Below is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Precision Farming Dealer, and Al Myers founder of Ag Leader Technology, in Ames, Iowa. Developing the industry’s first on-the-go yield monitor as the cornerstone innovation of the company, Myers reflects on more than 30 years of sweat equity in the industry and what is left to accomplish.

Mike Lessiter: Thanks for joining us here, Al. I've been looking forward to this one for a long time because when we conceived of this project, we were very much thinking about what you started here in the early ‘90s.

Al Myers: Yeah.

Mike Lessiter: Today, how do you define your scope? How do you define your niche and what you do out there?

Al Myers: Well, over the years, as we saw the progression of things that were happening or were obvious were needed, we recognized pretty early that two things that we needed in addition to the yield monitor, we needed to be selling our own GPS receivers. It became obvious that people wanted the whole system ready to just plug in and everything's ready to go, they don't have to figure anything out. And then the other thing was the, of course, the advanced users were looking for yield maps and some analytics. We had to get into the software.

We initially we marketed a program that another small company made for us and then eventually a few years later developed our own software. As time went on, it became obvious that other things we should move into. We've tried to provide a complete year-around precision farming package for the farmer and what the farmer expects as technology and the industry has progressed, there's more and more every year. And I'm not the person that really decides that anymore. I've got a whole product management department with product managers, products specialists and they do market research. They go out and ride with farmers, talk with farmers, walk in their fields with them and that kind of a thing.

So today we're always trying to figure out, "Well, what's the next thing that the farmer is going to need and want in the area of technologies that we're strong in?" Which is electronics and electronic systems. Basically, we moved into control starting in the early 2000s. The first thing we actually controlled I think was New Leader's spinner spreaders and then of course we moved onto planters and other types of devices. So, you might say the trend has been more from just monitoring in the beginning, and we monitor a lot of different things now like sophisticated planter monitoring. But today it's more about controlling something on the machinery, and of course the data aspect of it has gotten more sophisticated and now we're moving into the realm of which the whole developed world, is moving into the realm of connectivity.

“It became obvious that people wanted the whole system ready to just plug in and everything's ready to go, they don't have to figure anything out…”

In other words, cell phones, that kind of thing. We're in the ag industry, we're kind of saying, "Well, everybody, this is what is involved in the farming, operation, or advising the farming or serving the farmer needs to have all their data any time anywhere they want to look at it."

Mike Lessiter: As a starting point, tell us about your upbringing and through the Illinois years and what happened next?

Al Myers: I grew up in a little town called Watseka on a farm in eastern Illinois, about 90 miles south of Chicago. It was a very rural area, but not too far from the big city. A combination grain and livestock farm like most farms back in those days, and my dad never got to be a very large farmer. I think he never farmed over 700 acres, but he worked to build up several farms during his lifetime. I did a lot of work on the farm, a lot of fieldwork, taking care of livestock, that kind of thing.

I'm mechanically inclined, so I was always the kid who was trying to build their own go-kart or modify his farm machinery and things like that. I took Vocational Ag in high school because at that time like most boys that grew up on a farm I thought I'd be a farmer. Didn't understand what it took to get into it at that point in time. It was actually my vocational agriculture teacher that suggested I ought to look in the engineering, which I really didn't know anything about at that time.

When I was a senior in high school -the high school which is about 500 students — they had a field trip to the University of Illinois to something called Engineering Open House, and I was just fascinated with the things that I saw there walking through the different engineering departments. So I enrolled in engineering the fall after I graduated from high school and never looked back. Once I got into it, even though engineering is a tough curriculum, I realized that I love that kind of stuff and that's what I went into when I got out of got out of college.

I got my BS in 1970 and I stayed around another year to get a Master of Science in Agricultural Engineering.

Mike Lessiter: Initially, you were thinking you might have gone to work for one of the majors?

Al Myers: Yeah, at that time I was targeting a job with either Caterpillar or John Deere. I'd actually had summer jobs. I had one summer job in 1969 at the International Harvester Farm Equipment Engineering Center in the Chicago area. Didn't like the big city coming from a rural area. And the next summer I managed .... Actually, I should say I didn't get it, my advisor (laughs) with connections in industry got it for me. I had a job in the engineering department of the John Deere Harvester Works the next summer. But the year that I graduated was a recession year in the off-road machinery market so didn't get job offers from either one of those and I ended up working for Division of the Sundstrand Corporation in Rockford, Ill. They're primarily aerospace, but I worked in a small hydraulics division that was trying to develop some new high-pressure hydraulics, got merged into the hydro-transmission plant here in Ames, which is now called Danfoss. It went through two or three name changes while I was there, and it's had a couple since then, but they still do the same thing they did many years ago.

Mike Lessiter: I saw your Sundstrand Aviation ID in Washington D.C. this summer-

Al Myers: Oh (laughs).

Mike Lessiter: ... at PrecisionAg. They had a great display on-

Al Myers: Yeah, yeah.

Mike Lessiter: ... the company and you personally.

Al Myers: Yeah.

Al Myers: That was my first day at work, believe it or not (laughs).

Mike Lessiter: So that job had brought you to Ames.

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Yeah. I only worked in Rockford, Ill., for less than a year and then I was transferred out here. And if I had remained in Rockford ... I was to the point of thinking about, "Well, could I go interview with somebody like Caterpillar, which was the company that had engineering operations closest to where I grew up. But then I think it was only probably nine or 10 months after I started there, we were told that we could transfer out here, and I thought, "Well, I don't know much about Iowa (laughs), but it sounds interesting." Because I knew that their products went into all kinds of off-road equipment, farm and construction equipment.

