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Published May 06, 2013, 09:23 AM

Charting a new path

True North Equipment, a four-store John Deere dealer network in the northern Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota is charting a new course, shifting away from traditional store managers and focusing heavily on training.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — For two years, it’s gone by the name True North Equipment.

And now, the four-store John Deere dealer network in the northern Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota is charting a new course, shifting away from traditional store managers and focusing heavily on training.

By December 2013, the organization will have a new corporate headquarters — the True North Resource Center. The headquarters and training center will cost about $2 million and will have strong functional management for departments in the four stores. It will be the nerve center for a company that employs more than 120 people and has a “sustainable sales base” of more than $170 million a year.

“It’s quite a historic change in how we conduct business,” says Dan Gorder, the company’s president and co-owner.

A long RRV history

Like most John Deere retailers, True North Equipment is part of a proud, green line.

The company traces its roots to 1897, when Brosnahan & Olson, a hardware store, started selling John Deere plows in Grafton, N.D.

In 1931, Farup Auto secured the John Deere line and, at one time, claimed bragging rights as the largest volume John Deere dealer in the nation. In the 1940s, Chevrolet dealer Overbye & Scidmore took over. In 1948, after World War II ended, the business hired local farmer Oliver Gorder to manage its ag sales. Later that year, the operation split from its car sales component and became a stand-alone John Deere store. In 1952, Gorder and Paul Torgeson purchased it.

In November 1975, Gorder and Torgeson sold the business to Lloyd Holy, a Deere & Co. territory manager. Gorder retired and Holy formed Grafton Equipment Co. In January 1977, Holy moved the company to its current location, an 18,900-square foot facility west of Grafton on Highway 17.

In 1982, Gorder’s only son, Dan Gorder, joined as a partner with Holy. Dan had just graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University and had thought about seeking a John Deere corporate job. With a national agricultural recession, he was happy to come home to the northern Red River Valley, with its potatoes and sugar beets.

“There’s a diverse crop mix up here, and that’s always helped us,” Gorder says. In 1997, Holy semi-retired and Gorder became president.

In 1998, John C. Oncken came to Grand Forks as a John Deere territory manager. In that role, Oncken encouraged Gorder to expand.

In 1999, Grafton Equipment purchased what was then Grand Forks Equipment and redubbed it “Forks Equipment.” In 2003, the company purchased the Urbaniak Implement dealership in Kennedy, Minn. In April 2006, Holy retired and Gorder took Oncken as a new partner. The next month, the company purchased Pederson Implement in Northwood, N.D., and renamed it Northwood Equipment.

In October 2011, Gorder and Oncken renamed the company True North Equipment Co.

Green in their veins

Gorder was born into a John Deere dealer family.

Oncken, originally from Sun Prairie, Wis., went to the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, first in dairy science and ultimately in agricultural engineering. In 1988, he was hired for his first job by John Deere’s Minneapolis branch. He started as a combine specialist traveling the Western states. He moved six times for the company in field positions, ranging from product support to territory manager.

For two years, he helped test and market the Single Tine Separator, or STS combine, based at Harvester Works, the company’s combine manufacturing factory in East Moline, Ill. His next opportunity was Grand Forks, as territory manager.

“I moved in here after the flood and have been here ever since,” he says.

On April 15, 2013, the company added Duane Kautzman as a third partner and corporate ag sales manager.

Raised in rural Mandan, N.D., Kautzman graduated in business management at Minnesota State University, Moorhead and got his master’s from the University of Mary. He worked in retail banking for 11 years before joining RDO Equipment in Bismarck, N.D., as finance manager for construction and agriculture equipment. He moved to Deere Credit (later Deere Financial), and territory manager positions.

Leaning forward

Gorder and Oncken had considered whether to place the corporate center with their existing Grand Forks store, but settled on a separate headquarters. This was in part to ensure all the store employees felt equally at home there.

They purchased some land that will be next door to the Black Gold Farms headquarters, and visible from Interstate 29. It will be home to executive offices, including corporate human resources, as well as high-tech classrooms for up to 30 people.

Kautzman says the goal is to allow the company to leverage its scale to offer the training its customers need in the new advanced technologies but still offer a “hometown feel,” when customers walk through the door of the stores and it also creates a place where company officials are visible to the customers. The facility will maximize the company’s ability to attract talent, as well as increase visibility and proximity to lodging and other amenities.

True North adopted a corporate logo that shows a forward-leaning tractor, heading into the future. “Pretty much the row crop tractor is the mainstay of our business, and the logo dictates that the tractor is a key component, and forward looking,” Gorder says.

“John Deere has taken the approach of the future, of moving toward more technical-based machines, machines that collect field data,” Gorder says. “We at True North have the responsibility of training our producers about how to run or maximize the features of both current and future product offerings. The training center is really our vehicle to successfully move toward a better training environment.”

Distance training is a key element. A class can be transmitted electronically from an instructor “five states away or anywhere in the world,” through integrated distance training. The center also will be able to transmit classes.

“I think we’ll be doing both,” Gorder says. “The days of traveling to a training (session) are over.”

The resource center is for staffing, but also for customers to work on products, training, learning and optimizing the machines they have, Oncken says.

“We want to be a trusted adviser to the customers,” Oncken says. The owners recently met with a customer who had 15 employees and was interested in training.

“They want to be prepared to go into spring on a given topic. It’s their cohesive group we’re teaching there,” Oncken says. “It might be someone who works in machine optimization, might be someone in precision ag.” It’s customizing training to individual customers.

The training would go from basic tractor or combine operations to more specialized things such as John Deere. The course would train crop consultants working in an advisory role.

These are individual goals, but Gorder says the overall purpose is production and producing food.

“Deere & Company’s position — and we use that opinion — is that global food production has to double by 2050,” Gorder says. “It has to do that, for all practical purposes, on the same amount of land that’s cultivated now, and with substantially less water. That makes us bullish that technology will play a bigger part of the future, and True North is gearing up for those changes.”

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