60 Years as Your Dealership: The History of Birkey’s Farm Store
Sixty years ago, Birkey’s Farm Store began with a very simple seed—the mechanical ability of a couple of farm boys, and their desire to fix things. This is the humble beginning that set Birkey’s on its course, growing from one small shop in Fisher to 16 stores and more than 400 employees throughout Central Illinois and Indiana.
Ellis “Turk” Birkey was a mechanical genius who created a variety of mechanical and electric contraptions while still a youngster on the family farm. He aspired to be a service technician, and, following his example, three of his younger brothers aspired to be mechanics, too.
Turk and the second oldest brother, Marvin, left the farm while they were still teenagers and started Birkey’s Service in Fisher, where they built a solid reputation for repairing equipment. Before and after World War II, a third brother, Floyd, went to work for the local Allis Chalmers dealership, just down the road from his brothers’ shop.
From L to R: Ellis “Turk” Birkey, Marvin Birkey, Floyd Birkey, and Jack McJilton
In 1954, the International Harvester dealership in the area went out of business, and the three Birkey brothers joined with a partner, Jack McJilton, to open Birkey’s Farm Store in Fisher as the new IH dealer. A younger Birkey brother, Kelly, was hired as a mechanic, making him the very first Birkey’s store employee. He later went on to become an owner.
Just two years later, the Birkey brothers acquired the IH franchise in Thomasboro. “Because there was a lot of talent among the four of them, they had the ability to grow,” said Ron Birkey, Floyd’s son, who served as president & CEO of the company from 2000 to 2012. Three years later, the Birkey brothers consolidated their two locations into a new store they built in Rantoul. That was a key decision in the company’s history, Ron Birkey said, because it demonstrated the company owners were able to recognize opportunities, and how to grow their business. They realized that the heart of the customer base was in Rantoul, and they would be better able to serve customers and to grow from Rantoul. “The move to Rantoul redefined them … from small-town boys to visionaries who respond to opportunity.”
Broadening the Offering
When the brothers acquired a second IH franchise in Paxton in 1967, they brought in two new owners. One was Kelly Birkey, who they sent to run the store. At the same time, they brought in Gary Hedge as an owner to manage the Rantoul store. Hedge would later lead the company as president from 1979 through 1999.
The beauty of the ag/construction product combination: Agricultural and construction business cycles don’t follow the same pattern. Offering both kinds of equipment has helped smooth out economic dips for Birkey’s, helping provide the resources to meet customer needs in any sort of economy.
In 1969, Birkey’s was again receptive to opportunity’s knock as it became the first Steiger tractor dealer east of the Mississippi River. “We had decided we needed a big tractor, and IH didn’t have one,” Hedge recalled. The Steiger was a four-wheel-drive (4WD) tractor and was the basis for the 4WD tractor Case IH sells today. Adding the Steiger line allowed Birkey’s Farm Store to achieve greater penetration and fuel growth while providing customers an important product.
The company also had several auto dealerships over its history, but “we decided that was not our cup of tea,” Hedge noted.
Birkey’s added the Case Construction Equipment franchise in Urbana in 1988. “Even though it’s a different customer base, the business is very similar. It’s delivery of equipment, parts and service to customers, executed in essentially the same way we deliver and support ag equipment,” said Ron Birkey. Today four Birkey’s stores handle construction equipment. The beauty of the ag/construction product combination: Agricultural and construction business cycles don’t follow the same pattern. Offering both kinds of equipment has helped smooth out economic dips for Birkey’s, helping provide the resources to meet customer needs in any sort of economy.
Structuring for Growth
After adding the Paxton store in ’67, the company waited until 1978 before adding a third—an IH dealership in Hoopeston. The fourth store, an IH dealership in Williamsport, Indiana, was acquired in 1983, then a dealership in Urbana in 1987. The company was always cautious in adding new stores, generally looking for stores in contiguous areas with owners who wanted to retire or who needed some sort of help, said Hedge.
