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Excellence by conviction — an interview with Hans-Heinrich Schmidt.

At the end of April 2016, Hans-Heinrich Schmidt retired after 10 years as Technical Director and over 42 years working at Weidemann. He is considered one of the “founding fathers” of the Hoftrac and has actively managed and supported the development of all our machines. During this period, the small agricultural machinery operation from Diemelsee-Flechtdorf has become a leading manufacturer of loader technology. It is a personal success story characterised by great inventiveness, active creative will and loyal company affiliation.

When you began working at the former Weidemann Maschinenfabrik in 1974, you had originally come from the automotive industry. What brought you to agricultural machinery?
I initially moved to the Waldecker Land region out of love for my wife – it was the autumn of 1973, the time of the oil crisis and Sunday driving bans. The automotive industry and the retail sector suffered the first major recession, so it made sense for me to reorient myself. I had been associated with agricultural machinery from an early age, having experienced the rapid development of agricultural technology in the 1960s first hand in my home town and on my parents’ part-time farm – hence my enthusiasm for agriculture and in particular, agricultural machinery. Weidemann was, as it turned out later, an absolute godsend for me.

What was it like working in the field of gearbox construction and repair at the beginning of your employment? What were your duties, how did you find those early years?
At this time, the idea for the first Hoftrac had already been born. The aim of this machine was to replace exhausting manual work in the stable, which took up a lot of time, thus minimising the physical effort required. A major challenge when building the Perfekt 130 (the first series-produced Hoftrac) was finding quiet diesel engines, as the machines were to be used around animals. Developing suitable drive axles was equally difficult. At that time, no suppliers carried parts for a completely new product like the Hoftrac in their product range, so we had to build them ourselves. For cost reasons, we obtained parts from automotive recycling companies. There were sufficient numbers available, so we bought axles and gearboxes that had originally been used in cars. These were disassembled and checked, the wear parts were replaced and the axles adapted to the width of the Hoftrac (1,000 mm) and finished. We called these “factory reconditioned” axles and gearboxes. Of course, I was able to draw on my expertise from the automotive industry here. Weidemann offered me a lot of freedom to experiment and to develop my own skills. I and many other employees enjoyed this a lot and it brought us a great deal of pleasure.

You are considered one of the creators of the Hoftrac – this small, manoeuvrable work machine that Weidemann turned into a big star and whose later evolutions remain one of Weidemann’s most important core products even today. What does this machine mean to you, and how has it evolved over time under your direction?

The Hoftrac was and is THE product that defines Weidemann, and that still holds true today for me and many of our employees. The joy of improving, developing and trying new things, in close collaboration with the end users – that was and is our motivation. Even though not everything immediately led to success, this approach ultimately ensured long-term success. Weidemann became successful thanks to the Hoftrac. It put Weidemann on the map and will continue to secure the company’s future. As I’m sure you can already tell, Weidemann is a piece of my life and I have the product and brand in my blood. To be succe
ssful, it is certainly important to have a good and successful idea. It is equally important, however, to pursue this idea with purpose, and to continuously improve and develop the product. Originally, the Hoftrac was intended for mobile manure removal. Only later did we realise the full potential of this product via the addition of other attachments. Today, the Hoftrac is a true all-rounder in the fields of agriculture and the equestrian industry, municipalities, garden centres, tree nurseries, as well as commercial and industrial enterprises. I think it’s simply amazing that our small, articulated machines have made working so much easier in all these areas. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we continuously developed and thus steadily improved the machines. The key milestones in this process certainly include the first hydrostatic drive and the tiltable operator’s compartment for better service accessibility. Many new standards and guidelines also had to be factored in over the years. Over the course of several construction phases, we were able to build a new plant on the outskirts of Flechtdorf, with further construction phases needed to meet the large and growing demand.

Initially, selling the Hoftrac required some persuasion among farmers. How did the machine become so popular?
In the early days, our machines were the subject of much ridicule. The most frequent description was “toy” and we were often asked “What am I supposed to do with that?” However, as soon as we got the chance to perform a demonstration on the farmer’s land, we had already won. The farmer’s eyes would widen and his back muscles would noticeably relax. After all, the Hoftrac protected the farmer’s health by serving as a load lifter for indoor work and thus preventing back injuries. At first, nearly all sales were the result of demonstrations, but then “word-of-mouth advertising” took effect and sales really took off.

From a small, almost artisan operation with only a few staff to an industrial company with several hundred employees – you witnessed the entire development. What was it like?
The growth was not planned back then, it simply happened. Of course, we didn’t want to lose any orders, so we had to ensure that production stayed on schedule and we could offer acceptable delivery times. After 1978, our bosses, Oswald and Reinhold Weidemann, had no trouble building new production facilities and hiring new employees, which made us more productive. However, there were problems in other areas. For any company, rapid growth poses a difficult challenge and it is not easy to master. Of course, many mistakes are made in such times – we operated for the most part under the slogan “learning by doing”. This only changed after the takeover by Wacker Neuson, when fundamental structures were established and our employees were systematically trained. In the past, you knew each employee personally; sadly, this is no longer possible, although fortunately that spirit of the early days lives on in many new employees.

How do you view your own personal journey over the years?

