Precision specialists often wear many hats — service technician, salesperson, business owner, farmer. The list goes on and on.
Bruce West barely has enough closet space for the number of hats (and capes) he wears as owner of West Enterprises, an independent precision ag hardware and software dealer in Erie, Ill.
“We’re a small company — it’s me, one other full-time employee and my wife who sometimes helps out with the books,” Bruce says. “Not only am I in sales and service, but I also handle business and inventory management, cashflow and even human resources. You get to see all aspects of the business when you’re a small company.”
On top of that, he also runs the family farm, located 75 miles away from his West Enterprises office. It makes for a long, but sometimes productive commute.
“It works out well because I can make 3 or 4 customer stops along the way.”
Bruce is kind enough to give us a peek behind the curtain during one of the busiest months of the year. Let’s go east to meet West for this edition of Day in the Cab.
I pull up to a renovated building that resembles a large auction facility. There’s a helicopter in the front lawn and a fleet of pickup trucks in the parking lot with “AgFarmacy” logos on the doors. I start to wonder if I’m in the right place. It turns out I am, as the first person I see takes me to Bruce’s office at the end of a long hallway. I later learn that Bruce is also a co-owner of AgFarmacy, a retail chemical and fertilizer company.
Bruce West spends most of his days on the road, talking to customers on his headset in between farm visits. He puts an average of 250 miles on his truck daily during the busy months of April and May.
Bruce puts down his giant coffee mug, says hello and introduces me to his co-worker, Kelby Hartman.
Bruce and Kelby — his only full-time employee — in the same place at the same time is a rarity.
“We’re hardly ever together,” Kelby says. “We usually don’t see each other for days on end.”
“Kelby deals with the customer base from here north,” Bruce says. “I deal with the customer base from here south.”
As Kelby and Bruce go over their gameplan for the day, after 8 years of working together, it’s clear they’ve developed a chemistry like Jordan and Pippen on the 90s era Bulls.
“I was looking for help and I recruited Kelby in 2015 when he was working at another dealership,” Bruce recalls. “He has a lot of skills and he’s much better than me at almost everything.”
“I want to deal with people who can do things themselves…”
I ask for their origin stories. Kelby tells me he started working full time at a local dealership immediately after graduating from high school. Bruce, meanwhile, recalls selling yield monitors for a Case IH dealership when his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.
“I wasn’t getting any younger at the time and knew if I was going to be in business for myself, I had to do it then. I went out on my own and was fortunate to get an Ag Leader dealership. That was the start of it.”
West Enterprises launched in 2003. It carries Ag Leader, Precision Planting, Soil-Max, Reichhardt, 360 Yield Center, Montag, DigiFarm, SureFire and Capstan products.
It’s time for some action. We say goodbye to Kelby and get ready for our first customer visit of the morning — an organic farming operation about 30 miles away. Bruce wants to check out a new precision weeder they’re using. The long car ride gives me an opportunity to learn more about the business.
“Are you still dealing with supply chain issues?” I ask.
“I thought the issues would be cleaned up by now, but they’re not,” Bruce says. “The companies that we sell for have dealt with the issues differently. Precision Planting, for example, uses an allocation system. They open an order board June 1, and we can order up to our allocation amount. My goal is to get customers pinned down on what they want before then so I can place the order.
Bruce West gets his first look at a Treffler Organic Machinery precision tine harrow. One of his longtime customers is using it to kill weeds after soybean planting, before the crop comes out of the ground.
“Ag Leader has allowed us to continue ordering whatever we want, but we just don’t know when we’ll get it. SurePoint has been able to ship within 2-3 days of ordering. Soil-Max — for a while we had to call to make sure we could get a good price because the price of steel is changing so fast.”
Bruce recently traveled all the way to Ames, Iowa, to pick up a part he desperately needed. He usually puts about 250 miles on his truck daily during busy season, but he racked up over 650 miles that day. I tell Bruce I’m surprised he’s able to do all this driving on just one cup of coffee.