Mike Lessiter: So, tell us what was happening leading up to 1986 when you started playing around in the basement?

Al Myers: Well, where I ended up today basically is a product of the terrible recession that happened in the 1980s. That was the farm crisis of the '80s, and although there wasn't a name, there were crises in the automotive industry. It was the first time the U.S. government bailed out Chrysler Corporation, and it was a real crisis, even probably worse for some of the construction equipment companies in the 1980s. The first 10 years that, I worked for the Sundstrand Corporation was a lot of fun. The division I was in was doing new things, expanding, got to develop a lot of new products.

And once 1981 hit and the big slide started, because I recall, I think in ag, sales of their products went down like 5 or 6 years in a row because their customers' products were continuing the sales or continuing to go down year after year. You can't blame them because they had to do the things to keep their doors open, but it was just not as much emphasis on new product development. I got to the point that … I always like to develop new products and I wasn't really happy with my job so ... I had a young family then, so I couldn't really just up and decide, well, go and do something completely different. The machinery manufacturers, they weren't hiring anybody, they were getting rid of lots of people.

I always like to develop new products and I wasn't really happy with my job so I just kept thinking about, ‘Could I start a company to create a product, to start my own company?…

I just kept thinking about, "Could I start a company to create a product, to start my own company?" And over a period of years, I brainstormed a lot of ideas and finally by mid to late 1985, I got motivated enough to say, "You know, I think a combine yield monitor would be something that would be useful to farmers. Of course, my dad was still farming then. So, I asked him if I tried to develop one would he field test one for me, and of course he said yes. And so, I started working on one and he had a crude prototype in the field in the fall of 1986 on his combine. And then kept refining it over several years and it was a tough thing to develop something that worked accurately enough to be a sellable product.

Mike Lessiter: How did you recognize that opportunity to really bring about this kind of sweeping change in the industry? What was it that was the genesis of that idea?

Al Myers: Well, looking back you have to keep in mind that I had no idea what precision farming, as we call it today, would become. I decided to focus on the yield monitor because yield is the farmer's paycheck. It's the number one thing he's interested in, and I just thought, "Well, if a product can be developed that works accurate enough, why wouldn't a lot of farmers buy that to be able to get a better read on their yields, easier to check hybrids, know what's coming off different fields and that kind of thing." I had the vision to make yield maps, but when I started developing the yield monitor, I did not even know that the GPS system existed.

That really wasn't out there in the general public yet. I'd anticipated making maps with dead reckoning compasses, that kind of a thing. But of course GPS came along, and a couple years after I started the business, it was starting to become usable and that's kind of what the GPS technology - the ability to know exactly where you're at - and the advancement of electronics, technology and so on has really allowed precision farming to become this huge broad ranging type of products and industry that it is today.

Mike Lessiter: We have a whole generation of people who, well, farmers, dealers and manufacturers-

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: ... who may not even remember what it was like harvesting prior to the yield monitor. Can you answer that question for those who have never done it any other way?

Al Myers: Well back before yield monitors, some farmers might, I mean they would have an idea of their yield by how full their bins got and what they took into town, into the elevator if they weren't able to hold it and so on. At best, farmers knew, unless they were running, some would run small strip trials, using a weigh wagon from their seed dealer or that kind of thing. I'm not sure how far back that goes, I'm sure well before I was trying to develop the yield monitor.

One thing that I do recall very vividly is I don't think anybody really realized the yield variations that you found going across a field. The yield monitor certainly was a big revelation to farmers that it would show them yield differences across their field that were not easily visible. Obviously, 200 bushel per acre corn versus the wet spot where you're getting nothing, you can see that, but it was not at all uncommon for most farmers to see, even in a good year, could see up to 2-to-1 yield variation across their fields. So, they were surprised by the highs and surprised by the lows.

That's where I think over the years farmers have tried to understand, "Well, why is this so high? Why is this so low?” And, had to try to address reasons for that. I know I've heard stories that improving the drainage, the tiling on farms, that yield monitors caused a lot of that to happen. Farmer could show his yield map to his landlord - and back in those days I'm sure the sharecropping was much more common. Today it's almost all cash rent today - but show the landlord what profits they're losing through yield because of poor drainage and that kind of thing, and a lot of other things.

“Looking back, I had no idea what precision farming, as we call it today, would become. I decided to focus on the yield monitor because yield is the farmer's paycheck…”

Weed pressure. I know a local farmer who was one of the first ones that he bought one of the first 10 monitors I sold in 1992. He actually figured out that he had one field that he was having poor soybean yields and spots, and he eventually figured out that he had soybean cyst nematode was moving into his soil and he wouldn't have known that otherwise if he was just looking at the averages of the field. In another instance, he grows a lot of seed corn. He found out that the drift from fungicide that he was spraying on seed corn was improving his bean yields in certain areas. Otherwise he wouldn't have known that because it was only on edges of fields and that kind of thing. And in the direction that the wind was blowing that particular day.

Mike Lessiter: Was it about 6 years that you were testing this on your father's farm?

Al Myers: Right. Yeah, I had a couple of other field testers, one of his neighbors that had a newer model combine than my dad had. And then the very last year I expanded to another farmer here in Iowa, but I really only had three field testers before I put the product into production.

Mike Lessiter: You had young children then.

