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Published May 29, 2012, 08:34 AM

Ag dealership builds new home

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — High Plains Equipment operates in an area hurt by years of flooding and in an industry in which independent agricultural equipment dealers are increasingly unusual.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — High Plains Equipment operates in an area hurt by years of flooding and in an industry in which independent agricultural equipment dealers are increasingly unusual.

But John Swenseth, the company’s owner/operator, says the decision to build a new location was an easy one.

“We needed to do this for our customers. It’s as simple as that,” he says.

High Plains Equipment, an independent Case IH dealer, opened its new 45,000 square-foot location in January. The new building, on a 22-acre site along U.S. Highway 2 two miles east of Devils Lake, replaces the dealership’s old 12,000-square-foot building. The old location, one mile north of Devils Lake, continues to be used for storage.

The former location had grown too small to work on modern equipment, which continues to get bigger.

“The shop is how you justify it (the new location), and the rest is just gravy,” Swenseth says.

The business now has 25 employees, up from 20 at the old site.

“We’re able to do more work because we have room for more guys inside,” Swenseth says.

The old shop had six 12½-foot work bays. The new one has 12 25-foot work bays.

“There’s just so much more room to work,” he says.

Other improvements include more room for parts.

“It’s fun to be here,” says Ron Schneider, a partsman who’s been with the dealership since 1994.

Swenseth compliments the quality of his employees and notes that many of them have worked at the dealership for years.

Flooding, independents

Swenseth describes the High Plains’ trade area as extending 70 miles north to the Canadian border, a natural barrier, with other Case IH dealerships 65 to 80 miles to the south, east and west.

Much of the area served by High Plains has been hammered by flooding for years.

Farmers in the Devils Lake area — the lake and town share the name — have lost 163,450 acres of producing farmland since the lake began rising in 1993, according to a North Dakota State University Extension Service study in 2011.

Those lost acres are roughly the equivalent of 50 3,000-acre farms.

The loss of that farmland is noticeable, Swenseth says.

“We wouldn’t have 50 more customers. But there would be a few more, and lot of our customers would be farming more land,” he says.

Much of the land lost to rising lake waters is owned by people who continue to pay taxes on it, he says.

“It’s hard to watch what’s happened to these people,” he says.

Given the lost farmland, why build the new location?

“We just needed to do it to serve our customers. Hopefully, with the low interest rates, it (the new location) is going to work out,” he says. “We’re fortunate the ag economy has been so strong. That’s the only reason we were able to do this.”

Swenseth declines to say what the new location cost.

The new building, on the north side of Highway 2, is safe from flooding.

High Plains is an independent ag dealership in an era when it’s increasingly common for multiple dealerships to have a common owner.

Swenseth says he enjoys High Plains’ status as an independent.

“In my mind, it’s what being a small business is all about,” he says.

High Plains cooperates with other area independent Case IH dealers, he notes.

Salesman to owner

Swenseth, 55, started his career in December 1975 as a salesman at Twete’s, a now-closed IH dealership in McVille, N.D.

The McVille native had been planning to go back to college in the fall of 1976 and was looking for something to do until then.

“So I went and asked Curt (Twete, who owned the dealership) if he had something for me to do. I said I’d sweep floors or anything until schools starts,” Swenseth says. “He said he had a janitor, but that he could use a salesman. So I started selling for him.”

Swenseth never did go back to college, continuing to work as a salesman.

In 1982, the Twete IH dealership opened in Devils Lake, and Swenseth became its manager. Two years later, it added the Case line.

At the end of 2006, Swenseth bought the Devils Lake dealership from Twete. The dealership changed its name from Twete’s to Leading Edge when it moved to its new location.

Swenseth says he and Twete “kind of had it in mind all along that I’d become owner (eventually). We worked towards that,” Swenseth says of him becoming owner.

The transition to owner didn’t pose any particular difficulties, Swenseth says.

“He (Twete) left me alone. He didn’t micro-manage what I was doing. So all along I basically ran this like it was my own place,” Swenseth says.

Swenseth says he plans to stay active in the business for many more years.

“You’re working with good people every day. You can’t beat that,” he says.

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