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By Susan Ririe Hamerlynck
(From NETWORK, the family newsletter,
volume 3, October 1997)

We hear a lot about the growth of small businesses in the U.S. and the importance of such enterprises to the growth of the economy. This is the story of one small business. AGPARTS Manufacturing is headquartered in Idaho Falls, Idaho in a building that has expanded three times to accommodate it growth. Primarily a manufacturer of parts for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), it produces rollers sprockets and standoffs for potato harvesters and sugar beet equipment. The company has been successful in part because it filled a niche: producing a replacement part for a machine that already had a wide market. But several things unique to AGPARTS have assured its success.

At the top of the list is Max Ririe, founder and president of AGPARTS. He grew up on the family farm near Ririe, Idaho. When Max and his older brother, David were eight and ten, they spent the summer herding 200 sheep on the highlands about twenty miles east of the home farm. Most of the time they were entirely on their own, a fact that would have their parents in court for child neglect by today's standards. They slept alone in a rustic cabin and did their own cooking except for infrequent times when the hired man and his wife were there. Each morning the two boys mounted their pony Banjo, and drove the sheep down a long, steep hill to water and pasture. There were frequent encounters with wildcats and rattle snakes, but they stuck it out all summer. When school started in the fall, each boy spent his summer earnings of $12.00 to buy a sheepskin coat, a leather aviator hat, mittens, boots and a five cent candy bar. Such early responsibility made Max independent and dependable, and years later provided a rich supply of bedtime stories for his children.

Following the sheep herding summer, Max became a regular hand on the farm. Small for his age, he was operating the tractor almost before he could see over the controls and the hood. While he was still very young, his dad came to rely on him to keep machines up and running. Herb Poore ran a blacksmith and repair shop in Ririe and Max worked with him overhauling the combine and other equipment. He came to know all the farm machines inside out.

His college career was interrupted by a two year stint in the army during WWII. Following graduation from the University of Idaho with an engineering degree in 1949, Max worked more than thirty years engineering farm machinery for manufacturers all across the country. He gained a wealth of experience designing and testing a broad range of farm machines, everything from automated chicken feeders, to grain combines. Perhaps most helpfully, he had nearly ten years experience working with potato equipment.

In the early 70s Max and his four brothers joint ventured an ill-fated farming project. It did provide valuable learning experience, particularly if you believe that the best lessons in life are from the school of hard knocks. By 1982, at the age of 59, he had shaken free from the farm and was ready to try again, but this time he was much more cautious. He had to be.. .he had next to nothing in start-up capital. Working out of a small rented space in American Falls, while holding a full time job, he bought tooling for the four inch roller, built a press and began producing rollers with his "crew", which consisted of Max, his wife, MarDean, and daughter Susan.

The beginnings of MarDean Company, now AGPARTS Manufacturing, were modest. Max and company would make a couple of hundred rollers in the evening after work. The next evening Max would drive down the road looking for a grower getting his harvester ready to go and would sell him a few rollers. By the end of the season, AGPARTS had assembled and sold about 4000 rollers. Today it is not uncommon for the company to produce that many in a single day.

AGPARTS has redefined roller design in potato equipment. Before the company started producing it was standard and almost universal practice to use rubber, plastic and cast iron chain carriers. As chief engineer at Lockwood, and later working at Thiokol, Max could see that the machines needed better rollers. He knew that rollers with ball bearings would outlast the other rollers on the market, and he was certain that ball bearing rollers could be manufactured competitively. Harvester manufacturers were unwilling or unable to go to the expense of tooling up to produce ball bearing rollers; this created a gap that Max could fill.

In the years since AGPARTS rollers have been in the field, some expected benefits such as greater longevity were realized but other improvements came as unexpected surprises. Quieter machine operation had not been anticipated. One grower reported that his piler, equipped with AGPARTS rollers not only operated more smoothly and quietly but it required substantially less power. An inadequate power supply has previously caused frequent breaker tripping and worse yet, motor failures. As a result of his re-equipping with AGPARTS rollers he no longer lost motors and his power bill decreased significantly.

Max has never been tied to his drawing board. He has spent many hours riding harvesters m every major potato growing area in the country, putting him on a first name basis with many growers and machinery dealers. His familiarity with unique regional field conditions is invaluable when it comes to developing new products, allowing him to design for. specific problems. He's never content unless he's seen first hand how his designs perform in the field nor does he stay aloof from what might be called grunt work. Safe to say he doesn't wear a suit and tie to work. During the busy season he can sometimes be found delivering rollers. It was once reported that an employee of a dealer asked if that "old guy" from AGPARTS had come by delivering rollers yet.

The core idea that underlies business at AGPARTS could be summed up in the words, "Give the farmer a break." Max is mindful of how hard it is for potato growers, since they get a fair price for spuds only about one year in seven. Determining roller price is a good example of this idea in action. Max approaches pricing from an engineering standpoint: design a product to do a specific job; make the design as straightforward as possible being careful not to over-design and run up the cost; reach a compromise between cost and building something that will last forever. Contrast that with the practice of designing from a sales approach: look for something ginirnicky or showy; build it as cheaply as possible; use high pressure sales techniques charging as much as you think the market will bear and then continually raising the price until price resistance signals the uppermost limit.

To Max and MarDean the best part about creating and running a successful small business is that it has introduced the entire family to a whole new world of ideas, making it possible for them to envision turning their own ideas into successful enterprises. As a result, while serving as general manager of AGPARTS, son Kirk developed another company, Idaho Technology, Inc. Housed in the same building, the new company produces an air thermacycler used primarily in bi-medical research but also used for clinical and scientific applications, including plant pathology.

For Max and MarDean Ririe, AGPARTS and Idaho Technology represent the first and second generation, and they look forward to the third generation coming along.

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