International Harvester Snuck a Spy into a John Deere Convention
During the research for Red 4WD Tractors, author Lee Klancher discovered one of the funniest stories of corporate espionage to ever rock the tractor world, and since it couldn't fit into the book we're sharing it here.
In the early 80s, John Deere was working hard on its answer to International Harvester's 2+2 tractor, which was the leading tractor in its niche. Deere's engineers had been laboring hard to match or exceed International Harvester on turning-radius, fuel-efficiency, and anything else they could do to stay on top of their competition. What they didn't count on was one of International Harvester's keenest executives, Bud Youle, getting it into his head that he could take advantage of his Marine Corps training and sneak into the John Deere convention to find out what exactly they'd built. It's a narrative that will be familiar to anyone who knows about the secret side of International Harvester.
LEE: Bud, there's one more story I do want to get today . . . What about when you snuck into the John Deere convention?
BUD: Let's see. Let's go back then, because, got to remember my time tables. That was about [the 1980s], when Deere introduced the  series tractor, because at that time, Lee, they also introduced the MFD, the four-wheel drive tractors, their version of it, because they didn't have a means to make the 2+2. I knew that they were working on it. I knew it in my hip pocket. The long and short of the conversation, I'm trying to think who was the big wheels in the Harvester company at the time, I said, "I need to go to New Orleans," because that's where they were going to have their meeting. I told them why. I said, "If we got to lay out a program to get ready for these people," because A . . . that was the only pertinent MFD tractor we had being steered. I didn't know what their horsepowers were going to be. I didn't know where they were going with that 466 [the engine in the new tractor]. They said, "Okay, you go. Take off. You go down to New Orleans."
Aerial shot of the Mecerdes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, where Bud's covert investigation led him.
I went over to the Superdome . . . I had an old shirt on, [plain] pair of pants. I didn't have any Harvester identification. I started walking around [outside] the Superdome. Here's all these  series Deere tractors. They were waxing them. They were painting the tires. Of course, in seeing them, I did see that the front tires leaned over. They leaned the tire over, because they couldn't get the shortest turning radius that they wanted to get. That's how they made it get closer to what the 2+2 was, because I'm convinced until somebody tells me differently that the Deere company was scrambling like hell to make a 2+2 tractor, because they knew the merits of that tractor.
I walked around the whole tractor. I looked at it. Eventually, I walked up . . . I said, "Is that the 466?" "Oh yeah, that's the 466." I'd see the number on it. I'd say, "What are you running that baby at? 180? Powered with the old 4840?" "Oh yeah, about the same way. Set it up about the same way as a 4845." "Listen, have a good day." I keep walking on around. Now, I didn't get inside, because they had a guard standing there at the gate. I didn't want to create any turmoil about going inside and seeing their arena show.
I went back to the hotel, and I got to thinking and figuring out, and I said, "You know, I could put a Deere hat on, and a [Deere] shirt," [but then] I said, "No, I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that," because if I did that, that'd create an international incident. I'm not going to do that.
I said, "I'll bet you money, marbles, and chalk I can find how to get in there." I had been in [the Superdome] before. I knew way the hell up on the top of it they took tours. Now that I got to thinking, I went through it one time. I knew there was a bar up there. I thought if I could get up to that bar, and I could sit and listen, that's all I needed to do. I didn't need to see the [show]. I wanted to listen.
I got up there. I don't remember exactly how I got in the front door, but I got in. I went to the elevator. I went straight up to the top, to the towers, whatever they call it. I got out [at] the tower. I walked over, [and] I sat down up there in the dark. Where I was sitting was I was looking right down on the arena presentation. I thought boy, I would really be mad if somebody in the Deere company, if I hadn't personally invited them to my show, [came in] and here they're hanging out. I kept hearing terms like, "They've got this Snoopy tractor that can do this. They can bring it into 30 inch rows and put it on 18 442 tires. BF Goodrich has got radials doing this and Goodyears." Really, I sit there.
I said [to myself], "Did I write this damn script for them?"
Bud Youle was International Harvester's very own personal James Bond. This photo is NOT Bud Youle . . . (we know!).
