacturing at the start of the planning cycle in early 1974.

  • Created and proposed an entirely new AED matrix management organizational structure for more effective management of product determination, product development, and product line management, including accountability for product line market share performance, assets employed, and profitability. This new structure was proposed to replace the “product committee” concept that had been codified, refined, and employed for over 25 years, but which was almost entirely dysfunctional with respect to controlling product costs. It was soon after the retirements of the Divisional President and his close friend the Div VP of Product, that my friend from the blizzard episode, now our new Division President, adopted the new concept and installed it as official. This change, together with staffing changes to make it work, was announced to the organization in a major meeting in mid-April, 1974. By the end of 1975, the whole Company had adopted matrix structures, and the individual units came to be called “Strategic Business Units” or SBU’s, even though they technically were not, in that our SBU’s did not involve discretely different markets nor market channels.

  • At the time of the April 1974 meeting, our combine engineers were in about the middle of the second decade of nursing along, in skunk-works style, a nascent new concept of a combine incorporating rotary threshing and rotary separation. They were calling it the “Multi-Pass Combine.” The level of effort had always been too low, and the turnover of personnel too fast for any substantial progress to have been made. But now, we were experiencing a perfect storm in our combine business. Market share was only in the high single digits and dropping, and profits were nil. Moreover, confidential third-party surveys that we had commissioned, involving telephone interviews of hundreds of farmers, indicated the brand preference of future combine purchasers would favor us in fewer than 10 percent of instances. Additionally, there was emerging evidence that a former IH combine engineer (who had become embittered and quit the Company in 1970 over harsh criticism he had received as a result of the extremely poor performance of the small combine whose development he had directed) had stolen proprietary information when he departed. The evidence was becoming clear that the competing company our former friend had joined may very soon announce a new machine built around rotary threshing and separation.

 

Since we were at the point that almost any success we could wring out of a big new gambit to accelerate development of the rotary concept would be better than the dire outlook we had, the decision was taken to go for it. My friend, the new Divisional President, appointed me to become Project Manager of New Combine Development. I would report to the Grain Harvesting SBU Manager and be responsible for the entire project, within the matrix framework.

 

Trying to think strategically about what we had observed undergoing field tests in the recent preceding years of a prototype rotary combine by the competitor to whom our former engineer had defected, we opined their new machine may hit the market in 1974 or 1975. Their combine had two smaller rotors instead of one larger rotor as our concept did.

 

We deduced later this was probably because our defected engineer had observed from the sidelines in the IH combine skunk works for the better part of a decade that very little promising headway was being realized in that effort, and he thought that twin rotors would better solve the vexing problem of feeding crop into the end of a spinning rotor.

 

We were fearful that the twin rotor combine would either (1) succeed in the market and knock us out of the game, or (2) it would fail, and in the process destroy the image of rotary combines for many more years. Neither prospect was palatable. Our management mandated that we speed up our development work. There was strong sentiment in our Engineering and Marketing Departments that we had better have a back-up plan. The plan proposed by these two disciplines was to keep a sizeable fraction of our combine development capacity focused on replacing and further broadening the current line of conventional (read old-fashioned) machines to be rolled out in case the rotary concept development effort failed yet again.

 

We had a classic Catch-22 because the deployment of any significant portion of scarce engineering resources would virtually assure our failure to perfect the rotary combine, while likely producing another line of conventional models that could not hope to enhance our market share or our profitability. As in Texas Hold ’Em style poker, if we wanted to win big, we would need to go all in. Over the next years we went all-in, as described in the following list of items:

 

  • Discontinued all engineering work on the current line except for essential maintenance.

  • Got every prototype possible built and out on field tests in the US, Europe, and Australia.

  • Filed a lawsuit against the “twin rotor” company for using stolen proprietary information.

  • Developed faster methods of field information feedback from testing going on simultaneously in as many areas as possible, and sped up the response to issues that surfaced. We tried to use 10X solutions to problems whenever feasible.

