GREAT PLAINS MANUFACTURING INC.: PRODUCT INNOVATION DRIVES THIS COMPANY'S SUCCESS
by Lynn Henderson, Editorial Director
Great Plains Manufacturing, Salina, KS, is the quintessential American-entrepreneurial success story.
Founder and President Roy Applequist's ancestors ventured out to the nearly vacant central plains of Kansas and homesteaded land in the Salina area in the 1870s. Always the inventor, his father left the family farm and started Applequist Tool and Machine, a tool and die company which evolved into Roberts Industries which manufactured ball bearings, operated a foundry, and made farm equipment and grain augers. Roy worked in his father's business, but when it was sold in 1975 to Federal-Mogul Corp., he struck off on his own to start his own manufacturing business.
But manufacture what?
He decided to focus on designing a grain drill that would meet the needs of the increasingly larger farm sizes that were springing up throughout the countryside. To gather the intelligence he needed to design the machine, he climbed into his pickup and personally met with 100 farmers, discussing what they truly wanted in a grain drill.
The result: a grain drill that folded in half for easier transport between fields and also featured a large seed box that could be transported full.
Applequist built a prototype and started field-testing it to work out the final kinks. After he was completely satisfied that he had the finished machine, he climbed back into his pickup and started recruiting farm equipment dealers to sell and service the drill. Twenty-five units were sold the first year, 100 more the next, followed by 200 more the following year.
From this modest beginning, Great Plains has grown from a man with only his dream and a pickup truck, to one of the nation's largest privately held farm equipment manufacturers and marketers in the U.S., employing over 850 people and operating eight manufacturing facilities with nearly 1 million square feet of plant space. This past year alone, it introduced seven new products and three major redesigns for the agricultural market.
In recognition of its accomplishments, Great Plains was named runner up in AgriMarketing magazine's annual Product of the Year awards contest.
In addition to its Great Plains division which manufactures agricultural seed planting, tillage, and spraying equipment, in 1986 the company started its Land Pride division (see sidebar) which features mowers, rotary tillers, rotary cutters, landscape seeding and a number of dirt-working implements. In a move toward continued diversification, utility vehicles and zero turn mowers were added to its product line recently.
Applequist reports, "We now have nearly 2,000 independent dealers - most of whom sell other major equipment lines, but choose to carry Great Plains because of the innovation and quality of our products and the service that comes with it. We have distribution throughout the U.S., Canada and worldwide."
Great Plains also has a subsidiary that operates approximately 60 trucks delivering its products to its North American dealers, then backhauls raw materials to the Great Plains plants as well as supplying trucking services for a number of other customers.
In the early '90s the company formed the Great Plains Acceptance Corp., a subsidiary that provides wholesale and retail financing for its dealers and retail customers.
The company has an 80,000-foot building dedicated to product research and development. Great Plains manufacturers over 200 different products in its facilities, all eight of its plants are located in Kansas and are within a 11/2 hour drive from headquarters.
The company's mission statement says it all:
To be a company where innovation, teamwork, and a desire to improve, combine to:
• Delight our customers,
• Provide a rewarding workplace for our employees,
• Generate profits for stability and growth.
But, the farm equipment market in North America isn't exactly underserved. So what is it that has made this independent, family-owned organization thrive in a seemingly mature and extremely competitive market space?
"I think it's our ability to be flexible and adjust our product line and manufacturing to fit the current market environment," Applequist says. "In the case of drills, for example, it takes the majors six to nine months to deliver an order. Many times we can receive an order in August, have the drill built in September, and the customer will be planting with it in October."
In addition, the company has a proven track record of being on the leading edge of new planting, tillage and spraying technology. Among its firsts are its early introduction of no-till grain drills, stale seed bed openers, and vertical tillage equipment.
Its latest technology is a twin-row corn planter — a practice in which corn is planted on twin rows, 8 inches apart on 30" centers versus the conventional 30" row. Greg Brenneman, Great Plains Marketing Manager, says, "We studied various research trials, our own plots, as well as, research conducted by Farm
Journal's agronomist Ken Ferrie. It proved that twin-row planting nets the producer an average of up to 8% to 10% increase in yields. With today's corn prices that turns into a lot more dollars per acre."
This year Great Plains will introduce its 60-foot planter capable of up to 48 twin rows on 30-inch centers. This unit is also capable of 15" and 20", as well as conventional 30" rows.
"I think another key to our success," says Great Plains Farm Equipment Division President Rick Hanson, "we sell the features and benefits and what that brings to the customer. In the twin row planter, for example, we emphasize the potential for yield increases by providing them with a planter that will give them excellent seed placement with uniform depth with our new 'Clear Shot' seed tube."
