Dawson Tire and Wheel, based in Gothenburg, Nebraska, is well known for its irrigation tires and wheels. Its most famous product is quite recognizable: the bright green polyethylene RhinoGator pivot tire. The solid RhinoGator will never go flat or fill with water or mud, and it is also UV protected.
In this interview, Eric MacPherson, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Dawson Tire and Wheel, speaks with Irrigation Leader about his company and how he developed the RhinoGator tire.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and your company.
Eric MacPherson: I was born in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and grew up working for my aunt and uncle on their family farm. Gothenburg is a little town of about 3,500 people off Interstate 80, and we have always been farmers and cattlemen. I was married in 1996, had a little boy, and quickly found out that making 10 bucks an hour wasn’t a successful way to meet my family responsibilities. It can be helpful to have people in your life who kick you in the backside and move you along your journey in life. In my case, it was my uncle Dale, whom I was working for and who was also a close friend and mentor of mine.
I sat down with him one Saturday and asked him what was going to happen with his farm. He had three daughters who were not interested in it. He’d been through the 1980s, which meant he wasn’t an especially prosperous farmer, and he said to me, “Eric, your future’s not on the farm.” Nevertheless, we had often commented that Gothenburg needed a good tire shop because the service offered by existing shops in the town was poor. There was a co-op; another independent shop had closed 3 months prior. Apparently, that business had been shut down by federal officials in response to tax-withholding irregularities. We turned to discussing whether I should look into opening a tire shop.
On Monday morning, I was out feeding cattle, and Dale turned up around 11:00 saying that we needed to go home and get cleaned up for a meeting with the guy who had owned the tire shop before it closed down. At 1:00, we met with this gentleman, who offered to sell the building and all the inventory and equipment for $35,000. By the end of the month, I was in the tire business. I never actually went to college, I didn’t know business, and I didn’t even know what an accounts receivable ledger was. Thankfully, my wife did. With a lot of prayer, faith, and hard work, I jumped in.
We started our business in May 1998, and it soon became clear that agriculture was going to be the backbone of our business. I loved that because I’m passionate about all things agriculture. In November, I hired my first employee, and I bought our second service truck by Christmas. In addition to my employee and me, my dad, who was retired, would come in and watch the shop while we were on calls. We outgrew that little building after only 5 years and took another leap of faith and built a new building. It was 84 by 100 feet in size with two semi bays, four car bays, a nice office, and a showroom. We were in that building until 2012, when we outgrew it.
We had hired a lot of really good people, but they were outgrowing the business. I knew we had to get past the regional business level. One option was irrigation tire sales. The tires and wheels on the market at the time went for about $375, and I thought that I could do better. That was our first foray into big business in Nebraska and beyond, and we decided at that point to get out of the local retail and automotive tire business and focus solely on agricultural tire–related products and services. I hired a dedicated salesman, and in 2013 we moved into a larger building. It is 20,000 square feet on 10 acres.
Irrigation Leader: Tell us about your business today.
Eric MacPherson: Today, we have around 45 employees. In addition to our headquarters in Gothenburg, we have a location in Holly, Michigan, just north of Detroit, and an inventory facility in Rosetown, Saskatchewan. About 25 percent of our business is in irrigation tire and wheel sales and about 50 percent of our business is selling to implement dealers in the United States and Canada. That is the foundation of our business, and it is where we see the most growth in the long term. A big part of that segment of our business is simply helping implement dealers sell equipment. For example, suppose a dealer has an S-670 combine on their lot with single wheels and tires, and a customer comes in and says they want duals. We sell the implement dealer the dual-package tires, wheels, axle extension, drive shaft extension, ladder extension, spacer rings, and anything else they need. We come up with a trade deal, put the new parts on a pallet, and ship them out, and the dealer ships us back the parts they are replacing. We eventually sell those to other implement dealers or farmers from around North America. Today, I’m sitting on $4 million worth of traded tires and wheels.
Irrigation Leader: Tell us about your products.
