'Doing what it takes' leads business growth
By Larry Dreiling
It was the mid-1980s. U.S. agriculture had fallen on its hardest times since the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Farmers were going bankrupt, banks in small towns were folding, and some of the great names in agricultural machin-ery were either departing the scene or merging to survive.
It was the time of International Harvester finding new owners—a conglomerate that had bought a rival—and spinning off its truck division to become Case IH. Meanwhile, Allis-Chalmers was joining with Gleaner to form the base of what we now know as AGCO.
As manufacturers changed, so did the nerve endings of the agricultural equipment industry. Dealers, faced with all those merged suppliers, sometimes found themselves without inventory—and therefore—a business.
A mechanic named Brian Lang found himself in the midst of this maelstrom of change.
As the service manager for the transitioning International Harvester dealer in Hays, Kan., he knew he had to make a change in his life to keep a roof over his young family. The dealer's owner was likely to liquidate rather than change to a two-company dealership.
In 1988, Lang took his toolbox from the service bay at Midwest International to his pickup truck and began work as an independent diesel mechanic, servicing everything from trucks to farm machin-ery to oilfield equipment.
"That was a long time ago," Lang says, as the owner of Lang Diesel, Inc., the largest AGCO dealer in North America. The company is a dealer for several short-line manufacturers as well.
How he got from then to now is a story that has admirers stretching from his hometown to corner offices of a Fortune 500 company.
Lang's business motto is simple: Doing what it takes.
It's also a personal mission statement for Lang. It took that kind of attitude to get to this point in his life.
Soon after Lang went into business for himself he realized he'd need a repair shop to work inside during the cold weather months. He put up a small shop north of the Toulon community just east of Hays. The shop was just north of an Interstate 70 exit, making it easy for truckers with problem vehicles to turn in for service.
Shortly after putting up his shop, an old friend who worked for the now reconstituted International Navistar Corp. told him the company had decided to pull its contract out of Hays.
"Instead, they gave me an associate dealership for Navistar, and that was my first chance to be a dealer," Lang said. "I was just a service dealer but it gave me a chance to work with a manufacturer."
It was 1990 when Lang became a dealer for Hesston Corp., which later became a joint venture between AGCO and Case IH, and Lang added a sales and parts space to his shop.
His relationship with AGCO grew in 1993, adding Gleaner combines.
"I guess it was then that I really went from being a mechanic to really being a dealer," Lang said. "A lot of work had already followed me when I left (Midwest International). If I wanted to have something long-term, I knew I'd have to be a dealer."
The partnership has been a mutually successful one. Bob Crain, senior vice president and general manager for North America, said, "Brian Lang's story is a really incredible one. He started out with his talents in service to being our top dealer. He has a unique ability to understand his customers, what they need and be willing to take risks in introducing products to a new territory that will help them succeed. I saw that with our sprayer lineup.
"Above all, Brian is just a great guy."
There are wags in the industry that call AGCO "Acquisico," because of its growth through the purchase of quality, shortline manufacturers. Lang laughs at the term a bit, because in some ways his company has grown through acquisition, as well as opening new territories.
LDI can now be found across Kansas, in Smith Center (acquired 1998), Colby (1999), Ellinwood (2004), Sabetha (2006), Salina (2008), Hillsboro (2009), Topeka and Chanute (both 2010).
"In just the last year, we've brought in 45 new employees," said Lang of his company's acquisition of the Challenger equipment business from the Foley and Martin Cat dealerships in eastern Kansas.
"Since spring 2010, we've worked hard to make these people a part of Lang Diesel. It's a challenge," he said.
"I get beat up on both sides—from long-time employees who say we're getting away from being a family-owned kind of business and from the Martin and Foley people who thought we were a mom-and-pop organization. So I'm stuck in the middle between the two."
Indeed, Lang has taken a step away from the shop and sales space and moved to recently leased space in a Hays office park. The space houses his office along with that of the company's corporate comptroller, a regional manager, and marketing director along with whole goods inventory managers.
"I may be here, but I make it out to the dealerships a lot," Lang said.
Taking a personal interest in the people at the dealerships continues to be an important aspect of Lang's job. Not only is he responsible for putting the food on his family's table, but also for his employees.
Doing "what it takes" has been a popular way to describe achieving goals. Vince Lombardi was a frequent user of the term about being victorious over an opponent. For Lang, "doing what it takes" holds both professional and personal connotations. First, the professional:
"I had two goals in being with AGCO," Lang said. "One was to be a Circle of Excellence dealer. You win that and you are given a ring with a diamond in it. Every year you win, they put another diamond in the ring. It takes 10 years to fill the ring.
"My other goal was to be the largest AGCO dealer in North America. I hit both of those in 2010."
His personal goal:
"What I really wanted was to have a business in which I could plan on giving my son an opportunity to succeed me down the line," Lang said. "I'm really happy to have Brent join the company as whole goods inventory manager. I'm so glad he's involved in the company.
"I guess you can say I've really achieved my goals. I've lived my dreams. Now, it's time for Brent to live his. It's important."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.