A visit to John Deere in Chicago
I recently flew to America courtesy of John Deere to attend their annual feedback programme at their Headquarters in Moline near Chicago after being nominated to go by Ian Royston of Turner Groundscare Ltd
Day one. 5:45a.m. Saturday 13th September (11:45pm Chicago time)
Ian Royston, Turners Groundscare area sales manager, and a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, picked me up for the run to Heathrow. Ian has helped me to update all the turf machinery at Hurlingham over the past 5 years by offering extremely competitive prices.
Further than that though, he has provided a back up service second to none, making countless extra journeys to and from the club to help out in emergency situations, and more than once donning his overalls and carrying out repairs himself. After a late take off due to a dodgy seat (I half expected Ian to help fix it!) we settled down for the eight-hour flight to Chicago. I was sat next to two more feedback delegates, Ross and Nick.
Due to a previous bad experience of mixing too much booze with a long haul flight, I was sticking to orange juice and water. However Ross and Nick had no such qualms with their consumption of Grolsch competing favourably with the fuel consumption of the Boeing 777 we were on. However I do not want anyone to think they were anything less than great company and the journey passed very quickly.
After a flight transfer at Chicago where I narrowly avoided having my golf clubs sent to Cincinnati we touched down in Moline where the weather suggested that Hurricane Isabel had already arrived.
After a short bus transfer we arrived at the very impressive Quad City Radisson Plaza hotel where John Deere personnel welcomed us. After check-in, the evening was free, so after a quick scrub up and a nicely cooked steak we all retired to the bar. Most of us were pretty tired having been awake for the best part of 24 hrs. I was surprised to discover that they had run out of "Bud" at the bar until I realised that Ross and Nick had changed their allegiance from Grolsch, and the hotel had not stocked up!
I left them to it and had an early night thinking smugly that I would be up with the birds next morning whilst R&N would never make it.
Day two 06:30a.m. Sunday 14th September (Chicago time)
Breakfast in hotel and to my amazement R & N are not only up and about but looked fresh as two daisies.
The schedule for day two was to spend the day watching the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament at John Deere's own Golf course called the TPC at Deere Run. We had all been given complimentary tickets for the day.
Unfortunately the monsoon on Saturday meant that not a ball was struck so the organisers were hoping to complete the tournament by playing 36 holes on Sunday. It was however still raining hard and it was clear that plan B would not be possible. It stopped raining around 9:00a.m and news soon reached us from the course that play would commence at 11:00.
Ian and I caught one of the hourly shuttle buses to Deere Run and on arrival found our way to the first tee to watch the stars tee-off.
As an ardent golf watcher and player, it was a dream come true to be standing within putting distance of these world class players who I had only previously seen on television. The field was strong with players such as PGA winner Davis Love 111, twice Masters winner Bernhard Langer and Masters and PGA winner Vijay Singh along with a host of top American tour players.
After watching these fantastic players boom the ball 300 plus yards down the first fairway we made our way to the stand overlooking the 18th and watched the whole field come home (or pass through as those who teed off at the 10th were doing). The weather was perfect and I had a great laugh with three American OAP's that I was sat beside.
As I mentioned, because of the rain on Saturday it was not possible to finish the last round on Sunday. This was disappointing in itself, but the real choker was that the golfers in the feedback party were supposed to be playing the Deere Run course on Monday. This of course would not now be possible. To have the opportunity to play an American TPC course less than 24 hours after a major tournament would have been truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it was not to be.
Anyway, back to Sunday. We were bussed back to the hotel for another free evening. Being a boring old fart I went to bed relatively early but many of the party went for a night on the town, or in the nearby casino, which was moored just off the banks of the adjacent Mississippi river. (At that point it must be at least a mile wide)
Meanwhile they were still out of "Bud" in the hotel bar so Ross and Nick were now on a diet, making a serious attempt at exhausting Supplies of "Bud lite".
Day three 06:30a.m Monday 15th September (Chicago time)
Arrangements had been made for the golfers amongst us to play to play a local "pay and play" course called Byron Hills.
It was obviously very disappointing missing out on playing Deere Run, but the weather was beautiful the course was in superb condition and everything was free so we struggled on. This was the first eighteen holes I had played since a recent cartilage operation, but we were all provided with buggies so my knee was fine, and although I didn't play particularly well, the company was excellent and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
After the golf we all had to make great haste back to the hotel to get in to our fineries ready for a trip to John Deere's Head Quarters. The coach left at five and after a journey of about an hour we arrived at J.D.H.Q.
The grounds and the building were very impressive indeed. As one would expect from a company that supplies grass cutting equipment par excellence, there was not a blade of grass out of place in the hectares of grounds. The main building itself looked almost futuristic although I was told that it was nearly forty years old.