In 1991, Birkey’s merged with Oakland Farm Supply, turning the store in Oakland into a Birkey’s Farm Store. The store had been in the Campbell family since 1947, but “We needed accounting help, and Birkey’s had what we needed,” said Jim Campbell, who joined Birkey’s as an owner in the merger. He recalled that the “owners of other single-store dealerships in the area told us we were making a mistake, but the merger with Birkey’s was the best thing we ever did. It was a real plus having somebody—the other Birkey’s owners/managers—to bounce ideas off of.” In 1992, Birkey’s then merged with McGrath’s who had two stores in Gibson City and Hudson, IL. Bob Carley became an owner at that time, later retiring in 2001.
“The move to Rantoul redefined them … from small-town boys to visionaries who respond to opportunity.” – Ron Birkey, former President & CEO
However, when the company went from four stores to seven in the space of a few years, “It caused us to sit back and re-evaluate. All of a sudden we were a big business,” said Mike Hedge, president & CEO of Birkey’s since 2013. While Birkey’s owners have always run their stores like entrepreneurs, there was a need for some centralized structure. The company added an administration office to handle functions such as human relations, taxes, and accounting. “By taking care of administrative tasks, we enable our store personnel to stay close to, and focus on, what’s important … the customer,” Hedge explained.
The size of the operation also allowed Birkey’s to offer customers specialized services. “It allows us to offer a team of precision farming specialists, for instance, providing a service that single-outlet dealers cannot,” said Ron Birkey. “We can do it because we spread the costs over many locations, and because we have been able to acquire great talent in that area.”
In a similar vein, the company was able to vastly improve parts service by instituting a centralized Parts Distribution Center in 2000. Thanks to computers and a company-wide parts shuttle service, parts managers can move parts from the warehouse or one store to another in a matter of hours, replenishing the stock of commonly used items and providing easy access to less frequently used inventory.
Go West, Young Man … Go West!
In 2001, Case IH lost a multi-dealership complex in western Illinois. Case IH equipment owners were having to drive 100 miles to find a dealer when they needed parts or service, so Case IH suggested Birkey’s open a store in the western part of the state.
The request caused some serious soul-searching among Birkey’s owners, Ron Birkey recalled. Until then, Birkey’s has always acquired dealers in the contiguous territory, and now the company was being asked to go 100 miles beyond where it normally did business. Eventually, Birkey’s accepted Case IH’s offer, and opened a store in Galesburg in 2002. Ron Birkey, who was then president of the company, even moved to Galesburg with his wife. “We had to convey our commitment to the area. The customers and employees over there felt like they had been abandoned. Our being in the community was a visual reminder of our commitment.”
Once the Galesburg move proved successful, it was as if the company has crossed a psychological barrier, Birkey said. After that “we were able to consider continued growth. Because we had the platform, we were able to open more stores, and it became more natural for us. That’s how we got from seven to 13 locations.” After Galesburg, the company added stores in Macomb, Prophetstown, Polo, Annawan and Henry.
“By taking care of administrative tasks, we enable our store personnel to stay close to, and focus on, what’s important … the customer.” Mike Hedge, President & CEO
In recognition of Birkey’s successful growth and unique management style, Farm Equipment Magazine named Birkey’s its Dealership of the Year in 2007 out of nearly 7,000 dealers in North America. The magazine praised the owners for their “teamwork and ability to pull together” for the good of the organization, while utilizing sound business practices.
As it celebrates 60 years in business, Birkey’s is poised to continue business as usual—serving the needs of our customers by providing exceptional equipment and service. “Over the last 60 years, we have done a good job in managing changes in our environment, be it changes in equipment or in technology,” said Mike Hedge. “We have always been an organization that values relationships with customers above all. We will continue to be committed to satisfying needs in the context of building those relationships.”
Today, Birkey’s is managed by 6 shareholders. Current company owners include:
- 2016: Birkey’s expanded from 13 locations to 16 with the acquisition of Farm Pride in 2016. Read More
- 2016: Birkey’s timeline has been updated.
- 2015: Mark Foster retires from Birkey’s. His sons Brady and Dusty Foster acquire shares and become owners.