Built to last
By ANDREW MCGINN
Imagine it’s 1946. You’re a young soldier in occupied Japan with the U.S. Army’s signal corps.
You tell a buddy, “When I finally get home to Grand Junction, I’m going to start an implement business, and maybe one day we’ll sell an autonomous tractor that doesn’t need a driver.”
It would have been assumed you were reading too much pulp fantasy.
Even if you had said, “One day, tractors will come with heated leather seats,” it might have been assumed that a little too much residual radiation had blown in from Nagasaki.
Cecil Rueter has seen a lot in his 92 years.
The history of agriculture is one of perpetual innovation, and as an implement dealer for nearly 67 of those years, the Grand Junction native has had a front-row seat to unimaginable change.
Even the seat changed — for the longest time, it was just bare metal with a coil spring.
Autonomous tractors aren’t yet on the market, but at this rate, if Rueter still refuses to retire, it’s entirely possible he’ll see the day when his namesake chain of dealerships has them for sale.
“It’s unreal,” Rueter marveled recently, holding up his phone with a picture on it of Case IH’s autonomous concept tractor.
Case unveiled its cabless, driverless tractor to the world in 2016 at the Farm Progress Show near Boone. Rueter and his sons have been proud Case dealers for nearly 30 years.
“They say this tractor would be 25 percent cheaper,” he explained, noting there would no longer be a need for air conditioning and other amenities.
Rueter is among the last links to rural Iowa’s golden age — that era when farm families populated the countryside by the dozens and when Grand Junction was so full of thriving businesses that he had difficulty finding an available building on Main Street in 1951 to house his new Massey-Harris implement dealership.
At that time, there were 17 implement dealerships in Greene County.
Whatever your color preference — John Deere green, Allis-Chalmers orange, International Harvester red or Minneapolis-Moline “prairie gold” — a new tractor was just a quick drive into town away.
“Seventeen dealers,” Rueter said, “and they’re all doing OK.”
Rueter and business partner Bob Zenor, his brother-in-law, became the 18th.
He outlasted them all.
“I sold cheaper than the others,” he said, also putting in a good word for his service and parts departments.
“They always said don’t sell it if you can’t fix it,” he added.
Rueter is quick to downplay his role these days in the family business, which now reaches into Minnesota and Nebraska. “I don’t do anything anymore,” he confessed.
Youngest son Todd is now president and CEO of Rueter’s, most often dividing his time between the Carroll and Elkhart stores.
Rueter’s in 2015 opened a massive new store on the west side of Carroll, going from 10,000 square feet to 168,000 square feet.
The Elkhart store — a New Holland dealership — opened in 2010 in a prime spot just north of Ankeny along Interstate 35.
The company also has expanded to Sioux City in recent years.
But Cecil Rueter is perhaps to Rueter’s what Warren Buffett (a youngin’ at 87) is to Berkshire Hathaway.
“He’s still got the drive,” said oldest son Kim Rueter, a 1971 graduate of East Greene High School who’s now retired after working for years as his father’s sales manager.
That’s right — the son retired before the father.
“It’s awful hard to retire,” Cecil Rueter explained. “What do you do?
“If I couldn’t do this, I’d go crazy.”
Don Van Houweling, owner of Perry-based Van Wall Equipment, has been in competition with Rueter since the late 1970s, when he became the first multi-store John Deere dealer in Iowa.
Despite Rueter’s occasional ribbing of Deere products, their rivalry is steeped in respect.
The two will often see each other at Iowa State sporting events.
“It’s always been a smile and it’s always been a handshake,” Van Houweling said.
Van Wall, which is now up to two dozen locations in four states, entered the Carroll market in 2016 with its acquisition of Schenkelberg Implement.
“He was a pioneer when it came to how you could grow one of these businesses,” Van Houweling said of Rueter. “He’s an outstanding entrepreneur, let’s be clear about it. He did it the right way, running an honest business with a lot of integrity.”
Van Houweling isn’t so sure he’ll still be working at age 92, but Rueter clearly loves the business.
“When you love what you’re doing,” Van Houweling said, “it’s really not work.”
Not only is Rueter the longest-surviving implement dealer in the area, he’s also the last of Henry and Emma Rueter’s five kids.
The family moved to Iowa in 1933 from Nebraska and started farming near Grand Junction.
Rueter grew up farming with horses and picking corn by hand.
“It took a lot of people to farm 160 acres,” he said. “Now they do it after lunch.”
The Second World War was still raging when Rueter graduated from Grand Junction High School in 1945, and he soon found himself in the Army.