  • Committed that we would adhere, to the maximum extent possible, to the vision of universality of suitability in all combineable crops—over 100 different ones from alfalfa to zoysia grass!

  • Made a documentary movie about the project to be shown to employees and dealers to educate them and help keep their enthusiasm elevated.

  • Made a radical and totally unprecedented deal with the Engineering Shop at the huge IH Truck Plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to build five prototype combines for us for “market development” purposes starting in 1976. Our own engineering shop had greatly insufficient capacity to build these extra machines. There was a lot of worrying that our engineers would not be able to adequately control this work, but it never became any problem whatsoever.

  • Placed the Ft. Wayne machines with our Regional offices for their use in customer demonstrations, evaluations, and feedback of information. The Regions moved the machines around as required to optimize exposure and maximize the duration of the season. The use of these five combines was directed by me out of my Chicago office. Most of our regional people helping on this project worked heroically on this effort.

  • For the first time in history someone other than the Manufacturing department wrote the presentation to the Corporate Board of Directors required to gain their approval of the request for appropriation of over $10 million to pay for tooling and plant rearrangement to produce the new combines. Three members of my team and I worked through the entire night before preparing further analysis that our CEO wanted to give to the Board.

 

Note:  In the early Spring of 1977 my immediate boss, upset that he had not had a promotion in years, quit the Company. I took over his job, which included managing not only the Grain Harvesting SBU but also four other SBU’s:  Cotton Harvesting and Hay Harvesting, both at Memphis; Forage Harvesting and Mower Conditioners, located at the Engineering Center at Hinsdale; and Swathers and Windrowers, at the Hamilton, Ontario Plant in Canada.

 

  • A limited factory-run of 300 mid-sized Axial Flows was produced for use in the 1977 crop.

  • A major press conference and field demonstration was held in eastern Iowa in mid-Fall, 1977 for about 45 of the major farm publications from all around the country.

  • In late 1977 as our Divisional management was resolving the Product Engineering budgets for the following year they judged that previously unforeseen critical issues in a certain new tractor development program were more critical than the combine program at that time. The order was issued that the grain harvesting engineering budget would have to be scaled back by $2 million from the bare bones budget that we needed, had planned on and were expecting. Compliance with this order would be a disaster for my SBU, necessitating the laying off of a number of scarce and precious combine engineers. In my view this would result in a “train wreck” for the Axial Flow Combine project.

 

Engineering management had given up any further appeal for a remedy. I requested a meeting with the Divisional President and his staff to again make our case. During lengthy and passionate discussion in which my team was making no apparent progress, my old friend the VP of Manufacturing addressed the meeting saying, “If Gary needs the $2 million and Product Engineering management say they can’t cough it up, I’ll give it to him out of the Manufacturing budget. We will scrape it up somehow.” As far as I know, this type of action was totally unprecedented in our company. This VP did not really know that much about judging the relative merits of different product development programs, but because of my relationship with him that had grown over the preceding years, he was willing to place a big bet like this. When reflecting on this episode, it still amazes me 33 years later.

 

  • Arrangements were made to partner with the R A Hanson Company (RAHCO) in Spokane, Washington on the development and regular production of a Hillside model of the new Axial Flow machine, with retail sales to start in 1979 in the small but important market in the far Northwest region of the US. This relationship worked beautifully. The product was clearly superior to all other brands on the market, it came to dominate, and was affectionately known in the hillside country as “Bigfoot.” Many a young farm boy in that area expressed the ambition to become a Bigfoot driver when he got old enough.

  • The plant produced 3300 Axial Flow Combines for sale in the 1978 crop year. All of them were sold by year-end, including controlled numbers exported to other countries.

  • The management people at East Moline Plant, who had figured for many years that practical plant capacity was 7,400 combines per year, were persuaded to find the way, without significant new capital, to produce 10,000 combines for the 1979 crop year, and to do it cost-effectively. Marketing had little difficulty selling them at the wholesale level. That record run made the combine business the most profitable business of the entire Company by a factor of almost double, and that relative profitability position continued for more than two decades thereafter. Our Grain Harvesting SBU had become a spectacularly successful high-performance team! IH market share in North America jumped from below 10 percent to over 40 percent.

