Throughout 2008, the Bobcat Company is having a special celebration with a variety of activities and special events.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the development of the first compact loader, the machine that initiated the compact equipment revolution. In the years that followed, Bobcat has become one of the best known brands of construction equipment, primarily for its ubiquitous Bobcat skid steer loader.
Of course, today’s Bobcat equipment line-up includes not only skid steer loaders, but compact track loaders, compact excavators, tractors, utility vehicles, material handling equipment and a wide selection of attachments that extend the capabilities of basic equipment models.
The 50th anniversary commemorates the Melroe Manufacturing Company’s acquisition of rights to a small, self propelled loader invented by brothers Cyril and Louis Keller. That invention quietly launched the revolution of compact, highly maneuverable construction equipment.
Part of the anniversary celebration is publication of Bobcat: Fifty Years of Opportunity, a comprehensive history of the company, its inventions and innovations, product line and more. It is fully illustrated with photos of early equipment and the pioneers who developed the products and company, reproductions, early advertising and promotional material and reflections of current and former employees.
The following very brief summary of key events is based on information contained in the book.
The Keller brothers operated a blacksmith shop in Rothsay, MN, and designed and built a three wheel machine for a customer who was looking for a way to speed the task of cleaning the barns on his turkey farm. The Kellers’ solution was a machine that was lightweight, maneuverable and had enough power to handle the barn cleaning work. There was no other machine like it. Although the loader worked well for barn cleaning and the turkey farmer was pleased with its performance, the Kellers saw several changes that could make their invention even better. They went back to work and made several changes, adding a clutch drive transmission. In 1957, the Kellers patented the loader’s clutch design and built several machines which they sold to nearby customers.
The new machine clearly had great potential for other farm and construction applications, but the Kellers lacked the resources to produce and market large numbers of machines. As they considered what their next step should be, the Melroe Manufacturing Co., a farm equipment manufacturer in Gwinner, ND, entered the picture. After seeing the Keller loader, the Melroe brothers, who owned the company, were immediately interested and offered the Kellers space to show their loader in the Melroe exhibit at the 1958 Minnesota State Fair. The machine drew so much attention, the Melroes and the Kellers struck a deal, and the Kellers moved to Gwinner, setting the stage for production of the M 60 Melroe Self Propelled Loader later that year.
The small loader proved to be a viable product. Improvements came quickly and the second model – the M 200 – had a more robust lift arm assembly and updated two cylinder engine.
To be successful in the marketplace, it was determined that the new product needed improved traction and something other than a rear caster wheel for maneuvering. The design team added a rear axle and changed the machine’s weight distribution ratio. Extending the length six inches added stability but still enabled the machine to turn in its tracks. The result was a loader that, when empty, had 70 percent of its weight on the rear wheels, 30 percent on the front wheels. When loaded, the ratio reversed, providing excellent traction and maneuverability. In 1960, the new machine was introduced as the M 400, the world’s first compact skid steer loader.
Durability continued to be an issue that nearly scrapped the fledgling Melroe loader project. But in 1961, the brothers set about to develop an entirely new design with enclosed chain cases and better lubrication. The improved model was introduced in 1962 as the M 440 and became the skid steer loader blueprint that would be used for many years and remains a basic design element in today’s skid steer equipment.
The same year, the Bobcat brand name and logo were introduced. The Bobcat, an animal known for being tough, quick and agile, seemed to perfectly describe the Melroe skid steer loader.
Clearly, Melroe had a winner, but the story had just begun – product improvements and new models were to come at a steady pace.
History of success
Bobcat’s history is a classic American success story: two blacksmith brothers in a tiny town develop a product in their blacksmith shop that evolves into an industry icon. Of all the inventions over the years, few achieve that status and not many are still around after 50 years. Bobcat’s longevity is even more impressive when considering that after Melroe took over the product and developed it, ownership has changed three times.