I’m very satisfied with my personal journey. Weidemann was a good fit for my personality, for my life – it was a real godsend for me. I was able to grow both professionally and personally along with the company. What more could you want? From gearbox fitter to director. Sure, I would do some things differently from today’s perspective. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to return to the past with your current know-how, although that would be nice. After a long career and with a lot of mature experience, one thinks differently about some things…

Which machine from the current product range do you like the most and why?

It’s usually the successful machines that delight you the most. My heart leans towards the small machines, because they are convenient and easy to operate. I also love the challenge of accommodating as much power and engineering into the smallest possible space. My favourite machines are the 1160 and the T4512. In recent years, we have invested a lot of energy and passion into the electrification of the 1160 to produce the first eHoftrac, and thus continue this machine’s story into the future. Developing the small and compact T4512 telehandler was also something special. In 2009, we brought it to market and initially encountered a lot of misunderstanding – back then, telehandlers were supposed to be large and powerful. We believed that most work tasks were carried out with a 1.2-tonne payload at a maximum height of 4.50 metres. The success of the T4512 proved us right and enabled Weidemann to firmly carve out a niche in the market.

Which machine from the past is your favourite and why?
The 915 model, because this was the first machine on which we were able to make the rear end slightly rounded. Added to this was the fact that, at the time, this little machine was the first on the market that managed to integrate a construction machine drive (axial piston pump with automotive control and an axial piston motor). This provided a much more comfortable ride and excellent pushing power. This gave us a significant head start over our competitors. The 900 series was an absolute hit on the market. They are legendary machines – some sellers and customers still wax lyrical about them today.

Over such a long time, there must have been some ups and downs. What would you personally describe as your greatest success?

When in 1997, we became a supplier to O&K, a large construction machine producer, and we were able to meet their requirements, which for us were very demanding at the time. We supplied O&K with our model 2004 wheel loaders, which O&K sold as their L4 model for several years.

Were there also difficult periods?
Yes, there were certainly difficult times, but the good times definitely outweigh them and the distance to the past reinforces that. No reason for complaint!

How do you assess the development of your core target group, agriculture, in recent decades?
As in many other areas, a lot has changed in agriculture. The bare facts can be seen from the statistics. There are two things in particular that I want to mention: fewer and fewer people are earning their livelihood in agriculture. There are considerably fewer businesses than 40 years ago, but the operations have become larger and highly specialised, e.g. pure dairies or fattening farms. After German reunification, the state-owned operations in the five East German federal states were privatised and brought their products onto the market. We adapted to this development via our big and powerful wheel and telescopic wheel loaders. International growth also brought new challenges for Weidemann: different countries, different priorities and working principles meant an expanded range of applications for our machines. Despite this, agriculture has become no less important. On the contrary, with a growing population, agriculture has to feed ever more people each year world-wide. In the future, agriculture will therefore be a very, very important market for Weidemann and the Wacker Neuson Group.

What connects you personally to Weidemann? Will you miss it?

The fact is that I have spent over 42 years of my life at Weidemann in Flechtdorf and a lot of time later at the new production plant in Korbach – a time for which I am very grateful and that means a great deal to me. I certainly won’t forget my many important and valuable discussions with colleagues, employees, customers and suppliers. In addition, there are the many different people I have met in my long professional life who are important to me.

What was the funniest experience in all these years for you?
There have been many funny experiences along the way. We laughed a lot and told jokes. I’m not sure if the all the funny stories should be recounted. Here’s an example: once we took a customer’s fairly new machine, which was in our factory for repair, to do a presentation. The presentation went very well. The farmer for whom we did the presentation was so impressed that he wanted to keep the machine on his farm right then and there. He went into his house and brought out the amount of the purchase price in cash. The salesperson was so perplexed that he left the machine there. That was a fast sale – however, we naturally had to explain the situation to the existing customer and quickly find him a replacement.

In 2005, Weidemann became a part of the Wacker Neuson Group (Munich) and you became Technical Director at Weidemann. What changed for the company and for you personally?
Weidemann gained improved access to markets world-wide. Weidemann also benefited from having the resources of a large corporation for development and procurement. In 2007, the new production plant in Korbach definitely enabled us to achieve a quantum leap in terms of product quality. With Wacker Neuson, Weidemann suddenly had a boss in Munich, and many other decision makers wanted to be actively involved – this was naturally a big change for us. The things that were simply done previously now had to be presented and argued for. Changes are always opportunities, particularly in the workplace. Without change, we reach a standstill. At the risk of repeating myself, the acquisition by Wacker Neuson was also a godsend for Weidemann and was well received by the staff over the following years. For many colleagues, it opened up new perspectives and development opportunities.

What are your personal goals for your retirement?
I want an active retirement with my family and grandchildren, with regular walks and 4 to 5 hours of work each day in the garden and on the farm. I also enjoy attending Christian conferences and helping out in my local parish. I can devote more time to this now.

What do you wish for Weidemann in the future?
That Weidemann keeps being successful and highly innovative, that it continues to compete in the global, fast moving world and remains an attractive employer in the future.

The Weidemann Magazine is grateful for this personal interview with Hans-Heinrich Schmidt and wishes him all the best for his retirement!