“Well, I drink a lot of warm Pepsi instead,” he responds with an infectious laugh.
We pass by an organic feed mill as we get closer to our destination. I continue to pepper Bruce with questions.
“Can you do a lot of your service over the phone?”
“Yes, but I don’t do a lot of FaceTime or Zoom,” Bruce says. “Kelby will do a lot more of that. I do a tremendous amount of phone support, but I’m just pulling information from my head about what their screens and equipment look like.”
I notice that Bruce always has his headset on. He calls it a “godsend,” allowing him to speak with customers and multitask safely while driving. But on this day in late May, his phone isn’t ringing quite as much as it was in April, their busiest month of the year. They switch from service mode to sales mode after planting season winds down, he says.
As we pull off to the side of the road for our first stop, Bruce directs my attention to the precision weeding tool in the distance on the adjacent field. Bruce’s people skills are on full display as he gets out of the truck and greets the customer like his favorite cousin at a family reunion. Bruce has been working with this farmer since 2003, when he first helped him with yield maps. Since then, he’s become one of Bruce’s most technologically savvy customers.
We walk onto the field that was just planted with soybeans for an up-close look at the Treffler Organic Machinery precision tine harrow. It’s the customer’s first experience using it to kill weeds before the crop comes out of the ground. The unique features of the tine allow it to adapt individually to unevenness in the soil, according to the company’s website. Bruce is impressed.
“Finding help and being able to pay a reasonable wage is a big challenge…”
“I’m very intrigued by that,” he says. “If you use this with corn, you’d probably do some damage but with soybeans you can’t break that growing point below the ground.”
The main goal of the visit is to touch base and check out the new machine. Mission accomplished. I can tell by the genuine smile on Bruce’s face that customer interaction is his favorite part of the job.
We’re back on the road and Galva, Ill.-bound to check in on a longtime customer who’s been strip-tilling for over 35 years. Day in the Cab turns into conversations in the cab as we continue to rack up the miles.
“What’s the key to building these strong customer relationships?” I ask.
“You have to be honest with them,” Bruce says. “Treat them like you want to be treated. Show them respect. Come to their level — don’t sell above or below them. I’m the kind of person who likes to meet people and talk with them face to face. It’s a better experience for me and the customer.”
I tee up the next question, “What’s been the biggest change in the industry over the past 5 years?”
“The acceptance of precision technology by OEMs,” Bruce says. “When I first started, they weren’t interested in technology. It was basically all shortline, aftermarket people doing this stuff. Now, anytime you buy a new tractor or sprayer it comes with precision tools already installed. This creates a challenge for me because I have to know about the competitor’s product to make it work with what I’m trying to sell.”
We arrive at our next stop. Bruce introduces me to his customers before heading to their equipment shed to inspect a planter.
As an editor for Strip-Till Farmer as well, I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask about their strip-till operation. They tell me they’ve been strip-tilling for as long as anybody else in the area. They use a Kuhn Krause Gladiator with Montag fertilizer boxes, but they’re interested in potentially buying a new strip-till rig from another company. I make a mental note to check in on them soon for more details and a potential feature story for Strip-Till Farmer.
“Ever see a planter like this?” the customer asks me as we walk into the shed.
“It’s not your typical planter,” Bruce says.
The massive John Deere planter is loaded with Precision Planting add-ons, but apparently not enough as they’re now looking to install SpeedTubes — a seed delivery system that increases planting speed.
Bruce West checks in on 2 customers to make sure they have no issues with a new product — Ag Leader’s RightSpot sprayer technology. To his surprise, everything has gone smoothly for the father-son duo.
They wanted the SpeedTubes last year but couldn’t get them because of the supply chain crunch. Their wait is almost over, thanks to Bruce who recently secured an allocation from Precision Planting for 32 SpeedTubes. He pulls out his phone and takes a video of the planter. Bruce gathers all the information he needs to build a quote, which he’ll send to them before the day is over.