The company also strives to offer unique services. "For instance," Applequist says, "when we were getting started, the equipment left the plant but needed some assembly at the dealers, as does most equipment. Rather than rely on the dealer's technicians, we found the most effective way of getting the equipment finished off and ready for the farmers was to have our truck drivers who were delivering the equipment make the final assembly. After all, we are the experts on our equipment, and the dealers are usually busy. That practice made us unique and true partners with our
"From a competitive standpoint," Brenneman says, "we establish ourselves with the dealers as the planting, tillage, and spraying experts. Most of our dealers also carry the big-ticket power machinery (tractors, combines, etc.). And those manufacturers also sell the equipment that we specialize in. However, we devote 100% of our effort into it, and the dealers and their customers recognize that devotion and expertise."
Another key has been the development of products that fill niches others are overlooking. "One of our greatest successes in those markets," Brenneman reports, "is our Compact Drill line which runs from 6' to 10' in width.
"We developed the drill and dominate the market, which is composed of small-scale farmers, folks with smaller acreages, and now with the advent of narrow buffer strips along waterways, even large-scale farmers are purchasing it. Another market that is emerging for the Compact Drill are wildlife groups who plant food crops to sustain wildlife for recreational purposes."
Innovative, high quality products are great. But prospects and customers have to know about them.
So, innovative and effective sales, marketing and communication programs are also a critically important ingredient in the success formula.
Last summer, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Great Plains invited its dealers to a convention in Kansas City where it displayed over 22 semi-truck loads of its equipment, introduced its new products, and reestablished their relationship with their dealers through the "Gold Medallion Dealer" program.
"In the Gold Medallion program," VP of Sales and Mktg Tom Evans reports, "dealers send their sales personnel to our headquarters for an intensive two-day training session where we discuss the features and benefits of our equipment and programs. They must recertify every three years.
"In addition to having more knowledgeable sales people," Evans says, the dealer receives additional benefits, including:
• Extensive Sales and Service Training,
• Information on leading edge agronomic concepts and systems to increase yields and productivity for the end user,
• Retail sales bonuses,
• Free direct mail program, and
• Enhanced dealer profits through volume bonus and incentive programs.
Supporting the dealers are 25 Great Plains sales representatives. To provide them with additional support, the company added three new Product Specialists this past year.
When it comes to pricing its equipment, "We aren't the highest, nor are we the lowest," says Evans. "Being the lowest cost supplier has never been part of our strategy. We need reasonable margins so we can re-invest in new technology and to continue to attract high quality dealers and staff."
"In our communications activities," Brenneman reports, "we emphasize pull-through strategies. That is, we deliver programs that get the prospect into the dealer's place of business."
To get its word out, Great Plains is a heavy user of print, including national, regional and local co-op Brenneman reports. In addition, it uses farm radio and attends over 25 major farm equipment shows annually. "Routinely, we will use direct mail, as well," he says. Dealers provide Great Plains with a mailing list of its prospects, and Great Plains will send the mailers to the end users for the dealer.
Ask a successful entrepreneur about the future, and what do you expect to hear? Optimism! And that is exactly what is on Applequist's mind.
"Certainly, the bio-fuels movement provides plenty of opportunities for equipment manufacturers like us," he says. "Bio-fuels are putting the pressure on North American producers to continue to push yields higher. So, they will continue to rely on us to provide new planting technology for established crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.
In addition, export markets for Great Plains equipment has been growing rapidly. Areas of particular interest include Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. To reach these markets, the company containerizes the equipment at its plants and ships them to either Houston or Montreal ports for export.
In fact, Great Plain's export business has increased so substantially that the state of Kansas presented the company with its "Exporter of the Year" award in 2006.
So, even though the agricultural industry is well established, dominated with multi-national corporations investing billions of dollars annually into research and development, there is still room for the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Great Plains Manufacturing stands as testament to it.
When Great Plains Manufacturing Inc. was founded in 1976, the agricultural economy was in the midst of an economic boom, fueled principally by the explosive growth in its exports to the former USSR. However, as any veteran agri-marketer knows, the ag economy is cyclical.
Unfortunately, one of its deepest downturns hit in 1983, when the company was still in its infant stages. "I knew we needed to diversify the markets that we served," said Roy Applequist, Great Plains founder and CEO. So, in 1986, he founded the company's Land Pride division that manufactures and markets a broad range of products for the turf, ornamental, landscaping, and rural lifestyle markets.
It grew by developing new equipment for its markets. Linda Salem, President of the Land Pride Division, says, "We market tillers, grooming mowers, rotary cutters, dirt working tools, seeders, zero turn mowers, skid steer attachments, and ATV's. With the addition of our new paint line at our plant in Abilene, KS, many of the units can be painted to match a dealer's major line."
The Land Pride division has grown substantially over the years and now represents approximately 50% of the company's total revenues.
ABOUT GREAT PLAINS MANUFACTURING, INC.
1976 - Great Plains is founded in Salina, KS. The first prototype 30' grain drill is built
1979 - Company is relocated to Assaria, KS.
1983 - Great Plains Trucking is formed. First product is sold over seas.
1986 - Land Pride Division is founded.
1991 - Great Plains Acceptance Corporation (GPAC) is started.
1995 - New Corporate Office and Trucking Maintenance Shop constructed.
1996 - Great Plains and Land Pride divisionalize.