  • We had accomplished our overarching objective, which, as I continually reminded my SBU, was to “drag the Company, kicking and screaming, into the combine business.”

  • We created plans on how to raise practical plant capacity to 12,000 combines per year.

 

Also at World Headquarters, October 1978 – February 1980. 

I was promoted to Director of North American Ag Parts and Service Marketing, with responsibility for more than 200 people at locations all over the US and Canada. During the 1979 fiscal year, we increased parts sales by over 30 percent from the preceding year and the profit contribution was up by better than $9 million. In 1979, the parts business and the combine business together generated about 130 percent of the total Division’s profit.

 

As 1979 wound to its end, I was promoted to Director of Grain Harvesting Products Worldwide. In this capacity my responsibilities included the management of the product line in North America and to better develop the IH grain harvesting business in Europe. During my time in that role the following things were accomplished;

  • Bought Angers, France Plant, recruited a Plant Manager, and organized plans for ramp-up of production of Axial-Flows for the European market, while phasing out combine production at Croix, France which would become a high volume tractor cab manufacturing plant. In addition, Croix also continued as a source of tillage equipment.

  • Compiled and presented to Corporate Board of Directors the first long range strategic plan for our world-wide grain harvesting product line business.

  • Served as a primary consultant to my boss’s boss, who was President of the Agricultural Equipment Group, on virtually all aspects of a continuous stream of new ideas and proposals having to do with new science and technology. This stream came from a brand new Corporate Chief of Science and Technology, who, unfortunately, while being well educated in physics, seemed to have no relevant experience, no know-how, and no instincts in the real world of agricultural, construction, or transportation equipment. I had to analyze, explain, and rebut virtually all of his proposals in order to keep my President out of trouble with his own bosses for not jumping on the bandwagon of the chief science guy.

 

At the Advanced Management Development Program at Harvard Business School. 

This was a 13- week program for rising executives. IH sent me in the Spring of 1981. I was one of 185 students from myriad companies in more than a dozen different countries around the world. The study entailed about 85 hours of work/week for serious students (like me).

 

At World Headquarters, June 1981 – September 1981. 

  • Joined Pacific, Far East, and Latin America Group as Vice President Designate. Visited factories and distributorships in Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Japan, and seven countries in South America. Reviewed operations and adjudicated business plans for 1982 at each location.

 

At CE Division Headquarters, Schaumburg, IL: September 1981 – February 1982.

  • A massive reorganization of the entire Corporation took place. I became head of Marketing for the PFELA group of a newly merged Ag and CE unit.

  • Recruited from within the company the personnel required.

  • Learned the product features and how to drive most types of construction equipment

 

At World Headquarters again: February 1982 – September 1983.

  • Joined Special Markets Group and led a project to sell combine technology, assistance in product homologation, and manufacturing plant and equipment design services to the Soviet Union. My title was “Vice President of Harvesting Technology.”

  • Provided the sole testimony required to defeat the multi-million dollar “lost profits” aspect of an infamous lawsuit alleging patent infringement by our com heads. That lawsuit had originated in 1974. My testimony alone saved IH nearly $30 million.

  • Led one of five teams charged to develop plans for radical reorganization of the entire Company in our survival mode period. I concentrated on three European subsidiaries.

 

At CE Reliability Center in Elk Grove Village and at PRC in Hinsdale:  September 1983 – August 1984.

  • Became Director of Product Reliability for North American Operations.

  • Formed and led 4 Reliability Teams to track and improve reliability of all products.

  • Directed the work necessary to defend IH against product liability claims and to preclude, where possible, the formation of new lawsuits. We managed scores of dockets representing an aggregate ad damnum of over $300 million.

 

At IH (became Case/IH in 1985) Farm Equipment Engineering Center:  August 1984 – June 1989.