Our journey rolls on with a 40-mile drive west toward Aledo. We make a brief pit stop at Subway for lunch.
“You don’t mind eating while we drive, do you?” Bruce asks. I have no problem with the request, knowing I need to be on the road home to Brookfield, Wis., by 2:30 p.m., to hit my rental car return target time of 5 p.m. No meatball sub today — we order the most car friendly sandwiches on the menu and head back to the truck.
“I’ll be honest with you, there are a lot of days I don’t get to eat lunch in the spring because we’re so busy,” Bruce says.
“That can’t be too good for your health,” I reply.
“Well, it helps me lose weight is what it does,” he says with a laugh.
Bruce tells me he’s looking to hire another person to help lighten the workload and keep up with customer demands. Finding the right fit for a small company has proven to be as challenging as finding a solution to supply chain issues.
“Finding help and being able to pay reasonable wage is a big challenge,” Bruce says. “We need someone who can do both sales and service. An individual with experience is going to require a higher salary. The question is, can they sell enough to generate enough margin to pay for themselves and contribute to the company?”
The cost of health insurance is also pricey for a small company, Bruce adds. He seems resigned to the fact that he’s likely going to end up hiring someone with minimal experience.
“We’ll have to invest the time to train them and that also means it will be a while until they’re contributing enough to the bottom line to pay their way,” he says. “Even then, a lot of the younger people coming out of college are expecting a big salary. Either that, or they don’t want to work.”
George Costanza would be impressed by Bruce’s driving skills. We make “great time” as we arrive at our third stop, slightly ahead of schedule.
A big, fluffy dog gives us a warm welcome, followed by his owners — a father and son who have worked with Bruce for just as long as the previous customers we visited. I make an instant connection with the son, who tells me his baby’s name is also Noah.
The diversity of Bruce’s customer base is on full display here, as this operation is a smaller-acreage, no-till farm. Bruce recently sold them Ag Leader’s new RightSpot pulsing sprayer nozzles and wants to make sure they didn’t have any unforeseen problems while using them.
“Everything worked out great with it, we had no problems,” says the son, who’s in charge of operating the sprayer.
Bruce is pleasantly surprised there were no issues. He asks if they need anything else before we say our goodbyes and hit the road once again.
“I’m thrilled to death right now,” Bruce says, as we begin the 60-mile drive back to Erie. “You don’t always have all the bugs identified with new products, so I was worried they had experienced some problems. But they had no complaints, and it was a successful visit.”
Throughout the day I’ve noticed a theme with Bruce’s customers. They all seem self-sufficient, hands on and up to speed on precision technology. It turns out that’s by design.
“I’ve always taken the approach that I want to deal with people who can do things themselves,” Bruce says. “For the most part, I’ll deliver the product and maybe show them some initial steps to take with installation. If a customer does their own installation, then they have a better understanding of the system. Then if there’s a problem in the future, I can say to them, ‘Hey, do you remember seeing this? Go find where you put that and see what it looks like,’ instead of us doing the installation and the customer has no clue where anything is.
“I know I give up labor income by doing it this way, and maybe it’s wrong from a business model standpoint, but it’s just the way we do it. There are certain customers who tell you the only tool they have in their toolbox is their cell phone. Those are the ones you know you’ll have to do a lot of handholding with, and you have to make sure you’ll get paid for that handholding, which is always difficult.”
We’re back home at West Enterprises. We get out of the truck and shoot an on-camera recap interview for the Day in the Cab video series, covering most of the topics we touched on throughout the day.
As we wrap up the interview, I ask, “Anything else you’d like to add before we let you go?”
“It’s been a pleasure having you with us!” Bruce says.
The pleasure was all ours, Bruce. We say our goodbyes as Bruce hops back in his truck for his next adventure. I head to my car with plenty of time to spare for a stop at the local coffee shop before driving back to Lessiter Media headquarters.