In early March I spent a day in a Georgia field with a line of JCB equipment designed especially for the ag market, including the unique Fastrac tractor that is capable of breaking speed limits in the field.
Then that evening, I joined other ag journalists in Savannah for dinner with some of the U.K.-based brand’s executives. Naturally, the topic of JCB equipment, especially the Fastrac, came up.
Even JCB anticipated the question that I had in mind, with Richard Fox-Marrs, global managing director for JCB Agriculture, putting it into words before I could get it out. “Why would you want to build another conventional ag tractor when there are already a lot of other companies out there doing a pretty good job of it?”
In fact, JCB doesn’t seem to want to be at all like other ag equipment manufacturers in any of its engineering or marketing efforts. It has found a niche in the North American equipment market, and it intends to makes its mark selling specialty products into that niche.
It’s why we were there in Georgia at the brand’s North American field day, an event that was previously limited to reporters from construction industry publications.
The brand is still much better known in the light construction sector. In the United Kingdom, the name JCB is synonymous with backhoe, in the same way Canadians often can say Ski-Doo to refer to snowmobiles. But if executives have their way, JCB will also become the generic name applied to the go-to machines that North American farmers will choose for moving heavy material on farms, like large round bales.
It’s a market segment that JCB executives refer to as “ag materials handling,” and it is a segment they are pursuing full throttle.
“That’s where we come in, because JCB is the global leader in agricultural materials handling,” explained Fox-Marrs in a formal address to media members earlier that day. “If you consider the overall scale of modern farming operations that have become so much more productive in recent years, you begin to really understand the vital role of materials handling.”
The line of machines the brand offers fits nicely into that description. The company is taking technology more often seen in the light construction sector and tailoring it to the needs of farmers, in some cases with specific agricultural option packages.
According to Arjun Mirdha, president and CEO of JCB North America, focusing on that agricultural niche has been good strategy for the brand. Perhaps, too, it has demonstrated that on-farm materials handling has been until now a relatively unexploited area in the equipment marketplace, at least here in Canada and the U.S.
“Agricultural material handling, led by the telehandler, is pivotal to JCB’s future success here in North America,” Mirdha said during his presentation to journalists at the firm’s Savannah, Georgia, assembly plant. “It’s a market that is changing quite a lot. Allow me to give you some context. Five years ago, in 2009, JCB sales of agricultural telescopic handlers were primarily to the three largest markets for these products, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Now North America is emerging as another key market.
“Globally, the market for agricultural telescopic handlers grew by just two per cent last year, but here in North America, it grew by 17 per cent,” Mirdha continued. “However, relative to some other markets, North America is still quite small, as the tractor loader continues to dominate this market (in agriculture). But, in short, we’re witnessing a change in this market.”
Overall, JCB’s sales on this continent last year ran counter to the trendline that sandbagged the other major manufacturers. JCB’s sales jumped 23 per cent over its 2013 numbers. Even more remarkably, total sales have grown by over 193 per cent in the last four years, which means it has consistently outpaced the average growth rate in both the ag and in the light construction sectors where the brand does business.
“JCB Agriculture has doubled its business over the past five years, in terms of both volume and revenue,” said Fox-Marrs.
“This outstanding performance means North America is now JCB’s third-largest market for machine sales,” said Mirdha. “And the good part is we’re just getting started, particularly in agriculture. We now have 97 dealers operating out of 300 locations, with plans to expand to over 500 outlets by 2018. Nearly one-third of our current dealers are dedicated ag distributors.”
To support those dealers and customers, JCB has doubled the size of its North American parts warehousing operations, and last year, it expanded its Canadian facility.
“One of the reasons I think we’re making inroads in agriculture in North America so quickly is JCB is designed around the owner operator,” added Dan Schmidt, vice-president of ag sales, North America. “In Canada and the U.S., our owner-operators identify with creature comforts, safety and fuel efficiency as well as performance and productivity.”
Spearheading the brand’s stronger move into the ag market is its flagship product, the redesigned 4000 Series Fastrac tractor. Capable of 65 km/h with active four-wheel suspension and a rear deck that allows it to carry 4,400 kilograms, it’s definitely not the kind of me-too, standard ag tractor Fox-Marrs questions the wisdom of producing.
Although JCB has been selling the Fastrac in North America for some time, its popularity had been limited. But according to Schmidt, brand executives spent a lot of time asking farmers what they did and didn’t like about it ahead of the machine’s recent makeover. The result is the re-engineered 4000 Series version, intended to better fuse with farming practices on this continent.
“Here in North America and other regions with large-scale farms, such as Australia, the need for high-speed, high-performance tractors is also growing,” explained Fox-Marrs. “And this is where the JCB Fastrac has really come into its own.”
The Fastrac isn’t the only machine to get new engineering in order to meet farmer demand. The two-model line of Telemaster machines — the blending of a wheel loader and a telescopic handler — were built primarily to fit into the ag sector. The goal is to bite into the market which is currently almost the exclusive domain of the loader tractor.
“The tractor loader has been the traditional method of moving materials on North American farms,” Fox-Marrs added. “And that remains true today. In round numbers, in the 70- to 160-horsepower class, over 17,000 tractors fitted with front loaders are sold onto U.S. and Canadian farms every year. Sure, not all tractor loaders will be replaced by dedicated material handlers. However, the numbers indicate this is far more than just a niche opportunity.”
Executives are also hoping the different design of its skid-steer loader will find favour with farmers. Plus, JCB has ramped up production at its Georgia assembly plant to meet what Mirdha says is a substantially increased demand from both the ag and construction sectors.
“We’ve invested over US$60 million right here in Savannah to design a range of skid steers and compact track loaders for farmers,” Mirdha said. “We’ve also invested heavily in our Loadall (telehandler) production capacity by extending our telescopic handler assembly lines.”
“Over the past five years, JCB has strengthened and improved its entire product range,” added Fox-Marrs. “We’ve strengthened distribution in key markets, especially here in North America, which is really starting to pay dividends.”
Said Mirdha, “As you can see, agriculture is a market we are very serious about at JCB.”