GRAND FORKS, N.D. • TrueNorth Equipment, headquartered in Grand Forks but with a number of offices across North Dakota and Minnesota, had an exceptional year despite challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a snapshot into the larger agriculture industry, which remains in demand and keeps TrueNorth busy, according to CEO John Oncken, who co-owns the company with Dan Gorder.

“We've been fortunate that we haven't been hit as hard as other businesses with some of the challenges,” he said.

The past year has taught the co-owners to be creative in their business approach, and Oncken said they have “learned a lot of new ways to adapt.”

One notable effort this past year is that TrueNorth, a John Deere dealer that sells and repairs farm equipment, purchased property for a new 66,000 square-foot impact center.

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The new facility, located in the Grand Forks industrial park, will be used to assemble, receive and refurbish farm equipment. The center will help take the load off the company’s nine other locations in Minnesota and North Dakota, allowing those offices to focus on providing a more customer-focused approach.

“Basically what we've made a decision to do is take some of the stress away from our retail locations, allowing us to store corporate parts and overstock of inventory,” Oncken told Prairie Business in late December. “This is really a first in the industry in our arena of work, to have a facility like this.”

A new impact center in Grand Forks, N.D., will be used by TrueNorth Equipment to assemble, receive, and refurbish farm equipment. The center will help take some of the load off the company’s other locations in Minnesota and North Dakota.
A new impact center in Grand Forks, N.D., will be used by TrueNorth Equipment to assemble, receive, and refurbish farm equipment. The center will help take some of the load off the company’s other locations in Minnesota and North Dakota.Image: Courtesy of John Oncken

Among its features, the center, formerly owned by Wells Concrete, sits on 18 acres with large bridge cranes to load equipment quickly and safely.

TrueNorth has 211 employees among eight retail locations, a resource center, and now the impact center. Oncken said at some point he would like to have 25 employees at the impact center.

Not bad for a company that traces its roots to 1897 when it sold plows in Grafton, N.D. The company today sells John Deere equipment and machinery across the Red River Valley but also offers parts, services, training and producer education.

Joe Breidenbach, director of sales, said there is one thing that surprised his sales team this past year: The industry had projected a slowdown during the pandemic, but just the opposite happened – John Deere products saw record demand. It was a case of demand outpacing supply.

“That was a major shift we didn’t expect,” he said.

Breidenbach said many producers are interested in not only new equipment, but one- to five-year-old equipment. All of it is like-new. They also are interested in having technology on machinery.

“You see those forward-thinking, long-term goal producers wanting and needing, really, because of the slim margins of agriculture, technology to drive productivity and efficiency,” he said. “The solutions around that is not only more efficient hard iron – bigger and faster tractors and sprayers – but technology platforms on board those machines, that’s what’s driving some of these sales. … We are seeing overall demand and the techline is increasing at a rapid pace.”

Amidst the demand, Oncken said the company took advantage of the state’s Economic Resilience Grants to upgrade its facilities with touchless faucets and toilets and installing hand sanitizing stations at its locations to help keep employees and clients safe.

“Not everyone in business took that opportunity,” he said. “But it has played out well for us and we’ve been very fortunate that way.”

Oncken said the future looks bright and he and Gorder plan to open additional locations across the region.

“That is our goal. We're always looking for the right kind of opportunities,” he said. “One thing we have to think about is scalability and being able to operate in an ever-changing world. This path that we took – this leap of faith that with the impact center – leads to that as an overall improved cost structure around how we handle machines, how we recondition machines, and it just improves the overall result that, in the end, hopefully helps Joe’s team to sell quickly and deliver a real precise and quality product back to the market.

“We're really excited about that and we're excited about the distribution piece of how this fits in with, I will say, how we help revitalize regional locations that otherwise couldn't have the kind of facilities that we have in Grand Forks.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com