Eric MacPherson: We have our own brand of irrigation bias tire, which is called Vortex. In 2014, we had a light-bulb moment. One of my guys suggested using radial tires in irrigation. The construction of a radial tire means that it leaves a shallower track. Whereas bias-ply tires leave a 6- to 12-inch-deep track, radial tires, due to their wider configuration, leave only a 1- to 2-inch-deep track. However, I said that they were too expensive: The typical radial tire of a size comparable to the 11.2-38, which is a common pivot size, is three times the price of a bias-ply tire. But the question made me stop and think.
I had a great relationship with Trelleborg, a company that was trying to break into the U.S. market. I called the company up and laid out the challenge of building three sizes of tires with radial technology in a particular price range. Trelleborg built us a tire that was priced approximately 30 percent above bias-ply tires, and they were accepted in the industry. That readily solved two of the three big issues tied to any pivot tire: They got stuck a whole lot less and their footprint was 60 percent bigger than that of a bias tire in the same size.
The radial-ply tire is our biggest seller today. We worked out a deal with Lindsay Irrigation in which they promote the Trelleborg brand with us as a partner. They buy thousands of radial tires on wheels. We sell other brands, too.
Irrigation Leader: What is the difference between bias-ply tires and radial tires?
Eric MacPherson: Bias-ply tires consist of multiple rubber plies overlapping one another in a way that makes the tire crown and sidewalls interdependent. With radials, the tire is constructed in a way that allows the sidewall and the tread to function independent of one another, leading to more flex and a wider track. Their much larger footprint on the ground leads to less downward pressure and a shallower track.
Our solution has really taken off in the Pacific Northwest, particularly with potato farms, because the combination of heavy irrigation on soil with high concentrations of volcanic ash insists on a light track response. Our solution works really well up there. It also sells well across the United States and Canada.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your RhinoGator tire and how it was developed.
Eric MacPherson: As we focused on irrigation tires and wheels, we found out pretty quickly that irrigation pivots have three main problems: Their tires go flat, they get stuck, and they leave ruts. Depending on location and farming practices, those three issues are of varying importance. Running flat is a big deal because it causes damage to equipment, fields, and crops and can also result in a pivot getting stuck, particularly in sand hills or if you’re going through a slough.
A few years ago, we described all the issues of existing polyethylene tires to a friend who was familiar with the plastics industry and rotomolding and to some rotomolders and designers. They ultimately came up with a design that we thought would work. You’ll laugh at my testing: I went to Fairbanks and bought an old manure spreader with the same bolt circle as a center-pivot gearbox. I put these newfangled plastic tires on it and loaded it up with about 4,000 pounds of gravel to replicate the weight of a center-pivot tower. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. That was a big disappointment, especially because one of those molds costs $25,000. We ended up going to a different designer.
The RhinoGator pivot tire is a rotomolded polyethylene tire that is designed in two C-shaped halves that bolt together onto a standard pivot rim. The wall of the tire is approximately half an inch thick and is designed to handle the load and torque of pivot irrigation applications without breaking. The nondirectional tread design is designed to minimize soil disturbance as much as possible while maintaining maximum traction and lateral slippage. We made the tires green so that everyone would recognize them. We also use a small percentage of corn plastic in the mix to support farmers.
Another of the problems with plastic tires is that they would slip on their rims in high-torque situations. One day, we asked why we couldn’t put something in between the two halves. We designed the no-slip plate to go between the two halves of the RhinoGator tire. That solved the problem of the tires slipping on the rim.
The tires are now manufactured in Littleton, Colorado. We have sold thousands of them. There are some soil types where they just do not work—heavy gumbo soils that need flotation tires, for example—and some situations in which they do not work, such as when you’re tilling the soil or putting down a lot of water. They work best in sandier soils with less water. If you’re putting a half inch of water down in western Kansas, it works beautifully.
Irrigation Leader: The plastic is UV protected, correct?
Eric MacPherson: Yes. We worked with the manufacturers to increase the UV protection of these products. We insisted on even our bias and radial tires being better than those of other manufacturers on that point, because UV is the central challenge for irrigation tires’ longevity. We have the highest UV protection package. We actually went to Australia to find out how plastic is made there, because we knew that UV in Australia was something like five times higher than it is in the United States.