  • Rose to become North American Director of Engineering of Crop Production and Crop Harvesting Equipment (combines, cotton pickers, hay & forage, and crop production equipment). In 1985 the Company merged with JI Case to form CaseIH. Owing to the fact that all of my products were brought into the merged company by IH, it was IH Engineering which dominated, and I was the de facto director of product for everything but tractors and industrial equipment at CaseIH.

  • Joined a steering committee to create the UIUC College of Engineering Advisory Board and served for many years on the Board itself, including three years as president.

 

At Benteler Industries in Kalamazoo, MI:  October 1989 – early 1997. 

Benteler Industries was a very high-tech engineering and manufacturing firm in the automotive industry. We were a principal supplier of engineered auto subframes, fabricated stainless steel exhaust manifolds and crossover pipes, instrument panel support beam assemblies, and high strength side guard reinforcing door beams. Our typical day’s production comprised 50,000 doorbeams, 10,000 manifolds, and 1,000 to 1,200 of each of the three to four different frames that we built. Every automobile manufacturing company in North America was a customer of ours.

 

One principal reason I was able to join this highly profitable, rapidly growing foreign-owned Company in a field far removed from my own was that a friend and former colleague from IH was now the President of Benteler Industries. This is yet another example of a good relationship really working to the mutual benefit of the parties.

 

In my eight years at Benteler, I had the following jobs, with seven to ten of them on my plate at any one time:

  • VP of Product Engineering

  • Head of corporate quality; installed QS-9000 Quality System in all five plants

  • Head of corporate Industrial Engineering

  • Head of Information Technology; brought in about 300 PC’s for seven plants and offices

  • General Plant Manager at Kalamazoo Plant

  • Responsible for managing outside patent attorneys; and consultants on IE, metallurgy, information technology, and quality

  • Developed management system to control the more than 300 concurrent projects typically under way at any given time.

  • Hired about 110 new engineers to build to and maintain Engineering at 85 persons

  • Handled much of the technical liaison work with parent company Benteler AG

  • Helped augment the marketing effort as the company grew from $50 million in sales when I joined to $400 million when I left after eight years.

  • Represented Benteler Industries in a number of outside relationships such as MERRA, NREL, SAE, the US Patent Office, the Grand Rapids Area Industrial Council, the Gartner Group, and UIUC Eng Advisory Board

 

In my spare time I developed a super-fast method of providing prototype products through Radically Accelerated Concurrent Engineering for Prototypes. I called it RACE-PRO, and this capability became a significant competitive advantage for Benteler Industries.

 

As a consultant to CaseIH combine engineering operations in East Moline, IL and Mount Joy,  Iowa:  October 1997 – June 2000. 

During the summer of 1997, I reinvented myself as a consultant and formed a sole proprietor company called Wells Enginnuity Consulting. There were a number of my colleagues from IH and CaseIH from many years earlier still in grain harvesting engineering. They hired me immediately upon becoming aware that I had transformed myself into a consultant. Again, some good relationships had paid off big-time for me.

 

In my new role I handled the following duties:

  • Provided counsel on product design and preparation of many presentations to management regarding the extremely ambitious new combine program underway.

  • Coordinated frequent staff and technical meetings and provided agendas and minutes for each one.

  • Handled all aspects of the existing relevant patent field and all matters regarding patents and potential patents we might generate with two outside patent attorney firms.

  • Coordinated the interfacing with outside inventors working on two potentially very substantive new inventions and seeking intellectual property deals with CaseIH.

 

Extra-Professional Connections and Pursuits

Family, both immediate and extended. 

My immediate family members comprise many of my very most important relationships. They are a source of joy, support, interdependence, and unconditional love. This is especially true of my wife, children, and grandchildren. My seven grandchildren are giving me an opportunity to do a better job, in many respects, to influence a succeeding generation than did my own children, who grew up while I was so very busy making a living and when I was not so wise as I think I am now. But thanks to my wife Anita, our own four kids nonetheless had good upbringing, are successful now, and are still close to us. I’m proud of them and pleased to see they have good work ethics, and that they are parenting in the same way they experienced as youngsters themselves. The extended family seems to get closer and more important as the years pile up, even as the extended family grows larger and larger. It’s amazing.

