Agco mourns passing of founder, former chairman Robert J. Ratliff

Agco mourns passing of founder, former chairman

Robert J. Ratliff was the creative force behind Agco, creating a new global company.

It's not often you meet someone who will change a bit of history, but Robert J. Ratliff was that guy. I first met him soon after he became President of Deutz-Allis – remember them? The German Company Klockner Humboldt Deutz had bought the former Allis Chalmers and it wasn't going well. They brought Ratliff in to fix it.

He brought in a couple other players, and over time he started making changes in that corporate culture. Back then Allis-Chalmers orange was tossed in favor of Spring Green (that was the official color), and the company rolled out a lot of product under that brand. Ratliff, however, was leading a company that was in sore need of a new direction.

The answer was to create a new company. Ratliff led the management team that purchased Deutz-Allis Corporation in 1990 to form Agco. Who was this new company? What was Agco tractor? Corrected: The Agco-Allis brand ran form 1990 to 2001. 

But he was in no way finished. Ratliff, who had a long history with International Harvester's truck division (now known as Navistar) took early retirement and eventually ended up at Uniroyal. Later he was tagged to run Deutz-Allis, and once he and the management team bought the U.S. firm from KHD they took bold strategic actions – looking for acquisitions that could beef up the line. Where to turn?

Remember this was just 5 years after the 1985 farm depression, and it turns out some venerable brand names were available – perhaps at distressed prices, but I won't judge that. In 1994, Agco bought the worldwide holdings of Massey Ferguson, a leader in global tractor sales.

Another milestone purchases included Fendt in 1997. This company had long been recognized as a tech leader. When Caterpillar decided to spin off its track tractor business and step back from agriculture, Ratliff was there with a checkbook to buy the business and create the Challenger brand. Until that time Challenger had been a tractor model designation at Cat. The first Cat track tractor was that Challenger 65.

And in 2004, Agco tied the knot on the purchase of Valtra, boosting its position in Europe and South America. I talked to Ratliff (who preferred being called Bob) about that Valtra purchase. He had long been acquiring companies but Valtra had a division that at the time observers didn't feel was a fit for Agco – that Sisu engine division.

Ratliff told me that early on he and the management team looked at the potential for spinning the engines out. This was very early on. Then he found out what Valtra had in that engine division, including the tech investment the company had made. Today, the Sisu engine works makes those Agco Power engines that offer the muscle for a lot of machines in the company line. It was an example of one of the treasures Ratliff saw in the market.

He was known as a hands-on leader, never afraid to talk to media – which I of course enjoyed – and he reached out to dealers a lot too. His time at IH Trucks gave him some good retail insight that he brought to Agco, which was no easy job after years of Allis-Chalmers decline; and the turmoil at Deutz-Allis before he came on board.

During his tenure Ratliff guided Agco through 21 acquisitions as it grew sales from $200 million in 1990 to more than $5.4 billion in 2005. He retired as chairman in 2006. But during his tenure he did move Agco from its legacy location in West Allis, Wis., to Duluth, Ga., where the company now sells product to more than 150 countries.

Covering this industry has put me in touch with a range of great characters and historic figures in this industry. Ratliff stands out as a visionary. At a meeting one time, during the height of an acquisition binge in the 1990s, there was discussion of mergers bringing a lot of companies together. Someone asked jokingly: "Wonder what you would call that?" And the answer from someone in the room: "Agco!"

While Agco didn't take over the farm equipment market, on a global scale it is a force to be reckoned with and it was Ratliff's efforts that laid the groundwork.

Current Chair Martin Richenhagen, made a comment in the formal statement about Ratliff's passing: "Bob Ratliff's commitment to excellence and complete dedication to Agco, our customers, dealers, employees and shareholders helped our company become what it is today. The board of directors, management team and our employees worldwide are very grateful for his vision, leadership and dedicated service. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts are with his wife Gini and his entire family."

Those who knew Bob Ratliff may want to attend the Celebration of Life service at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Creek, Ga., on Saturday, May 20, 2017 starting at 4 p.m. EDT.

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