Al Myers: When I started the company, one would have been just a teenager, 13, and the other was two years younger. Yeah, so 11 and 13 they would have been.

Mike Lessiter: Coming out of the '80s, which was a very near memory-

Al Myers: Yeah.

Mike Lessiter: ... at that time. Tell us about the decision to go out and hang your own shingle out there (laughing) and go after?

Al Myers: Well, that was a big step because you didn't know if you were going to be successful. I'd never had the misfortune of being laid off like many people that I knew in those recession years. Because those layoffs continued almost all the way through the 1980s for a lot of companies that were in the off-road machinery business. So I had a secure job, making a good salary and benefits and all that and it was like stepping off of a cliff.

Mike Lessiter: What did your dad say when you told him what you had in mind?

Al Myers: Well, as I was developing it, because it took so many years to get it perfected, he said things like, "Oh, you just got to go sell this to John Deere or something like that (laughs)." But I didn't want to do that (laughs). I stuck to it.

He was neither encouraging nor discouraging. You know, my dad was a good farmer that always tried to do a good job, but he was not the early adopter type; he was a late adopter type of a person. Once I had the product, I mean he used it the rest of his career. He liked to see the maps and the yield on the go, but he never had any interest in really doing much about it. It's just like well there it is (laughs). He felt he was doing everything he could to try to be a good farmer otherwise and he was the old traditional way so to speak.

Mike Lessiter: There's probably some advantage to having your first farm user a late adopter. You had to (laughing), to convince him, right?

Al Myers: Yeah. It was pretty scary and my wife she didn't say no, but she kind of wondered, (laughs) “Is this guy crazy or what?” But I was just so obsessed with, “I think I really can do this,” that I took the big step and man, it was tough that first year. I was the typical startup where I thought I could sell 30 to 40 of these units the first year and I sold 10. And at least half of them were with people that I knew before (laughs), personal connections type of a thing.

Mike Lessiter: Was there some gut check that first winter?

Al Myers: Yeah, yeah. I certainly learned some good business lessons, things like you got to keep your cashflow going because that's the life and blood of the business, and that kind of a thing. And, different than startups today, because there's a whole bunch of them over here in the Iowa State Research Park that go out and get venture capital. Of course, in this part of the country venture capital was an unknown thing but I wouldn't have gone after that anyhow because I wanted to be in control of the company. It was obviously very important to control my expenses in the very beginning.

“My dad was a good farmer that always tried to do a good job, but he was not the early adopter type; he was a late adopter type of a person…”

In fact, the first 6 months of the company I didn't have any employees, I worked out of my house, and when I ... that was the first fall season because I started the company in June of '92, and then going into the mid to late winter I realized, "Well, I got to get some employees." So I rented a small office and garage space and all my employees at that point in time were part-time university students that I could get and come to work, 15 to 20, 30 hours a week maybe if they were in a slow time of their schooling. It was more than a year before I hired the first full-time employee who, by the way, is still with me.

He was hired to be a technician basically to help me put product together. He wanted to get an engineering degree, an electrical engineering degree at Iowa State. He'd been working at Rockwell Collins over in the Iowa City area. He'd actually been building military GPS receivers even though that background really didn't help me for - we weren't into GPS yet. And of course, we don't design them. We buy them and resell them, but he eventually got his engineering degree working part-time and he's an electrical engineer here.

He's been here for, coming up on, I guess he'll have his 25th anniversary then very shortly here. I actually talked him into coming in and working the Labor Day weekend because I needed help so badly (laughs) and he did.

Mike Lessiter: That first yield monitor '92, was that about a $2,000 investment?

Al Myers: I think that was about $2,200. It didn't have the moisture sensor, that didn't come till the second year. In looking back and that's one of the kind of things we pointed out in this little skit we did last year. When I go to farm shows and it was me only doing that the first, I don't know, 2 or 3 years of the company, probably participated in the years 4 and 5 even after I had one person to help me out on that. Farmers were used to buying some pretty low-cost pieces of electronics like a thing that would count your acres for $295 and that kind of thing. And when you tell that this yield monitor, well, the second year out, I think it increased in retail list prices to like $2,250 or $2,750 and they went, "What (laughs)?"

Al Myers: I never spent anything for an add on piece of electronic equipment and that kind of money before. And these days you get farmers equipping their planters with all this fancy stuff we've got now. Sometimes they're spending $60,000 or more to retrofit a machine.

Mike Lessiter: So back when you were getting going, you sold 10 that first whole season?

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: So we're talking less than $30,000 in revenue from that product the first year?

Al Myers: Yeah … yeah, less than $30,000.

Mike Lessiter: Was there other products or parts or that was the-

Al Myers: No, that was it period, yeah. Yeah, obviously, I didn't make money that year but well that first six months it was just me so, my expenses were pretty low. My overhead was really low (laughs).

Mike Lessiter: How did you go to market in those early years? How did you get the product out there?

Al Myers: Well, that's something I had to learn a lot about. I didn't know much of anything about sales and marketing and it reminds me of a manager that I'd worked for off and on because in larger companies you tend to move around, working for different peoples over the years. But once he knew I was leaving, and I hadn't told anyone there what I was doing, but I remember him making the comment about, "Well, you don't know anything about sales or marketing (laughs), do you?" Or he was telling me I didn't know anything about sales and marketing. And I kind of blew it off (laughs), typical engineer. “What's involved in that?” But certainly, I had a lot to learn there ...