Credit the dedication and perseverance of Bobcat employees, including those in the dealer organization who for 50 years have sustained an attitude of professionalism and dedication to putting the needs of their customers first and for maintaining Bobcat’s reputation for excellence. Many companies talk about their employees being a “family” but some of these families often seem badly dysfunctional. Not so with Bobcat. Indeed, there is a feel of family throughout the Bobcat organization, including its dealerships.
At the offices and manufacturing plants in West Fargo, ND, many families have numerous members on the job: fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and grandchildren. Many employees today are third and fourth generation Bobcat employees. Bobcat dealers are moving to second and third generation management.
Paul Anderson went to work for Bobcat right after he graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in mechanical engineering. After 36 years, he’s still at Bobcat as global loader product manager.
“I was hired because I had an engineering degree, but I’ve spent most of my career in marketing,” says Anderson. “Not long after I went to work, the company wanted technical people in marketing, and I fit the bill at the time.”
Over the years, Anderson has talked to an uncountable numbers of customers, traveling all over the country and ultimately the world.
“Having close, face to face relationships with customers has been a philosophy of Bobcat from the beginning,” says Anderson. “And we have been able to maintain that as we grew, not easy as an organization gets bigger. Our field people have always liked staying in touch with customers to know what they are doing, what’s important to them. Our relationship with dealers has always been good, too. They know what’s going on in the field day-to-day, and we’ve done a pretty good job listening to what they tell us.”
Continuous change, improvement (subhed)
Reflecting on changes, Anderson recalls introduction of the first hydrostatic Bobcat 700 series in 1973, the first mid size skid steer in the industry to have hydrostatic drive.
“When I went to work,” he says, “we had three groups of skid steer loaders with a variety of models. With introduction of the hydrostatic equipment, training users in the benefits of the new design was a top priority. The clutch drive operated differently than the newer hydrostatic models – just the opposite, in fact. It took several years to help operators understand the benefit. Our field people always have been demonstrators. We simply went out and explained it and showed how to use it and once they adapted to it, it was easy to see they could be much more productive.”
Changes today are more subtle, says Anderson. Operating current equipment is much different than older models with manual controls.
“Hydraulic over hydraulic and electric over hydraulic drive controls are what we see today,” he continues. “Bobcat uses electric-over-hydraulic. Manual controls are very finite, and going to joystick controls, the operator can lose ‘feel’ of the machine. For someone who has become proficient with manual controls, it’s a big change. Yet, younger operators who grew up playing computer games with joysticks are not at all intimidated.
“In 1990, we incorporated the first microprocessor which was a big service related change. Today everything is microprocessor based.”
Attachments were already an important element of the business when Anderson joined the company, and there was a good selection of varied attachment tools.
“In the early days, just about any idea for an attachment would be tried,” Anderson says. “Many of them could not be made to work and were never developed, or were redesigned several times and made available years later. Improvements in hydraulics also was a factor.”
The list of attachment options has never stopped growing. “There were landscape tools, then hydraulic breakers,” he says. “Breaking up paving is a very demanding application, and the breaker attachment took the breaker out of the hands of a worker and put it on a machine, improving productivity dramatically.”
There is increasing demand for land clearing equipment, Anderson continues. Bobcat’s forestry cutter attachment can convert trees and underbrush from overgrowth to a carpet of mulch on the land being cleared. Stump grinder attachments also are in demand.
Anderson believes a primary reason for Bobcat’s success is the relationships the company has developed with its customers.
“From the time I began making field trips until now,” he says, “Customers are very pleased to see someone from the factory who isn’t trying to sell them something. It’s fun and interesting to talk to these guys. They are the ones who are really knowledgeable about the industry. To support and raise their families, send their kids to school, and pay their employees, they depend on our products. That’s a pretty good reason to listen to what they have to say – you know what they are telling you is important to them.”
Today, there are Bobcat brand products in nine basic equipment categories with more than 50 models and some 80 different types of attachments with more than 400 available models.
Even so, the venerable Bobcat skid steer load is the machine most equipment people think of when they hear the Bobcat name.
And no wonder – nearly half of the skid steers ever made in the world carry the Bobcat brand.