Tractor-Maker Versatile, owned by Buhler Industries of Winnipeg, MB, has big plans. It wants to leave behind its status as a shortline tractor manufacturer known for its large 4-wds to become a full-line ag equipment company.
Versatile announced its plans in January at its second annual dealer meeting held in Las Vegas. More than 185 dealers from across the U.S. and Canada got their first look at six new products on display: a 575-hp 4-wd tractor, three fixed-frame, mechanical-front-wheel-drive (MFWD) tractors, a scraper tractor, and a self-propelled sprayer. All products can be factory-equipped with a new Versatile Precision Agriculture System, called VPAS, manufactured by Raven Industries (see sidebar).
Versatile Marketing Manager Adam Reid says this is the first time in recent history that a product other than tractors has carried the Versatile brand name. “Thirty to 40 years ago Versatile was also known for grain augers, pull-type sprayers, disks and, most notably, swathers,” he says. “There was even a pull-type combine at one point.”
He says the new self-propelled sprayer is the beginning of the company's expansion into complementary products designed for large-acreage growers. “It's part of a bigger strategy to become a viable alternative to the ‘main line’ suppliers, and we're not shy about our ambitions,” he states.
The aggressive plans are partly attributable to the company's aggressive new leader, Dmitry Lyubimov, a 35-year-old Russian businessman who came on board as president in 2007 when Russian Combine Factory Rostselmash Ltd. bought the majority share of Buhler Industries. Lyubimov has been credited for transforming the tractor maker from a production-driven to a market-driven company, complete with financing programs, product specialists, field sales managers, a new parts warehouse, and all the other elements that contribute to being a world-class player. The company also made hefty investments in research and last year brought two new tractor models to the market under the Versatile brand name.
As a result of these initiatives, the company recorded its highest sales volume in its history last year, garnering $278 million compared to $232 million in 2008. Now the plan is to sell even more product by expanding into areas other than tractors.
The Versatile SX275 self-propelled sprayer is the first of the new line extension. The 1,200-gal., stainless steel sprayer is essentially the same Redball model 7830, which Redball released in 2007. Versatile bought the rights to the product last year when Redball filed for bankruptcy.
The Versatile SX275 sprayer has a new Cummins engine to replace its previous John Deere engine to be consistent with the Versatile tractor line. Everything else is the same.
Versatile, best known for its 4-wds, introduced its largest model yet this year — the 575 High Horsepower Tractor (HHT). Rated at 575 engine hp with a 610-hp power bulge, it is one of the largest articulated 4-wd tractors in the industry.
Eric Allison, Versatile director of sales, says the 575 is a heavy pulling tractor designed for large-acreage farmers who need more power than the 435 and 535 HHT can offer. “We're almost following the lead of implement manufacturers,” Allison says. “With the 84-ft. air drills now used in Canada, the 535 won't cut it anymore, especially on the hills.”
Allison says the tractor also has enough power to pull the new, heavier disk rippers now used to cut stalks left by genetically modified crops like Bt corn.
It features the same heavy frame and 15-liter Cummins QSX engine as the other 4-wds in the HHT line, but it has a bigger cooling package to cut down on heat and make the engine run more efficiently. “It is a Flex Air cooling package, which means the fan tilts as needed to provide adequate airflow,” Allison says. “A button will reverse the fan to blow out the opposite direction.”
It also features a Grizzly powershift transmission, supplied by Caterpillar, which is the same transmission that is in the other HHT models. But it has been redone and beefed up to handle the added power.
Three new MFWDs
Although 4-wd tractors are the company's biggest sellers, the biggest growth segment in tractors is fixed-frame, MFWD row-crop tractors, which are known for their maneuverability. Allison says this market segment is bigger than the 4-wd segment and has more players.
“Currently Versatile is selling five 4-wds to every one row-crop tractor,” Allison says. “We need to reverse that.”
To get a larger market share, the company added three new MFWD models to the two models it introduced last year. The new 190 and 220 models fill out the lower end of this lineup, and the 305 tops it off at 305 engine hp.
The three new models will complete the changeover from the old Genesis line, which Versatile acquired from New Holland when it merged with Case IH. Allison says in the past 15 years, since that acquisition, Versatile lost share in the MFWD market because it did not devote enough research to keep the line current. The new Versatile models are the company's attempt to recoup that loss.
The new models, like the other Versatile models released last year, feature a new 6.7-liter Cummins engine to replace the Ford engines that are no longer made. The 190 and 220 feature a new ZF partial powershift transmission to allow for more gears (24 vs. 18). Model 305 features a 16-speed full powershift Univance transmission, which has a bump shift lever to allow for faster or slower speeds in a single movement.
More dealers, products
As part of its expansion plans, Versatile is looking for more dealers to sell its product line. “Currently 250 dealers sell the Versatile line,” says North America sales manager Steve Fulton. “We'd like to expand that, especially in the Midwest.”
The company signed up 15 new dealers in the past 12 months in the Midwest. The goal is to have one dealer per 60-mile radius.
Lyubimov says Versatile will introduce more new products in 2011. The company is looking to acquire a seeding company, preferably one out of the United States. It also plans to import combine brands made by parent company Rostselmash Ltd.
“It's not a secret that our Russian company owns 80% of the combine market in Russia,” Lyubimov says. Its brand names include Acros and Vector.
Rostselmash makes both conventional and rotary combines in a range of class sizes. Two years ago it released its largest model yet, a Class 8 rotary combine, under the brand name Torum. The combine is undergoing testing for North America.
Lyubimov says the combine and seeding equipment will subscribe to the same market niche as its tractors.
“Our strategy has been to make a simple, reliable product that it is easy to fix,” he says. “We will continue on the same path.”
Factory-equipped guidance and steering
INTEGRATED GUIDANCE and steering is now offered as a factory-installed option on all Versatile brands under the name VPAS (Versatile Precision Agriculture System) through a recent agreement with Raven Industries. Under the agreement, all Versatile tractors can now be factory-equipped with Raven's automated steering and guidance products, starting with its Cruizer field computer with integrated GPS and a hydraulic steering system called SmarTrax. Price: $9,500.
The new precision farming platform also will be a factory option on Versatile's new SX275 self-propelled sprayer. The machine comes equipped with a Raven 4400 sprayer controller for basic product application control and data logging. Buyers can upgrade to the Raven Envizio Pro, a 6.4-in. color touch-screen field computer, coupled with the Switch Pro device for GPS-guided section control, boom height control and steering control.
This OEM supplier agreement is the first Raven has entered, allowing Versatile to put its name on Raven products. Raven's General Manager Matt Burkhart sees the agreement as a good fit for both companies.
“It's no secret that Versatile wants to be a full-line ag equipment manufacturer, and we are a full-line precision ag provider,” he says. “So we are ready to supply them with the technology.”
NEW FOR 2010
SPRAYER Versatile SX275 self-propelled sprayer. Suggested list price: $239,000
MFWD TRACTORS Versatile 190. Suggested list price: $139,000 | Versatile 220. Suggested list price: $146,000 | Versatile 305. Not available until Fall 2010
4-WD TRACTOR Versatile 575. Suggested list price: $326,000