“Farmers were used to buying some pretty low-cost pieces of electronics like a thing that would count your acres for $295. The second year we sold the yield monitor, it increased in retail list price $2,250 or $2,750 and they went, ‘What?...’”

I made all the sales directly that first year when I started the company, when I introduced the product, that I only had it for John Deere Combines because it's what my dad had, it's what these other two guys had that I'd used for testers. They had the newer model combines. So I went around and talked to all the Deere dealers within about 80 miles of Ames and took a monitor to show them some pictures of the flow sensor installation and that kind of thing. I was trying to do it myself, but I knew that I couldn't sell direct long-term, I had to have a dealer network. And I really didn't know how to do that until the first farm show I went to was actually over in Peoria, Illinois in 1992, the year that I started, so it was just after harvest season.

And people started stopping by when they saw something new they'd never heard of, and it turns out they were independent manufactures’ representatives, which I didn't even know those kind of people existed at that point in time. And so, I started hooking up with some of those folks which were good for me in the beginning. They had the connections to the implement dealers which the implement dealers were the dealers that sold most of my product in the first few years because the OEMs were not yet in the business with their own yield monitors.

Mike Lessiter: That's the show that you had the 13-inch colored TV hooked up in?

Al Myers: Yeah, in fact we even had our 25th celebration last year, we even, I found that TV and I found the tape that sort of played. It was a little, a (laughing) little messed up but it played enough, you could see what was on there. It was actually some video of one of the first guys close to here that body yield monitor and I had taken, I had done this just with a regular video camera in his combine, taken some video of the yield going up and down. And we did a little skit at the 25th anniversary. I and an internal sales guy that's been with me over 20 years now. I played the farmer and he played the salesman (laughing).

Mike Lessiter: So when you ... it would be fair to say that you are the largest independent supplier …

Al Myers: I would say we're the largest privately owned supplier. I think we've officially defined independent as not being captive to an agricultural OEM. There are three that are larger than us. None of them are privately owned but they're not captive to an OEM. I'm talking about like Trimble or Raven or Topcon in particular would be the three notable ones.

Mike Lessiter: In your business today what's the percentage of aftermarket versus OEM?

Al Myers: For a long time we've maintained about 75% aftermarket and about 25% OEM. And the bulk of our OEM is yield monitors too. The American big three combine manufacturers. But we do supply some application controls to New Leader on their spinner beds to some of the smaller sprayer manufacturers and other fertilizer applicator manufacturers and that kind of a thing.

Mike Lessiter: What was the landing of the first OEM business, what was that like? Going up there, meeting with them and getting that part off the ground.

Al Myers: That was Case Corporation and yeah I can tell you some interesting things there. And actually, more than just being invited to go to some big company and make a pitch, there was one older fellow that worked there. He's, I think he retired like 15 years ago, he had actually come originally from their Memphis plant where they made cotton pickers. Years ago, when he was at the combine plant and when it was still in East Moline, and he approached me and came to visit and that kind of thing. They were the first OEM to really make a major push into precision farming. They were the first to offer a factory installed deal planter at Case Corporation was. But, yeah, he came to approach me, there was probably some other people with him.

“I think we've officially defined independent as not being captive to an agricultural OEM…”

We probably had something written down but I don't really remember that, and he approached me in late 1994 I and some of my people worked really hard to do the customizing for them in 1995. They put about 60 systems out on the field, pretty good size test program. But the interesting thing was, after we were in production, he told me that the year I started the company, that I already had a competitor for a yield monitor that was Dawn Equipment Company, who now makes planter products, introduced the yield monitor. It was, I could tell it was not nearly as developed and sophisticated. It appeared to be a fairly quickly developed thing. After the fall '92 harvest, they only had one year in the field with it.

They sold it to Micro-Trak and that was a concern to me because Micro-Trak was an existing company, had been in business for a long time, so that concerned me but over several years it became obvious that the Ag Leader system worked better because I had spent a lot of time developing and making it work well. And the guy from Case IH said, he said something like, "Well, we had a meeting with some of our dealers and we told them that we were going to make a deal with them and install their yield monitors." And the dealer said, "No, you should use the one that works, okay (laughing)?" Dealers that were already selling them, and he came and saw me and well the rest is history. And that was a big shot in the arm for Ag Leader.

I think the year after they had a full year production, I think sales to them might have been like 40% of my sales. But over the years our aftermarket grew more than the OEM did.

Mike Lessiter: So that big OEM contract really happened pretty quickly?

Al Myers: Yeah, it was, they would have come to me, let's see, after the third harvest season. They approached me and we made a deal to work together very quickly. And then basically spent spring and summer, late winter spring and summer of early fall of 1995 getting ready for production. And they went into production in March of 1996

Mike Lessiter: So the dealers told him about it to contact you. He and knocked on your door. Had you expected to get into the OEM business at that time?

Al Myers: I had thought we might but I wasn't expecting it that early to be honest with you.

They were very aggressive at that point in time. They established AFS division which they still use that trademark but when they call it a merger with New Holland basically New Holland bought the Case Company and you know then that group got, over a few years ago, got disbanded basically.

Mike Lessiter: Today, how many employees?

Al Myers: Today worldwide, we are about 285 or maybe 290 now. We've been hiring a few people, we've been bigger. Back in the good days, 2008 through 2013, we probably had close to 100 more total employees. But the ag recession has pulled us back a little. We do have three foreign offices, we have one in The Netherlands that serves Europe, Middle East and Africa; most of the business is in Europe of course. We have an Australian office that handles Australia and other areas in the Pacific, but that's mostly Australia again. We have an office in Brazil that serves South America.