I'm sitting there, [and] the marine corp taught me one thing that I failed to do. You never stay in one place too long. You move. I thought if I move up to that bar, there's a light up there, somebody might be looking around. I better stay in the dark here.
I got myself a Budweiser beer, and walked over, and got in a different place, but I could still hear them . . . Pretty soon, I heard the elevator come up. I remember that. Two guys got off the elevator. I don't have their cards anymore, but this fellow, he came down there . . . He said "My name is 'John Doe', Vice President Security, John Deere Company, East Moline, Illinois." This other guy said, "My name is so-and-so. I work for him." This guard or policeman . . . he must have been 6'6". He must have weighed 285 pounds, because he looked like he had played for either Alabama, Auburn, or the New Orleans Saints, one of the three. Here I was the littlest guy in the bunch.
The minute they walked in, I handed them a card. I said, "My name is Bud Youle, Harvester company. I was down here, and I saw what was going on." The long and the short of it was this guy said, "You're on your way to jail."
I said, "No, I'm not going to jail. No, we're not going to do it that way." He said, "We've been two days trying to find you."
He said, "We knew you were [here] somewhere, because we knew there was a guy that walked around [yesterday] and asked a bunch of questions. Therefore, we knew you were smart enough to get in this building somewhere." [Meanwhile] I could see across the whole Superdome flashlights going up and down the rows [looking for me.]
[That's when] I walked out. Walked down to the door. I had a piece of paper in my hand, I said, "Here, you might as well have this piece of paper, because all I did was confirm the transmissions and the turning radius of the tractor."
International Harvester was the world's top-selling tractor company until it was unseated by John Deere in the early 60s. But the two companies remained locked in fierce competition, always trying to outdo one another.
In the interim time, we had brought [together] all of the regional people . . . it was for a national sales meeting. The people knew that I was coming up to brief them on the Deere 55 series tractor . . . the new Chairman of the Board and the President of the Harvester company was a gentleman by the name of Louis Menk.
Mr. Menk was from the Northern Pacific [Railway] and was now Chairman of the Board. The number two guy at the Harvester company at that time was . . . He was with Ford Motor company. He was the shortest fellow. . . I get to the meeting in East Moline. Of course, naturally, by this time the word started to reach the Harvester company that I was caught, I was kicked out of the Astrodome.
I left [the Superdome], I got over by the police car. Of course, the guy there, I remember he got a little huffy with me. I said, "Sir, listen . . . because I'm going to tell you something. You remember when we started shipping 2+2s in those boxes? Right above the tractor plant at Rock Island up on top of that hill was a girls' Catholic school. When the first tractor rolled by that building, there must have been 49 cameras taking pictures of that box.
I said, "Do you remember that?" The guy stood there. I [had] caught him. I said, "This is an espionage business. I caught you, you caught me."
The point of it was I was able to sit with the company people and express to them how the tractor was going to turn, how the wheels were going to turn, how the wheel base had been increased. That Deere had done everything they could to make a shorter turning radius tractor. They couldn't do it. They could not get it done, but the tire would lay over. Of course, Deere did one thing that was very good. See, on the MFD you got to have a lead and a line. . . In fact, the 50 series, I think it was 1.5% lead, which meant the front tires turned 1 1/2 times faster than the rear wheels. Deere could not get there without a major retooling of the power train. They had a minus 1 or something like that. I remember that. I always remember, be sure to tell the Deere people that they're going to have trouble wearing out tires, because the tires and the wheels are going to wear off. The guys had a lot of fun with this.
Bud Youle (center) was a featured speaker at Red Power Roundup in Des Moines, Iowa, June 2017.
Naturally, I had to go back to Chicago. When I went back to Chicago, I had a phone call from Mr. Menk. Mr. Menk asked me to come downtown to the office, so I did. I went down there. He, just like you, asked me to explain the story. I knew Mr. Menk. There was another fellow there that was also . . . My mind is blank, but he came to the Harvester company from John Deere. He was President or Executive Vice President of the Deere company. He was in the meeting also . . .
