Howard Dahl: A legacy of entrepreneurship

Sitting in Howard Dahl’s office on a wintry day in Fargo, it’s clear that this is a man of influence. A table of awards sits next to his desk, a frame of his article in Inc. Magazine hangs on the wall. As we discuss his upcoming talk at 1 Million Cups, the conversation turns to generations before his. He pulls out a weathered green book with the title, “The History of John Deere.”

Howard Dahl

Awards in Howard Dahl’s office.

“My grandfather sold his first tractor to the John Deere company,” Dahl says, flipping through the pages. In fact, his grandfather’s company created the Bobcat loader. He came in right when Deere’s company was at a low point, Dahl explained. The famous tractor is now sold all over the world – and still made in Fargo.

The entrepreneurial streak didn’t stop there; Dahl’s father and uncle went on to run a company called Steiger, which made four-wheel-drive tractors. They took it from sales of $2 million to $105 million in five years, Dahl writes.

This makes Dahl and his brother third-generation manufacturers in Fargo, North Dakota. And true to their lineage, they too have been globally successful in their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Eugene Dahl

Howard Dahl’s father, Eugene Dahl.

Business in the Soviet Union

The brothers first started a company in 1977, which became the market leader in pneumatic seeding equipment. They sold the company in 1996, but retained ownership of a few product lines for specific farming equipment. With that, the present company, Amity Technology, was born.

Then, things got interesting. After learning of the large farms in Russia, Dahl began to do business with those farmers – just as the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble.

Dahl remembers the frustrating negotiations with bureaucrats, in Gorbachev’s hometown and other regions.

“They had no concept of what we think of as basic business practices and negotiating with them could be awful,” he writes, in his article in Inc. “One time, I felt so bullied by an official that I blurted out that he was acting like a dictator. That hit a nerve and the meeting ended abruptly.”

Howard Dahl

Howard Dahl

In 2008, when the Russian currency, the ruble, crashed – the company had to write off $600,000 worth of bad debts. They very nearly drew business out of Russia, as so many other Western companies had already done.

But they stayed. Dahl writes now that doing business in Russia is the best thing they ever did for Amity Technology. What Dahl appreciates most, he writes, is not just the large farms, or the growing middle class – it’s the farmers themselves.

“They offer me bear hugs and warm toasts over dinner, and tell me that seeding and tilling used to be the hardest part of their job and now it’s the easiest part thanks to my equipment,” Dahl writes. “This has been a great joy to me.”

Dahl was recently honored for 25 years of business in Kazakhstan, and presented with a medal in December 2015. This hangs, too, in his decorated office.

But Dahl would be the last one to point out his awards. Instead, he points to the people who have contributed to his journey – his father and grandfather who came before him.

“This is the story I want to tell,” he said.

 

Come hear him tell it this Wednesday, at the first 1 Million Cups event of the year. Join us on January 6, 9:15 – 10:15 AM at the Stage at Island Park.

Photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels and The FMExtra.

Feature photo by Dan Koeck for PhilanthropyRoundtable.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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