Ag News -
State Ag News
Sunday, 27 January 2013 21:21
By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News -
SOUTH HUTCHINSON - W.J. Wilbeck was in grade school when he tagged along with his father to the local railroad yard, watching as a crew unloaded several massive, new balers off the train.
It was 1952, and Robert Wilbeck - a welder and manufacturer - was embarking on a new business opportunity. The New Holland manufacturing company had recently expanded its marketing of mechanized hay equipment, and the elder Wilbeck was eager to sell the new product.
Now, 60 years later, W.J. talks with passion about his family-owned dealership, one of a few single-store independent dealerships still left amid an era of consolidation. The longevity, however, didn't come without struggles, including the 1980s farm crisis and a near-death accident eight years ago that gave Wilbeck a new outlook on life.
These days, however, agriculture is a bright spot in the Kansas economy, and Wilbeck's Agri Center is growing along with it.
"My entire career I watched farmers' prices go up and down and farmers struggle," he said. "But business has been good. The economy has changed to a worldwide market and I think agriculture is the new growth industry."
Wilbeck's great-grandfather homesteaded in Lincoln County in the late 1800s. His grandfather died of dust pneumonia during the 1930s when his father was 16 years old. It wasn't easy, Wilbeck said. But his father and uncle grew their operation to 1,500 acres - becoming successful farmers raising wheat and cattle.
But Robert Wilbeck also liked to build things. For instance, back in those days, farmers manually cranked the combine's header up and down. Robert Wilbeck had a better idea and installed a starter motor that raised and lowered the header with a push of a button.
In 1945, Robert Wilbeck decided to sell his half of the family farm and bought a welding shop in South Hutchinson, pursing his passion of working on equipment. One of his first projects was building a three-point one-way disc for the ever-popular 9N Ford tractor.
In late 1952, he became a New Holland dealer along with having a manufacturing business, which was growing. By the 1970s, the company was employing 200 people and selling thousands of discs, chisels and digger discs throughout the Midwest.
W.J. said he grew up working in the business, with one of his first jobs sweeping floors.
In 1977, Robert Wilbeck sold his company to Binkley Co. in Missouri. W.J., by contract, was to work with the company for a year.
He stayed on for four years as the company's marketing manager, even developing an idea for a large disc - up to 45 feet in width - that could be transported 11 feet wide.
"It worked very well and my name is on the patent," he said, adding it was one of the only times in his career he worked five days a week and had weekends off.
"I took up golf," he said.
He stayed with Binkley until the company sold to Steiger Tractor in 1981. Out of a job, Robert asked his son to come home and run the dealership.
"He gave me a call and said, 'See if you can increase the business or close the company.' At that time I was 36 and liked the idea of having the opportunity to run my own company."
He has rarely picked up a golf ball since - working long hours and weekends to keep the company going.
At first, he regretted the decision as the farm economy tanked. Employees even took pay cuts to help hold the business together.
"We had to expand or quit," he said.
Therefore, in 1982, he purchased the local Ford tractor dealership, which was a good fit because a few years later, New Holland merged with Ford's tractor division anyway.
Growth really took off when Fiat bought Ford New Holland and eventually acquired Case IH. Today, Agri Center offers New Holland, Rhino, Kinzie, Versatile and Claas equipment. The dealership also is one of the biggest Claas forage equipment dealers in North America and one of two in Kansas.
Few single-store dealers left
Despite the consolidation of dealerships in the region, Agri Center remains a family-owned company. In fact, at one time, there were a dozen farm equipment dealerships in the Hutchinson area. Today, Agri Center is the only one left that has the same owners.
"There are still a few of us," Ron Seiler, Agri Center's New Holland sales manager, said of independent dealers across the state. He added that the company has stayed in business amid consolidation because "we offer personal service - and we don't have to go through a chain of command."
Jeff Flora, chief executive officer of the Kansas City-based Southwestern Association, which represents independent farm, construction/industrial and outdoor power equipment dealers of all brands in a five-state area, said Wilbeck is one of just 30 independent farm dealers left in Kansas with just one location.
"In 1976, when I started with the association, we had 350 dealerships (in Kansas) and the vast majority was single-store operations," Flora said of the group's diversified membership. "Today we have about 100 members in the state with 175 locations."
Farm consolidation has driven the movement, he added. The Wilbecks, however, association members since 1961, have always had a good brand of product, watched expenses and took care of customers while continuing longstanding relationships.
Life changing accident
Wilbeck's dedication and passion in the industry has never wavered. However, an accident in 2005 caused him to evaluate his priorities.
Wilbeck, then 60, was driving a mid-sized International tractor in rural Reno County when a hydraulic hose broke and sprayed him with the caustic fluid. He jumped from the tractor into the ditch - and the tractor ran over him.
He was airlifted to Wichita, suffering from internal injuries and burns on 40 percent of his body.
"I spent six weeks in intensive care," he said. "You reflect on your life a little bit."
Wilbeck, however, realized he was a survivor. He decided to do something he always wanted to do. Starting a year to the day after the accident, he spent six weeks building an airplane.
He also decided it was time to take a different role at the company, instead of controlling every aspect.
"It gave me a different perspective," he said of the accident. "Instead of trying to be involved in everything with the business, I've been delegating jobs and mentoring people and giving them the authority and leadership to take care of things."
After all, he said, he has great employees - many of whom have been with the company for years.
A daughter, Kimberly Detter, is the office manager.
Meanwhile, despite the current drought, the farm economy remains a bright spot thanks to higher commodity prices and a more global market. So Wilbeck continues to grow the business - planning an expansion of the office and service area later this year.
He learned a lot from his father, he said. Robert Wilbeck died in 1998.
"I don't think he'd be surprised that we made it to 60," he said. "I'm sure, in fact, that he'd be quite pleased."
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