I told Mr. Menk. I said, "Mr. Menk, we needed this information." I said, "I got our people all geared up and ready to go. We're ready to meet them head on. We don't have to take a back seat, Mr. Menk." I said, "The 5288, the 54 will take care of itself. We can turn shorter." I said, "We've got the 72, 74 coming on the 2+2s. We're going to make fools out of them." They understood what I was saying, but I said, "Mr. Menk, could I ask you a question?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Didn't you used to be the President or the Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Burlington Northern Railroad?"
He said, "Yes, sir. I was."
I said, "Mr. Menk, when I was a small boy in Hannibal, Missouri, I used to fish right across your rail yards. I would stop in your rail yards. At 5:30 every night, I would hear the old highball 68."
He said, "That train went to East St. Louis and to Memphis."
I said, "Yes, sir. I watched her go down the tracks." I had a common ground with him to sit and talk.
What they did, they wanted to meet somewhere . . . I said, "Mr. Menk, if we have to settle for some reason, that's fine. Tell them we sent them a bill for some front axles that didn't work very well." The guy from Deere, I remember, he laughed. When Deere called, I remember the conversation. Mr. Menk said, "This thing is over with. That's it. You caught us. We caught you. That's the end of it."
That, Lee, basically was what transpired. I saw a lot of letter writing, a lot of threats, a lot of giggles and laughs by a lot of people in the Harvester company, because they thought I was on my way to jail. I wasn't going to jail.
LEE: In this meeting with Mr. Menk and somebody from John Deere, essentially the three of you were able to talk through it and say, "All right, this is behind us."
BUD: Yeah, Mr. Menk did. Matter of fact, I left, because he said, "I'll handle this." I said, "Mr. Menk, fine. I'll go downstairs. If you need me, call me back upstairs," because he did all of it. Next thing I know, he came down to the 18th floor, because we were still on the 18th floor as I recall. He walked in there. He said, "Bud, this whole thing is handled. Forget it. Let's go on about our business. Let's put them out of business." I said, "Fine, Mr. Menk. That's fine." Go ahead.
LEE: How did you get them to not, I assume they didn't arrest you when they escorted you out?
BUD: No. No, they didn't arrest me. This policeman was the biggest policeman I had ever seen in my entire life. Here I am, 5'9 and a half, 175 pounds wringing wet. He could have picked me up and down the elevator we'd go. I asked him, "Have you ever been to Missouri?" I got to kidding him, because I was positive they told him he's not going to take a police car to take me downtown and put me in jail and book me or anything like that. I said, "When I get downtown in the street here, you're going to put me in the backseat, you're not going to put handcuffs on me, are you?" "No. No, I'm not going to do that." The policeman was very nice. I kidded him all the way down about what he had to do. I said, "It's your job. You kicked me out of the building. I'll be out of here. I'll get my bags packed. I'll be out of town." That was it. That's what I remember. I know there was a lot of letter writing that went on, but everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else. That's basically what happened.
LEE: When you were in the bar up in the top was the bar opened or was it closed in the Superdome? Do you remember?
BUD: I remember the guy. There was a man up there. He walked in, and he said, "Can I help you?" I said, "Yeah, I was sitting here relaxing." I made up some story. I said, "I was wanting to get a beer." The guy brought me a bottle of beer. I said, "How much?" He said, "$3.00." I remember it was $3.00. I thought my god, for a Budweiser beer that's pretty high. I remember I gave the guy the money. I sat there. I had a gooseneck bottle of Bud. I thought nobody was ever going to say a word to me. When the show was over with, I would walk out the door and go in a different direction, because I really knew everything I wanted to know. I wanted to see what else they had.
They had a complete line of . . . They started with the four-wheel drive tractors then. That was one of Deere's big pushes. I don't remember the combine part of it. I don't remember that at all. I remember they all asked what I saw. I didn't see any combines down there, just tractors. That's about it. I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. I wanted to get out of town, because I was not interested in creating any more scuffle and problems, if you know what I'm trying to say.
To find out more of the secret history of these machines check out Red 4WD Tractors, the authoritative source for the storied history of the four-wheel-drive tractors built by Steiger, International Harvester, Case, and Case IH.