Mike Lessiter: And you've done a number of expansions right here in Ames.

Al Myers: Right.

Mike Lessiter: What's your square footage that you are up to now?

Al Myers: This building I think is about 150,000, this is where all our offices and manufacturing. We have our dealer training building just west of here, which I think that's about 25,000 square feet, we call it the Ag Leader Academy. And we have a distribution center of that's a little east of here where we ship all our finished product and we've got a big store room to keep machinery when we're not using it in the field. I think that's about 63,000 square feet. We do own one wholly owned subsidiary and that is Soil-Max, the tile plow company. I purchased that company in addition to the assets of a company called Gradient which was a sister company that pretty much pioneered GPS control of tile plows.

Al Myers: They maybe weren't the first but they were first to make something that was easily usable by a farmer. We didn't need the whole company, there wasn't much to it other than the technology but we integrated that product into our own product line and put it in our displays.

Mike Lessiter: When you started out in 1992, what was your dream of what this company would be one day? What could you have guessed 2018 might have looked like when you were first starting it?

Al Myers: (laughing) I would say honestly then in 1992 I couldn't envision where we are today. I mean, quite frankly, in the beginning I didn't have this really long-term vision; I had this desire to say, "I want to stay in business, I want to get the company to the point that it can sustain itself." But, I certainly did not recognize how broad, how big, precision farming was going to be. Or some of the technological advancements. As we look back now, we shouldn't say, "Well, why are we surprised?" But if you think about what things like the iPhones, the Android phones and iPads and so on have done in the last five or so years to all our lives it's just ... You know, if you go back 20 years before that could we, any of us imagine that?

No (laughs). I don't think so.

Al Myers and Mike Lessiter

Mike Lessiter: Had you got things working at your dad's farm, let's say three years earlier and had put out then, would we have seen any different result?

Al Myers: Probably not, although, I do feel that I was just plain, you might say dumb lucky, to have the right technology at the right time. Although, if I go back to my earlier comment about GPS has been such a wonderful thing for giving you accurate position location, the yield mapping part of it would have been quite a struggle and probably would have really slowed down the adoption rate until the GPS came along and really made that practical.

“After we had a full year production, [yield monitors] might have been like 40% of my sales. But over the years our aftermarket grew more than the OEM did…”

Mike Lessiter: It's interesting, some of these interviews, some of them said if we had come up with it three years early or we probably would have run out of money and others said if we came out three years later-

Al Myers: Yeah.

Mike Lessiter: ... it would have been too competitive and (laughs) just interesting dynamic.

Al Myers: Yeah. Well, I think the first precision ag company, what I call truly precision ag was Soil Tech, I think I can remember reading about that in Farm Industry News but they ended up getting bought out by AgCam so I think they were real early in trying to do something site specific. And I think it was so difficult to do, I think they tried beacon locating technology and maybe dead reckoning that I think that really, really slowed their adoption. And probably was one of the big reasons that they were sold out to AgCam. Yeah, because you can be too late or too early in the market.

Mike Lessiter: I was looking at your timeline here of all these innovations and you had some years where it must have just been crazy around here coming out. I'm looking at 2009, 2012, this appetite to innovate and keep pushing.

Mike Lessiter: Tell us where that came from?

Al Myers: Well, I was the type of person that always wanted to do something new when I was an engineer. There were, there were engineers that were happy to, let's say, be support engineers on the product that the company had been making for 10, 15, 20 years and they were happy in that type of a job. I was always the kind of engineer that wanted to get my hands on something and do something new. Maybe it wasn't totally new to the world but it was going to be new to that company and better than what existed before and that kind of a thing. Personally, I always had that appetite for wanting to create something new, and I've grown — basically that philosophy has gradually been instilled in the people that have come on board.

You know, because you might say in the beginning I kind of set the culture of the company and then these young people that come in and some of them don't stay forever, some of them do want the more mundane job. But the good people who have stayed with me for a long time, they like doing the same kind of thing.

Mike Lessiter: It’s now endemic to the culture?

Al Myers: Right.

Mike Lessiter: When you look at this list, what are the innovations that you're most proud of, most excited about when you look back on it?

Al Myers: Well, I would say I call 2004 the beginning of the modern era of Ag Leader and that was the year that we introduced our insight display and started transitioning our products over to the CAN bus type of architecture that all the farm machinery was moving to that at that point in time. That's an electrical architecture. That's not ISOBUS; that started coming on a little bit later. But we were able to introduce the first reliable, easy to use, large color touch screen display in the ag industry. It wasn't the first color display, I can't remember if there were touch screens or not, but certainly it was a step ahead. And we were able to move to that new type of technology more successfully than some of the big companies that were just moving into it.

I remember a guy that worked here in our tech support department and he left to go to work for one of the large machinery manufacturers. And I heard secondhand that when we introduced our insight display into CAN bus systems that he told some of our people here, "Boy, you guys don't know what kind of headaches you're in for." And we didn't have those, we were successful. So, to me that was really the beginning of Ag Leader expanding its, the ability. With a CAN bus type system, you don't have to hook everything up to display. That really gave us the platform for expanding into all these different functions that we do. Because prior to the insight display, we of course did grain yield monitoring, we had done cotton yield monitoring, and we did some planner control through the Rawson hydraulic drive, and some spreader control through the version of that that Rawson sold to, to New Leader. That's really all we could do. But the Insight and the CAN bus architecture really opened up the future for us.

