Robert J. Ratliff turned a struggling $200-million farm equipment business into a major, global manufacturer of some of the industry's most innovative and productive agricultural equipment.
With a vision to provide a world of solutions for growing needs of the farm industry worldwide, between 1990 and 2005 Ratliff brought more than 20 agricultural machinery companies under the AGCO umbrella.
Today, the company, headquartered in Duluth, Georgia, sells its products in more than 140 countries. A 2014 inductee to the AEM Hall of Fame, Ratliff sat down with us to reflect on a lifelong career in the off-road equipment industry.
Q: How did you get your start in the ag industry?
When I got out of school I was talked into a management training job with International Harvester. They started me out in a grease pit for 30 days. I figured from there on it had to go up. I worked in the truck group of the company at International Harvester for 25 years, then moved on to a tire company, Uniroyal, and finally had the wonderful opportunity to be a founder of AGCO Corporation.
Q: How did the founding of AGCO come about?
I was working as an employee of Deutz-Allis at the time. Deutz-Allis lost a lot of money. So much that the parent company wanted to dispose of the company as soon as they had a chance. I was hired for that turnaround and in the midst of our efforts they elected to sell the company and we did a management buyout. We took a flying leap, a lot of risk and some investment, and took advantage of that opportunity. Many people would say that the timing was right for consolidation in the industry because of the agricultural downturn in the 80s.
Q: At the same time, you also acquired several other companies. What was your mindset during that process?
Most people didn’t understand that when we bought the business the only thing we had was one factory, a combine plant in Independence, Missouri, and nothing else. We had to source all the other products. As we began to grow, we took advantage of opportunities.
Most of the companies we acquired were in trouble of one kind or another. We were able to scrape together some real talent, real knowledge, and a lot of good dealers. We got into the hay tool business, got a factory source for that and technology. Then we got tractors from White, Heritage, and Massey Ferguson. We began to collect and put together a complete company with all the attributes of a major corporation. Each acquisition was either a new product, new technology, a new manufacturing source, and most often, new market share.
Q: What were some of the challenges integrating multiple brands under one umbrella corporation?
We had not only a variety of brands, but a variety of dealers that we allowed, permitted, and promoted that they compete with each other. The services that they rendered were important to get the customer back in the shop. In one little town in California, we had a dealership of different brands on all four corners of the main street. At night, when I went to bed I always knew we got the sale no matter which one it went to.
Most of us in the industry always wanted dealer loyalty that handled one brand. If you looked around, you realized there were so many companies that have multiple brands. The best example at that time was General Motors, and yet they had separate dealerships all over the country. We operated under that philosophy, but with a little different strategy. We built all the products in one plant and diversified the technology so there was differentiation in price, performance, warranty and so forth.
Q: You had a lot of products under your umbrella. What was your favorite one?
I always had a feeling of loyalty to the Gleaner combine. It was our heritage. It was the factory we had when we started. It was the first self-propelled combine in the world when it was introduced. We had such loyal customers and dealers that it always kept you going.
Q: What was the best piece of career advice that you received?
I have to go back a long, long way to my father, who I appreciate more today than I did then. He prohibited me from using the word can’t in the house. We couldn’t use that word and instead I was supposed to replace that with how can I? I think that advice lead me into many career opportunities and the creation of new philosophies and strategies.
Q: What is your proudest career achievement?
Being inducted into the AEM Hall of Fame. I’ve spent over 50 years in the on and off-highway type of equipment that we represent in our association. To be recognized by the association that I have a lot of pride in and participated in for many years is about as nice of a compliment as you can get. If you look at the others that are in the Hall of Fame, it’s some pretty good company.
Nominate an Industry Leader to the AEM Hall of Fame
Do you know an off-road equipment industry leader who consistently delivers superior results? Someone who goes above and beyond to move the industry forward? If so, it's time for you to reveal his or her secret identity to the world, because the AEM Hall of Fame nominations are now open.
Nominations are due on June 6, 2016. Nominations received after June 6, 2016 will be considered for the 2017 AEM Hall of Fame. For additional resources and to complete the nomination form visit aem.org/halloffame or contact Jordanne Waldschmidt (firstname.lastname@example.org; 414-298-4152).