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Farmers all over the world have one thing in common: When they hear the name John Deere they know the name deserves respect and most of them experience a tingling of desire. And no wonder, because John Deere has left its mark all over the world in top quality agricultural farming and food production.
It all started in 1837 (a year before the Voortrekker/Zulu battle of Blood River, KZN) in Grand Detour, Illinois, USA. John Deere, a blacksmith, saw how farmers suffered every now and then to scrape off the black peat soil clinging to their rudimentary cast iron ploughs. His solution was a steel ploughshare and mouldboard which he made from an old broken circular saw blade and mounted on a wooden plough beam. He named the plough the Prairie Queen. In 1838 John Deere sold two of these ploughs, in 1839 10, in 1840 forty, in 1841 seventy, in 1842 one hundred, and by 1849 more than two thousand every year.
The name John Deere first appeared on the South African scene when a ship ran aground at Bathhurst in the Eastern Cape in 1878. The cargo that could be salvaged, was sold at a public auction, amongst others two John Deere Prairie Queen ploughs which had survived the treacherous seas and shipwreck.
George Knott of Botha’s Post, Victoria-East, bought the two ploughs and used them to plough the first John Deere furrows on South African soil.
In the first one hundred years of the company’s existence it only did business in America. The first calculated entry into the South African agricultural market was in the 1920s when a Johannesburg company, Dunell, Ebden and Co., began to import John Deere products.
John Deere’s popularity in South Africa resulted in the company taking over half of Dunell, Ebden and Co. in 1930. This move made John Deere one of the few American companies doing business in South Africa. In 1939 P Andrag and Sons of Cape Town was appointed franchise holder with the right to market John Deere products in South Africa.
Politics trips up exports
During the Second World War the USA government prohibited John Deere to export products to South Africa because of political reasons. After the war this prohibition was lifted and John Deere had a hard time to catch up with arrear orders from all over the world. It was only in 1950 that this backlog was wiped out.
The green footprint in Africa was strengthened when delegates from South African, Kenyan and Rhodesian John Deere distributors attended a sales conference in 1957 in Johannesburg. Initially the John Deere market share was small in the beginning of the sixties. In 1962 John Deere obtained a 75% interest in South Africa Cultivators (Pty) Ltd, which was established in Nigel in 1949.
The founder of the company, Nils Gregerson, was appointed CEO and the name was changed to John Deere-Bobaas (Pty) Ltd. Marketing of soil tilling equipment was launched and the assembly of small tractors started; market share was pushed up to 8% in 1967. A South African sales branch was also established in Nigel.
The green product range grows
In 1970 increasing demand led to the extension of the Nigel factory to include the manufacturing of disc ploughs, mouldboard ploughs, disc harrows, planters and hammer mills. South African farmers bought most of the production, but implements were also exported to Namibia. Zimbabwe, Mozambique and countries in the Mid-East. A big step forward was when John Deere replaced the successful 1240 and 1290 planters in 1976 with a fully locally manufactured planter – the 7000 series.
In the late 1970s the following John Deere products were available in South Africa:
• 30 series Mannheim tractors;
• 30 series Waterloo tractors;
• 950/970 harvester combines;
• 234 disc ploughs;
• 135 mould board ploughs;
• 1300 disc harrows;
• 1900 row crop hoes;
• 9B beams with spiral teeth;
• N120 disc harrow; and
• 45K subsoilers.
Wayne Chesney was managing director until 1979 and Leighton Lee production director from 1972 to 1988.
Even more new implements
During the 1980s John Deere developed various new soil tilling implements. The most popular of these were the:
• N440 heavy duty disc harrow series;
• N900 V subsoiler;
• N1610 –chisel plough series;
• 155 mould board plough series (front wheel runs on land); and
• 145 mould board plough series (front wheel runs in plough furrow).
New tractor plant
February 1982 was a red letter month when John Deere opened a new tractor assembly plant in Nigel. The tractors assembled in Nigel were fitted with South African ADE Perkins engines: The four cylinder 1641, 2141 en 2914, and the six cylinder 3141 en 3641.
A green planter sets the standard
In 1988 the 51 planter series replaced the 41 series, but the big milestone of the year was the local manufacture of the N7200 series of planters with their new vacuum seed measuring system, new robust planter units and row attachments, as well as big single disc fertiliser openers which improved plant performance and productivity dramatically.
This planter became the norm against which row crop planters were measured in South Africa. Under managing director Bill Hubbard, sales and marketing manager Bert Pepler, and factory manager Leighton Lee, John Deere experienced strong growth during the 1980s. Approximately 650 people worked in the factory and 65 in the branch. In the 1990’s John Deere extended their existing range with new soil tilling and planting equipment – a new plough series (100 and 200), N960 row crop hoe and 825 Nigel row crop hoe. In 1998 the 1750 planter series also replaced the N7200 and became the most successful planter on the South African market.
The “Greens” become top sellers
In 1995 South Africa did away with protective import tax, which resulted in the tractor manufacturing activities being discontinued. The popular 51 series was phased out to make way for Mannheim tractors. The four cylinder 6300 and 6400 models, and the six cylinder 6600 and 6900, became top sellers in South Africa. During this period the Waterloo based 7000, 8000 and 9000 series were launched to replace the old 40 and 50 Waterloo series and to continue the triumphant march of the Waterloo tractors in South Africa.
After 43 years of manufacturing John Deere closed its Nigel manufacturing plant in South Africa in June 2005. Simultaneously a new branch and training centre was established in Boksburg. By the end of 2006 John Deere’s market share in a highly competitive market soared to 30% under the leadership of the managing director, Mel McGlinchey, an Irishman.
Tractors for Africa
John Deere restructured its activities in South Africa in 2009 and now served the whole of the Sub-Sahara. Len Brand and his energetic team of 65 members accepted the responsibility of marketing John Deere in 48 Sub-Saharan countries.
John Deere is the South African tractor market leader since 2011, and since 2012 also market leader with harvester combine sales. John Deere also sells the most sprayers since the launch of its sprayers in 2004. A spares warehouse of 5 000 square metres was taken into use near the Oliver Tambo International Airport in December 2012 and in 2014 John Deere offices were opened in Nairobi, Kenya, and also Accra, Ghana. These offices markedly extended the John Deere marketing and field service delivery footprint.
John Deere expanded even further after Jason Brantley took over in 2015 as managing director. Where John Deere’s sales were previously mainly in the big machine market, the company now also started concentrating on smaller machines aimed at the African market . . . and it proved a huge success.
In 2018 Jacques Taylor took the reigns as managing director and was responsible to steer the company towards maintaining its lead even further as agricultural equipment supplier on the African continent. John Deere not only supplies the equipment needed by the farmer to grow his farming business – the company’s dedicated after sales service and dealership network sees to it that the farmer can farm non-stop with minimum problems and standing time. To attain this, the company ploughs a major share of its profits back into the training and motivation of capable personnel to keep the green team always on the go.