On arrival at the Head Quarters we were greeted and shook the hands of about twenty members of the John Deere management team.
Then it was off to the John Deere theatre, a state of the art building as large and as comfortable as your average Odeon cinema. Here we were introduced to several members of the John Deere team; shown a film all about John Deere's history, philosophy and future plans, and listened to two John Deere executives explain what the company was planning for the future. They also explained what we would be doing on the actual feedback day.
Following this we were escorted along a corridor that must have been half-a-mile long to a showroom area. In this area was a display of most of John Deere's agricultural and horticultural machinery including golf course triple ride-ons, tractors from past and present and, amazingly, an absolutely enormous brand new combined harvester with a price tag of $233,000 dollars!
Hidden in amongst all this machinery were several bar areas and it was no surprise to see Ross and Nick sampling the exotic cocktails on offer. We were then treated to a slap-up meal with a piece of beef that I am still digesting now.
Another coach journey back to the hotel and another early night for me. As for Ross and Nick. Well they carried on drinking Quad City dry. The locals had not seen anything like it and were very impressed.
Day four - Feedback day- Tuesday 16th September 4:30AM (UK time/Chicago time-never a sane time!)
It's feedback day so rise and shine for a VERY early breakfast. And amazingly Ross and Nick are there and looking remarkably well. On the coach at six for a forty-minute journey to Pinnacle Golf Club which will be the venue for the feedback programme.
On arrival the routine was explained.
There are five stations dotted around the course all with machines based around a particular turf management "theme".
These were: -
Irrigation and seed/turf.
Fairways and rough mowers.
We were all given questionnaires relating to the machines on display and on each station there was one particular machine on which we were asked to comment on in greater detail.
The first station I visited was the Fairways and Rough mowers. There were various ride-on cylinder and rotary mowers ranging from an enormous quad cylinder mower to a smaller up-front rotary mower with a unique steering system. This machine was called a Z-Trak mower and is steered by means of two levers left and right of the operator that met together in the middle almost like the oars of a boat. By manoeuvring the "oars" backwards and forwards you could steer the mower right or left, forward or backward. This mower had a zero turn capacity and was extremely quick and manoeuvrable. It frightened the life out of me when I tried it, but I am sure that it is just a matter of getting used to a new concept and the machine certainly went down well with the other delegates.
I also tried out a prototype ride-on mower with five unitswhich I was very taken by.
Being a sports club rather than a golf course, these kinds of machines are not really suitable for Hurlingham. However I could see "rough" areas within the club being cut far more quickly and neatly with this machine, and as each cutting deck has a rear roller, a striped effect could be produced which is always pleasing to the eye. I will be looking closely at it when it is in production.
Also on display was the CP48 core pulveriser, which I thought was very impressive. This machine picks up the cores left by hollow tining, shreds them and drops the topdressing like material back on to the turf.
The question was asked as to whether there was any point in hollow coring and then putting the cores back again. The answer is that it depends. If you are trying to carry out a soil exchange programme then of course the answer is no. However, if you want to relieve surface tension and "rework" the upper rootzone but are happy with the indigenous soil then this machine is perfect. I feel it can also be used to help remove thatch. If the shredded cores are left to dry, any surplus thatch and organic material can be removed with a leaf blower leaving a clean debris free soil.
This machine has it's own engine and can be towed behind a gator or similar utility vehicle, in an offset position thus avoiding smearing the cores that have just been extracted.
Station three was the Irrigation and single resource station.
Here we were shown some features of the latest irrigation control systems and sprinklers that John Deere are now marketing under their name. There is a limit to how much you can deduct from watching six sprinklers pop-up for three minutes each so I cannot really comment on the benefits or otherwise of the hardware and software on display.
The seed/turf element consisted of a presentation from an American seed company who described his organisations profile in the United States, its link up with John Deere and it's intentions to work with John Deere and eventually long term to break in to the European market with a single resource strategy.
John Deere's intention in North America and Canadais to provide a service to the turf management industry providing everything the turf manager may need to include machinery, irrigation, turf and seed all under the John Deere name.
This idea appeared to be in the planning stage but has interesting potential and is something to look out for in the near future.
Station four was a display of proposed new utility vehicles designed around the excellent and universally popular John Deere Gator.
The vehicles on display here were all still in some stage of development and I cannot reveal any specific details. I can say that there were some interesting new concepts for us to test run and the whole feedback party had a whale of a time putting the vehicles through their paces.