Mike Lessiter: What would be some of the bigger disappointments that you had to endure over time?

Al Myers: Certainly we've had some products that haven't become what we expected them to be. The cotton yield monitor — we haven't made that for a number of years — but we did get into that because we actually worked with Case IH  corporation on that; it was their sensor technology. But it was disappointing. We didn't realize going into it, because we hadn't done our research that it was such a small industry, the sales of cotton pickers versus combines. I'd say a second disappointment was our OptRx Crop Sensors; I think it's a good technology. We still have that. It was maybe a bit ahead of our time. It's possible that we didn't really understand how to market it and maybe still don't understand today.

Those are two that come to mind where I can look back and say, "Yeah, those products did really disappoint us. We expected a lot more from them."

“A disappointment was our OptRx crop sensors. It's a good technology, but it was maybe a bit ahead of our time…”

Mike Lessiter: If you had followed that dream when you first got out of college, working for the majors and had just been in that role and survived the layouts that they had in the '80s, we probably wouldn't be here?

Al Myers: No, I'm sure we wouldn't (laughs).

Mike Lessiter: Right. Have you ever thought about that?

Al Myers: Oh yeah. I've thought about the fact that, well, what if I had gone and gotten a job in Illinois before I got transferred out here. I probably would have had a lot closer relationship to the family farm. I'm sure I would have worked a full career in industry but probably would have retired five or 10 years before now (laughs). I might have gone back and hobby farmed the family farm. You know, my family still does the five farms that my dad accumulated in his lifetime and then rented out to a tenant now.

Mike Lessiter: When you hear the term precision ag today or precision farming, how do you define what that term means?

Al Myers: Well that's a good question, let me just think a minute. I think it's certainly to a large degree it has the component of spatial location to it. In other words, knowing where different yields, whatever populations fertilizer rates exist in the field. And then using that data, soil test data, for example, using that data to do something on a spatial basis. In fact, in the beginning of what is widely called precision farming today, site specific farming was a widely used term. And that's a lot of what is called precision farming today. There's the purely operational aspects such as the auto-steering; you're not collecting agronomic data there but you're making the machine more efficient and reducing operator fatigue and that kind of a thing.

Mike Lessiter: What do you think the next three to five years, we could see in this industry?

Al Myers: Well, certainly we're going to see a continuation of, I think making the things you can do on a site specific basis smaller. For example, there's companies — not us yet — that have nozzle by nozzle control for your sprayers versus section control, that kind of thing. I think, I mean it's not going to happen overnight, but gradually you're going to see that the pieces of data that we can collect in the field are going to become smaller and the ability to record them on a smaller scale. In other words, a smaller spatial area and then to do something with them more precisely. We already have row by row shut off population control on planters and that kind of thing, but we'll see that happening on other machines.

And I'm sure we're going to see - we all know that self-driving cars is in the news all the time — we're going to start to see some self-driving farm machinery in the next few years.

Mike Lessiter: What will those changes require of you or the opportunity for your company to participate in that?

Al Myers: Well, it requires continued heavy investment on research and development, and since we're a privately owned company that's self-funded, that can make it difficult, it is making it difficult to compete with some of the big companies that have jumped into the game like Monsanto and Climate Corporation. For example, that's not machinery but it's certainly the data into the type of things we do. Or some of the startups that are getting a lot of money and they don't have a business yet, but they're getting a lot of money pumped into them from venture capitalists. Our challenge is to not only keep our existing product lines going viable by introducing enhancements but to put the R&D effort into the new products to try to stay ahead of the game as much as we can.

Mike Lessiter: How could you characterize what sort of emphasis or investment R& D gets with this company?

Al Myers: Well, the simple way to put it is well we put every penny we can into it (laughs) literally. That's what guides how many people we've got hired in the engineering department and product management. Obviously, it's a limitation across the whole company but certainly at this point in time we're putting our priorities on building money to hire new people in the development area. I can't tell you off the top of my head what the percent of our, you might say, our gross income is.

But certainly our engineering department our largest one in terms of expenses for people. Our sales department spends a lot of money but (laughs) it's not so much on people; it's on marketing or sales and marketing department (laughs), but-

Mike Lessiter: You strike me as operating differently than many, cut from a different cloth.

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: When it comes to R&D and product design and that appetite, what was it that you observed from earlier in your career or said, "I'm going to do it differently when it's when I run the show."

Al Myers: I could go a couple different ways with that. From a management standpoint, I'm very participative and you see managers that are very participative in large companies and you see some that aren't, that are dictatorial. I like to be participative in management. Even back in the days when everybody looked to me to make the final decision, I always asked opinion of all my people that might have good input on it. I would say one thing that was valuable in my prior experience, one thing I am very proud of is that we have a very capable engineering department and we can engineer and produce products that have what I call OEM or better quality.

And a lot of small companies can't do that. A lot of people start up a company with an innovative idea, but they really can't design and develop and manufacture the, you might say, the standard of the, what I call a product that an OEM would be proud to put into their product line type of a thing in the quality that we provide. I attribute that to a large degree to the background that I had for over 20 years working for a company, their whole business was supplying products to OEMs, primarily ag and construction machinery manufacturers. And I had worked with a number of those companies on various projects over the years. And you know, I knew how OEMs worked, I knew what they expected of their suppliers, the reliability, the quality, the design and that kind of thing.