 

Friends and Associates. 

Having friends provides one with interesting times, opportunities to learn and to teach, to care and share. These are all good reasons to work on relationships with as many friends as you can handle.

 

Community, Church, and Society. 

In my experience, this is where one can leverage one’s passions, talents, and efforts to help make the world a better place while finding grace and inner peace for oneself, and lots of fellowship at the same time. It’s a good thing.

 

Continuing Education, Recreation and Down-time. 

I’m not going to try to discuss these three pursuits separately because for me at least two of the three are inextricably co-mingled in anything I do. But my contention remains that all of one’s efforts in this realm are beneficial, whether it be golfing, cruising, belonging to a potluck dinner group, a service club such as Kiwanis, or a motorcycle gang or a garden club, or whatever it may be.

 

Advice Stemming from Some Important Lessons I Have Learned Along the Way

I wish I had learned many of these lessons myself much earlier in life!

  • Get the best education you can get, and try to never stop learning—and teaching.

  • Develop your own set of core values and traits. Make it obvious that you live by them. Some good examples are honesty, integrity, faithfulness, dependability, charity, equanimity, patience and tolerance.

  • Try to get a job you really enjoy and stay with it only so long as you have respect for your employer and pride in the worthiness of your work.

  • If you are going to select a spouse, find one who is compatible with you in interests, intellect, character, and outlook.

  • If you do marry and have children, the raising of those kids must immediately and unambiguously become your most important work and your number one priority in life.

  • As early as possible in your working life, start accumulating savings for your future.

  • Invest prudently—exploit the power of compound interest over a long period of time.

  • Be a good friend and take care of the good friendships you are fortunate enough to make.

  • Operate by the principle, “You don’t necessarily have to be wrong for me to be right.”

  • Make a will and keep it up to date. Don’t let the state “escheat” your heirs.

  • Remember your mortality—take the time to smell the roses throughout your life.

  • If you are an engineer, be a good one. Be knowledgeable in your field, be correct in your terminology, be precise and exacting, know the difference between assumptions and facts, between information and disinformation; be patient with those who are not engineers, and always try to make the world a better place.

  • Adopt the practice of ignoring the imperative so often heard, “Don’t just stand there—do something!” Instead use “Don’t just do something—stand there.... and think before you do something.”

  • Being a proud, involved grandparent may be the best job you’ll ever have. It is for me.

  • Birthdays and anniversaries are good things—the more you have, the longer you live.

  • Always try to approach life methodically and with intentionality, not at-random and nondeterministically.

  • When you come to a fork in the road,----- take it! (from Yogi Berra)

 

Recap and Perspective

The foregoing is based on my best recollection of over 70 years of personal history. Every effort has been made to assure that it is historically accurate. However, this is by no means a complete history of my life and work. Such an account would fill an entire book of substantial length.

 

Some Last Words

A 13th century poet in Persia wrote a poem that I’ve come to like very much. This was first brought to my attention by my wife many years ago. It goes like this:

 

“Hyacinths to Feed Thv Soul.”

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,

And from thy slender stores two loaves alone to thee are left.

Sell one, and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

 

Some say this poem is hedonistic. I say it’s spiritual, wherein hyacinths are symbolic, meaning “gifts to the Lord.” In my capacity now as President of the DeKalb First United Methodist Foundation, I have written a new version which goes like this:

 

Hyacinths Thv Soul to Feed

If of earthly treasure you are richly blessed.

And you want to excel at God’s heavenly test.

First, give generously to the creator upstairs,

Then keep what you’ll need and what’s good for your heirs.

You’ll have all that your mortal being will need—

And you will have hyacinths thy soul to feed.

 

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a wish expressed often by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame. That wish is, “Be well, do good works, and stay in touch.”

 

PDF Attachment

Appendix A. Distribution of My Relationships by type.

Appendix B. Suggested presentation parameters

Addendum 1. The most important accomplishment of my professional life.

Addendum 2. The most important accomplishment of my life.

 

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