The final station was devoted to fine turf cylinder mowers both ride-on and pedestrian. I am very familiar with the 220B pedestrian cylinder mower as we have four of them at Hurlingham as well as two 220A's. The new feature that was demonstrated was the "pull back clutch" will enable the operator to pull the machine backwards at the end of a run with the blades still engaged. This idea is particularly useful for those of us cutting in restricted areas such as bowling greens or tennis courts. I shall certainly be considering its merits when the machine becomes available in this country.
Also on test was a proposed 2500 ride-on triple greens mower with electrically powered cylinders. The prospect of being able to cut ones fine turf areas without fear of hydraulic leaks is one that I'm sure we would all want. The development is still in its early stages and John Deere received a lot of useful feedback from the delegates on possible modifications. The idea however was unanimously welcomed.
The machinery was tested by all the feedback party, which included delegates from Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy as well as the U.K. and Ireland.
John Deere's commitment to customer involvement in development was clear from the interest that was shown by the technicians at each station. We were all very honest in our appraisals of the equipment we tested, (some too honest by the reaction of a couple of the J.D. chaps who got a little defensive) and the general reaction to the morning was very favourable. I certainly felt that our comments were being taken on board and it will be interesting to see whether some of our ideas actually feature on the production models of the prototypes.
Following a delicious lunch at The Clubhouse at Pinnacle it was off to the John Deere Parts Distribution Centre for a tour of what is an amazing building in Milan, Illinois, which covers 44 acres and stocks 300,000 lines.
During wet weather, the roof collects 1000,000 gallons of rainwater for every inch that falls. All this water is collected in an adjacent lake and some is even stored in pipes within the building to supply the in-house fire-fighting unit that is on constant standby.
The majority of the parts distribution within the building is achieved by personnel on Taylor Dunn electric vehicles, made by the company of the same name, that pass up and down a designated lane. There are over 160 of these vehicles used just at this parts distribution centre. It is incredibly busy, rather like an indoor M6 only without the jams! The other method of parts distribution was by means of, would you believe, robots! These robots are forklift truck (only without the forks) in appearance and tow about six containers behind them that carry the parts to all areas of the building. The location is programmed in to the vehicle which then travels along, guided by small magnets embedded in the corridor floor. They are entirely unmanned and each one is named after one of the seven dwarfs! They all have censors on the front that brings them to a complete stop if anything gets in their way.
It took us half-an-hour at brisk walking pace to get from one end of the factory to the other. We were then given a presentation by the factory manager on the organisation required to run such a huge operation.
All in all a fascinating trip that shed some light on how John Deere achieve their ninety-six percent parts delivery success rate in the United States.
The end of the factory visit was also the end of the whole feedback programme. Whilst the European contingent went back to the hotels, the UK delegates jumped back on the coach for the first leg of the trip back to Blighty. At Moline airport I was mistakenly booked on the wrong flight under the name Brian Craig, a mistake which I fortunately spotted in the nick of time. As we had a four-hour wait for our flight we decided to retire to the bar. Guess who we bumped in to when we found it. Yes you guessed, it was Ross and Nick and their constant companion Bud Weiser!
We thought rude not to join them and before we knew it we were back on the 777 for our overnight flight from Chicago to Heathrow.
By the time we landed at ten thirty Wednesday morning we had all been awake for twenty-four hours and looked like something the cat had dragged in. There was a mix up with the baggage at Heathrow which went on the wrong carousel, and I left my flight bag hanging off the back of a trolley outside terminal four. The bag was eventually found in terminal three minus thirty-five quid cash and a bottle of rather expensive perfume that I had bought for my wife. (An excuse I'll maybe try in future eh Peter-Ed) Strangely though, the thief had left my dirty underwear alone.
I was determined to stay awake until the evening so went in to the office and then spent the rest of the day talking gibberish and making a nuisance of myself around the Hurlingham Club. "Just like any working day then" was one of the comments from one of my loyal team members.
I finally hit the sack at nine o'clock that night after thirty plus hours awake and not surprisingly had rather a good night's sleep.
I was absolutely delighted when Ian told me I had been selected to go on the trip. I anticipated an exciting, busy, educational and fun four days where I hoped to meet lots of new faces and see and try out some exciting new equipment. I was not disappointed. I had a marvellous time and would do it all again tomorrow given the opportunity. The only regrets were not being able to see Chicago, which is a city I have always wanted to visit, and of course not being able to play The Deere Run Golf Course.
In conclusion I would like to take this opportunity to thank Turner Groundscare and in particular Ian Royston for making the trip possible in the first place, and of course John Deere for financing and organising what truly was a trip of a lifetime.
And the final word goes to Ross and Nick who when asked where they were going when the plane landed at Heathrow replied, inevitably, the pub!