He ended up in the bombed-out Japanese city of Yokohama, by then under U.S. occupation.
“They all wanted to know how bad California was bombed,” Rueter recalled. “That’s what they’d been told.”
After his service, Rueter spent time in Chicago and L.A. before coming to the conclusion he wasn’t cut out for the big city.
Back home, he took a sales job at Howard Nelson’s Massey-Harris implement dealership in Jefferson.
In less than a year, he was looking to become the Massey-Harris dealer in Grand Junction.
“It looked pretty easy,” he said.
Throwing all caution to the wind, he and wife Dorothy also married that same year.
“Had my hands full,” he quipped.
Rueter eventually set up shop in a former livery just off Main Street in June 1951.
He still vividly recalls the day the Massey-Harris sales manager ventured up to Grand Junction from Des Moines to gauge whether Rueter had what it took to win an equipment contract with the company.
“He walked in that building and said, ‘I’ve seen worse,’ ” Rueter said.
“You didn’t need much back then,” he added. “Just a building and a lot.”
The building just barely accommodated tractors in need of service — in order to get them in, the mufflers had to be removed.
But the lot was right along Junction’s main drag, which hadn’t yet been bypassed by a new Highway 30.
The mere thought of relocating out by the new highway was almost a foreign concept before 1962.
“You didn’t even think about going to the country then,” Rueter said. “You wanted to be in town.”
Buying out Zenor in 1961, who took a job with Massey in Des Moines, Rueter and six employees made the move in September 1962, and it’s probably a good thing they did — have you seen the size of a tractor today?
“The equipment wasn’t near as big,” he said.
Back in the ’50s, he said, a big tractor might only have had 45 horsepower.
Try 620 horsepower.
Wheels are giving way to tank-like rubber tracks.
Of course, they also steer themselves nowadays, leaving behind perfectly straight field rows.
As a result, a tractor now costs a half-million dollars, Rueter said, a far cry from a list price under $2,000 when he started.
“A person today can farm 5,000 acres,” Rueter said. “Back then it took 25 farmers.”
Two-row planters became 16-row planters.
Most people in the ’50s farmed just 160 acres, and you could find at least two farmers every mile.
“We had so many customers back then,” he said.
For years, Rueter boasted one of the top Massey-Harris (soon to be Massey Ferguson) dealerships, not just in Iowa, but in all of North America.
The dealership continued under its original name of Rueter and Zenor until 1989, when the Rueters acquired the Case IH dealership in Carroll. A new name, Rueter’s Red Power, was born.
By then, rural America was undergoing a seismic change.
“From here to Jefferson,” Rueter said, referring to the present-day six-mile stretch of Highway 30, “there’s only two people. And one of them isn’t a farmer.”
Today, 500 acres would be considered a small farm.
“You can’t be small and survive,” Kim Rueter said.
The farm crisis of the 1980s was unforgiving, breaking the backs of farmers and communities alike.
Rueter’s survived the early ’80s thanks to a booming streak of business in the ’60s and ’70s.
“I’ve always been kind of a saver,” Rueter said.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to sell 50 new combines a year.
One year alone in the mid-1970s, Rueter sold 64 new combines.
Massey Ferguson dominated the combine business in the ’70s, Van Houweling recalled, and Rueter was the dealer to watch.
“He was selling combines and combine parts so fast, he was bringing them in by rail,” Van Houweling said. “He was the premier dealer when it came to combines.”
But during the farm crisis, Rueter remembers page after page in the Des Moines Register of listings for implement dealerships for sale.
He even started to question his own ability to weather the crisis.
“I tried to find a buyer or two,” he confessed.
Rueter found himself unwilling to repossess equipment, figuring there was no sense in snatching back a piece of equipment he couldn’t sell again anyway. And not only that, repossessing a tractor was a surefire way to lose a farmer’s business if the ag economy ever improved.
“We just went along with the customer,” Kim Rueter said.
Cec Rueter instead built a nine-hole public golf course, The Hill, in 1984 to primarily help business. He set a new house down in the middle of it, always hoping to someday own a home in the country on a hill.
“I wanted a green and just kept going,” he said.
Branching out into construction equipment has enabled the business to weather the current downturn in the ag economy, Rueter said.
If Rueter has learned anything these past 67 years, it’s that even if drone tractors do one day catch on, farmers will always be in for a ride.
It’s just the nature of the farm economy.
“You’ve got to ride it up,” he said, “and you’ve got to ride it down.”