“A lot of people start up a company with an innovative idea, but they really can't design and develop and manufacture the quality end product…”

I believe that was an advantage for me in starting up this company in that it took a while to build the capable engineering department that I had. I mean, I knew the mechanical engineering end of things but I did my own electronics and programming in the beginning but I really had to bring in people that had strong expertise in that. And that is certainly one thing from my background I believe allowed me to recognize how to build an organization that could do that and where we supply to OEMs today; we're a very high-quality supplier to them. We get excellent marks on our delivery performance and our quality of performance.

Mike Lessiter: Your dealers today, how many dealers do you have?

Al Myers: We have several hundred ... Let me say a few hundred dealers. I know in the last couple years we've really been focusing on building the quality of our dealer networks. We have a few hundred good dealers in North America where most of our business is today. I think at one point we were probably pushing close to a thousand dealers on our whole dealer list, but we've cut out the majority of those because they were doing very little for us and they weren't spending any time with. So, we've had a big push in recent years to really work with our dealers and do things that actually help them train them to be better dealers.

Mike Lessiter: Thus the investment you've put in with the training facility?

Al Myers: Not only that, we run a thing called Peer Groups where we, two or three times a year, we bring them into a central location and that's been a really, really awesome thing. The only thing that's bad about that is we're making them better dealers and because many of them sell competitive products to ours as well (laughing).

Mike Lessiter: And do you still have that, the Delta Program going?

Al Myers: Yes, we have Blue Delta dealers.

Blue Delta Dealers, the thing that's different, there are some requirements that they have to meet in terms of having certain amounts of training, doing a certain amount of promotion and they get a little extra discount for being a Blue Delta Dealer... Maybe it's not so much discount as it is, they get some more assistance from us or more marketing assistance, that kind of a thing. You might say it's our better or elite dealers. If somebody is out there looking for an Ag Leader dealer in their area, they are going to look a little better to somebody that doesn't happen to know them, that they are one of our top dealers.

Mike Lessiter: Now that the investment that you made you just mentioned, the resources, the peer groups, the training center.

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: I know that you, you support a lot of educational events.

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: Also what you're doing here at Iowa State. Tell us about why you've chosen to take that route invested knowledge?

Al Myers: Well, it's to our benefit to do anything that we can within reason to help growers, help young people that are looking into going into something related to precision farming to help them understand what it is, what they need to do, what they need to learn to, to be able to participate in it. And that kind of reminds me of when I started the company and started selling the Yield Monitor 2000 which was a device that could keep track of your whole harvest by field, name and by what we called loads, which could be subsets of fields. And that just blew farmers' minds because they had never had anything that could do more than keep two counters that you could reset and then the data was gone.

That was a real struggle in the beginning and that's one of the reasons that we developed a very strong technical support department. I mean there were a few techie farmers but that's maybe 5% or less of the farmers that will figure out anything if you give it to them. But it was a struggle to get farmers trained of, "Well, this is how you calibrate it, this is how you use it, this is how you get your data off of it,” and that kind of a thing. Because they just never been exposed to anything that kept all this data before, recorded it and kept it.

And this will sound crazy today but I can remember, well, in the very beginning, I and this one technician I hired that is now an electrical engineer pretty much did all the technical support. Maybe there was a student or two that participated, but I can remember talking to a few farmers and because they had to go to the house to call us. At that time I had a bag phone (laughs). I feel like I can't remember what a Motorola bag phone looks like when I was away on the, to go to shows and I'd say to a farmer, "Well, it sure be nice if you had a phone in your combine, you can call me right with a display.” He'd laugh at me like, "Yeah, right.” (laughs) And now who has phones in their shirt pocket today? Every farmer and everybody else.

And the other thing we've seen happen is of course in the beginning practically none of the farmers that were buying yield monitors had ever touched a computer, it was only the really techie ones that found it interesting and had gone out in the '80s and got a computer, learned how to use it, and so on ... we're at least, we're probably what, more than a generation away from, with the younger people coming in that grew up with technology. And that's certainly helped a lot in terms of young people that grew up with technology, they pick it up much easier than the people that didn't.

Mike Lessiter: Question that I think would be interesting to ask you, about the different climate today than '92. Think about if you had slipped into a Rip Van Winkle type sleep in (laughs) 1992 and woke up today and we've got different regulations, different people who had grown up with different experiences, different competition and the whole patent and legal litigation process. What would be different about trying to do what you did in today's environment?

“There are so many companies pursuing precision ag today that if you're going to make it, you better have literally the best mousetrap anybody ever had or will have invented or a big bucket of money…”

Al Myers: It would be much harder today. It would be I think just about impossible to do what I did back then today using the very limited resources that I had. Because I had nothing other than what little bit of money that I could spare from my full-time job. I had a mortgage on my house and two kids that were growing up and that kind of a thing. The technology barrier is much higher today than it was back then. Back then I could teach myself to do some of the things that I wasn't trained in. Go to RadioShack and get some parts and build your first prototype and that kind of a thing. And technology is more sophisticated. The barrier to entries are a lot higher because the technology is advanced so much.

And there are so many, I mean, there are so many companies pursuing precision ag or things related to that today that if you're going to make it, you better have literally the best mousetrap anybody ever had or will have invented or a big bucket of money to keep you going until you can get a business going.

Mike Lessiter: What, um ... Question about what's really unique about the way that you operate the company? What would be those points of execution that really you define differently?

