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.
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.