Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Years of working in the industry of building and rebuilding massive tractors is being rewarded for Havre businessman Ron Harmon Harmon is receiving the Montana Exporter of the Year Award from the Small Business Administration in Billings today. “The part that I, I guess, am most proud of is the quality employees we have here and the creativity of our staff,” Harmon, owner of Big Equipment Co., said Wednesday. “I was pleased to see recognition of (our exports) because I too see it as our largest growth potential.” The business has grown Harmon said he has gone from about five employees just a few years ago to 10 now, and he expects it to continue to grow. Harmon was nominated for the award by Joe LaPlante of the Small Business Development Center at Bear Paw Development Corp., an economic development agency that has a long history, with much success, with the business. Harmon’s company concentrates on rebuilding Big Bud tractors, all originally built just west of Havre at the juncture of U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 87, to be resold or used by their current owners in the United States and around the world. The most famous of all the Big Buds the Big Bud 747, the largest tractor in the world has overshadowed the other 449 tractors built in Havre, but it just typifies what the tractors mean, Harmon said. The tractors, including the 100,000-pound 747, were built to be working machines. “We mainly like that this tractor has gone out and earned it’s keep and is basically unchanged,” Harmon said about the tractor, which was built with a 900-horsepower engine and is now set at about 1,000 horsepower. The 30-year-old tractor still has its original eight-foot tall tires, he added. “They’re getting down but they still have some rubber left.” That is a testament to the intent of the design of Big Bud tractors, originally designed by Bud Nelson while he was working for Wilbur Hensler, owner of Northern Equipment. Big Buds, the first of which was built in 1969, are designed to be worked on and to be upgraded. Harmon said that Nelson, who ended up part owner of Northern Equipment before Harmon bought it in 1975, was an experienced mechanic and he designed the tractor so the engine, transmission and drive train could be pulled out on a track to be worked on. After Harmon bought the business, they upgraded that design starting with the 747 it is designed with bolt holes in place to mount any known component, ranging from engines to transmissions. Each component can be removed individually to be worked on or replaced. “We proved that design with this tractor,” Harmon said. The tractors built after the 747, which Harmon said is about 75 percent of the 550 made, are built to those specifications. That allows parts to be replaced or upgraded with ease, with no need to buy a new tractor. The parts used on the tractors, from their original manufacturing, are over-thecounter parts that are available around the world, Harmon added. The business went through some hard times in the 1980s, when a manufacturer was unable to deliver transmissions for the tractors, which were all pre-sold. The shells of tractors sat for months on the Big Bud property, putting the business in serious difficulties, Harmon said. He credits the governments of Havre and Hill County, and especially Bear Paw Development under the direction of Tony Preite, now director of the state Agriculture Department, for getting the business through those times. “If it wouldn’t have been for Bear Paw Development’s help and assistance I think we would have lost all of the Big Bud employees,” Harmon said. He started a Case-International Harvester dealership, and ended up selling parts of the business to the Meissner brothers, working for them as manager. After all of the debts associated with Big Bud had been resolved, he left the business which was later sold and operates as Torgerson’s and founded Big Equipment. “I used that name I didn’t see it then nor do I see it now as just Big Bud,” he said. But working on Big Buds is keeping the business busy on an international scale justifying the Exporter of the Year Award. Harmon said his tractors are used around the world in major farming, construction and mining operations. The Havre business now works on servicing or upgrading the tractors, both for their current owners or rebuying them to rebuild and sell them to new owners. That includes sales of the tractors in developing third-world countries, Harmon added. “We see that as an evolving market,” he said. He is now working with customers in Russia, helping them convert large state farms to private ownership he said his role so far has been in brokering deals for farm equipment, and he has not, as yet, persuaded the Russian customers to buy Big Buds. But, he said, that could still come. The business seems to keep growing, especially internationally, although Harmon added that he was exporting the tractors virtually from the beginning. He said he encourages customers to buy rebuilt existing Big Buds he has a standing order with all owners to buy the tractors back if they no longer need them rather than building new. “A rebuilt Big Bud has just as long a life as a new tractor and it costs substantially less,” he said. That is backed up by more than 30 years of experience, he added. All but a handful of the 550 Big Bud tractors are still in operation some were destroyed by fire, with one hit by a train, Harmon said. But, he said, he is not ruling out ever building new Big Buds the growing market could eventually outstrip the supply. “I’m not going to say we will never build another new, from scratch, Bug Bud tractor,” Harmon said.