Al Myers: Well, certainly in the beginning, I basically pretty much control everything because I was, in the very beginning, I couldn't afford to hire a lot of experienced help so I was hiring people that were coming off the street or straight out of college, a lot of young people then. I basically had to, you might say, have my fingers on everything going on in the company. Not just design but sales, the independent manufacturers reps — all reported directly to me for quite a few years before I got sales management — but production and everything. But as I was able to grow and bring in people that had some of these skills in these different areas, I would say, one thing that I've done is rather than tell them how to do it, let them show me how it should be done type of a thing. Because there's a lot of areas of running a business where I certainly wasn't an expert — sales, marketing, manufacturing — those kind of things. Obviously accounting. I (laughs) ran the company for five or six years with no accounting system, just keeping track of things and spreadsheets. At the end of every year spending a ton of time going through these things and cross checking and then handing it to an accountant to do my taxes type of a thing. I think the company couldn't have grown if I hadn't recognized that I needed to bring in people with these different skills and then let them show me how the company should operate. And some of those people have just done some wonderful things for us like our, my director of manufacturing, he actually was a lean manufacturing consultant for us.

You know, if you go way back to when I originally set up our production, it's line up some tables and tell people how to put this thing together and not terribly efficient. And when he came in as a lean manufacturing consultant, he just really opened my eyes and a lot of other people's eyes of, "Well, this is how you do this stuff efficiently." And we had the opportunity to hire him and it was one of the best hires I have ever made. Just one example.

Mike Lessiter: Right.

Al Myers: There's many others

Mike Lessiter: That realization that you needed to bring people in and have them show you, was that something that you arrived at after some time here or did you kind of come in with that mindset?

Al Myers: I'd say it developed over time or because my history before starting the company was the development engineer type of mentality. I had been I guess there was one thing that was an advantage to me, I had been involved, you know, I worked in a manufacturing, in the office of a manufacturing plant so I had some exposure to it. But you know I really didn't know how to set up manufacturing operations, so I guess you would say over time I realized, "No, I can't do this, I need somebody, somebody who's an expert at it." I didn’t come in knowing I needed all these other people skills. I gradually learned it over time as the company grew.

Mike Lessiter: When you start to think about the future for Ag Leader and it seems the desire to remain privately held and very independent is still there-

Al Myers and Mike Lessiter

Al Myers: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.

Mike Lessiter: …what's ahead for the next generation of Ag Leader?

Al Myers: Well, I've been building a very strong management staff here, and they all desire to be independent. I mean, we've all seen what's happened to some of these companies that have been absorbed into, into larger companies where the owner sells out and goes off and does whatever he wants to with his money, but he's no longer involved and so on. And I have two sons, one runs his own business that's not ag related and Mike, the younger one, is manager of our display programming area actually and he'll be the one that ends up in control of the company after I'm gone. I have very strong staff of people and we've started to integrate him into what we call our business leaders group.

Where most of my staff that reports directly to me and him get together twice a month and basically discuss the high level business issues and set the objectives, yearly objectives for the company and so on.

Mike Lessiter: So what are the core tenants, principles, non-negotiables that you've impounded into him that he'll carry forth?

Al Myers: Well, obviously, he's been around the company since (laughs), since he was in high school at least well even before then although he wouldn't have had much contact with it then. He’s kind of new to being in management so he doesn't ... I would say he does not have an ag background but my other key staff that you know he's learning from them a lot of different things. He will have to rely on other people that really know and understand the ag market when he's in control of the company. He may have the position of chairman of the board or something like that, and he'll pick who runs the company but ....

One of our strengths is that we've got so many people that have started here just out of school in most cases that come from a farm background and have — we've recognized their abilities and promoted them and that gives us real strength and understanding what to do and not do in the ag market.

Mike Lessiter: When you look at the business for the next 10 years and not, not just Ag Leader in essence but the industry.

Al Myers: Mhmm.

Mike Lessiter: What concerns you the most?

Al Myers: Concerns me the most … the money that takes to continue to be competitive. The OEMs grow larger all the time, John Deere in particular, absorbing a lot of companies that kind of thing. That doesn't mean there's not a place for a company like Ag Leader but certainly as I talked about earlier, for a privately owned company, that has to be self-funded, the ante to stay competitive in technology goes up all the time. Now that's where the big companies have an advantage or disadvantage is often never inefficient in the way they manage things. We have the advantage of, we're small and lean and can make decisions quickly and-

Mike Lessiter: You don't have to steer, the battle ship?

Al Myers: Exactly, yeah.

Mike Lessiter: Mhmm.

Al Myers: We stick to what we know, you might say we stick to the knitting which is something I read many years ago in some book about why big businesses get themselves into trouble. We stick to what we know how to do well for the most part the general types of technologies.

Mike Lessiter: What excites you the most about your place in precision ag moving ahead?

Al Myers: Well, I think we're in a pretty good position even with the difficulty of financing the continued development. I think we're in a good position to continue to remain a strong player in the industry. We have some very good technology. One of the things we're proudest of, we feel very strongly we have the best high-end displays in the ag market. We get really, really good marks by, from end users that their displays are easier to use than the OEM displays.

Our dealers tell us that when we introduce a new product sometimes there are small glitches but they for the last several years have told us, "Well, we know when you get a new product that's going to work." They trust us for that. So we've got some strong, strong equity in our product and our brand and our dealer network.