Roger Thieme: Innovator, visionary, philanthropist, mentor

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Bob Kirkpatrick/The Sun Tribune Roger Thieme, owner of Evergreen Implement, has decided to step away from the business. He expects the sale of his company to North Dakota-based RDO to be finalized by the end of February.

When news first broke last month that Evergreen Implement was being sold to the Fargo, N.D.-based RDO Equipment Company, Othello Mayor Shawn Logan said it best: “This is the end of an era,” as owner Roger Thieme is stepping away from the John Deere Dealership he firmly establish in the community some 60 years ago.

Under the direction of Thieme, Evergreen Implement had become the company’s model of success.

Roger Thieme grew up on a farm in Hebron, Neb., which is about 6 miles north of the Kansas border. He and his family moved to Kimberly, Idaho in 1944. He went on to attend the University of Idaho.

“I was good in math, but terrible in English, so I studied engineering,” Thieme said. “The dean of the engineering school ran a profile on me and said I’d really enjoy being an engineer, but I won’t want to be one. I thought that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. But he was spot-on.”

Thieme said engineers were in such demand at the time he had 35 companies interested in him.

“I flew all over the place. The first plane I had ever been on was a Constellation built by Lockheed. That baby was a nice plane and the stewardesses took really good care of you back then.”

The trip he took to Ohio was a memorable one.

“I flew into Akron, to the Goodyear Rubber plant. It was the first place I’d ever tasted pickled herring and sour cream sauce; I’ve loved it ever since.”

Every engineering lab Thieme visited was set up the same and that is what persuaded him to pursue another line of employment.

“All the engineers were bent over a desk looking at a drawing board; there were no CAD-CAMs back then. Every time I saw that, I thought ‘I’m not going to spend my life doing this.’”

Instead, he decided to accept an opportunity to partner with his dad farming, and did that for five years growing sugar beets and potatoes on 160 acres.

Thieme then moved to the Tri-Cities in 1965 and it was there he made his first contact with the John Deere Company.

“I got an interview with them and they put me in sales and sent me to Portland; they had cotton pickers at the time. I met a big gun there from the Kansas City branch — Silvace Dann — and we hit it off really well. He ended up giving me a job working his territory in the Columbia Basin that was just really starting to develop. The Royal Slope was an absolute dust bowl. So was Othello.”

As it turned out, John Deere had a company store in Othello.

“It was a little place run by a fellow named Fox. He sold a lot of equipment, but kind of forgot to collect for some of it so the Maugh family bought it, but they seemed to be more in the car racing business than the tractor business. On their way home from a race in Spokane Roan was involved in an accident and was paralyzed, so John Deere sent me to Othello to make sure none of the inventory left without getting paid for.”

It wasn’t long after that Thieme started getting acquainted with the people in town and was eventually assigned the Othello territory while the folks at John Deere looked for a new dealer.

“A group of people in Othello wanted to buy the location, but didn’t have the finances to do it, but had an ‘angel’ who agreed to finance the deal. But they were operating the business without a contract, which was a major requirement, so I got hold of Silvace, who told me to tell the new owners they had two weeks to sign a contract or they would be out of there.”

Thieme then sat down with the group’s money guy at Freddie’s Diner.

“I told the fellow he’d be responsible for all the indebtedness that the owners might incur under the contract and if they couldn’t pay for it John Deere would come and get it from him. When he got up to go to the bathroom, he never came back to the table.”

In the summer of ’65, Ralph Plant, who had been farming the Royal Slope, decided to purchase the dealership.

“I had gotten acquainted with Ralph. Six months after he bought the dealership he told me I needed to quit John Deere and partner up with him, so I did. In the spring of ’66 we built the first building built on the existing property and we changed the name of the business to Evergreen Implement. Named it after the Evergreen State. We had five employees at the time.”

A year and a half later, Plant decided to hang it up.

“Ralph sold me the place in the fall of ’68. I brought in a couple of partners, Garth Lybbert and Don Rizzuti, and we added on to the facility.”

The trio bought out Sewell Implement in Connell in 1970 and put in a service center, and expanded the Othello facility for a second time. In ’75, Evergreen Implement underwent a major expansion and remodel and morphed into what the facility looks like today. A heated wash bay and fabrication bay was added in ’78.

A new Evergreen Implement facility was built in Moses Lake in ’79, along with the purchase of the Coulee City dealership. That facility underwent a major remodel in 2005. The company then leased the Ritzville shop, and in 2013, erected a combine shop and outside storage building in Othello.

Thieme may have made his mark over the years selling agriculture equipment in the Basin, but he had several other irons in the fire that had a major impact on the region.

“I was the chair of the Development League from ’75 to ’76. We were pushing to fund the second Bacon Siphon and Tunnel for the Bureau of Reclamation Columbia Basin Project that would further serve the irrigation water needs. Neil Johnson and I were back in D.C. a lot. We met with Roy Ash who was the head of the Office of Management and Budget at the time who wanted to know what the year-end involvement was. We had no idea what he was asking us — had not heard that terminology before? What he meant was he didn’t want to know what we needed today — but what we were going to need over the next 50 years?”

After Thieme and Johnson explained him how badly the second siphon and tunnel was needed — that without them it would put an end to future land development — Ash expounded, “If it is so important to the state of Washington, there was going to have to be some cost sharing.”

“Neil and I started working with the Legislature and got Senators ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Warren Magnuson, and Tom Foley who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, involved, but we need a bigger audience. So we got Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture, to fly out here. After his plane landed at the airport in Olympia he opened the door and said, “Boys, let me tell you something. We can grow more in the corner of Iowa than you’ll ever grow out here. Then he went back inside the plane and departed. In his mind, if it really became a national issue to expand farm production, there were a lot cheaper places to do it than in the Columbia Basin.”

The words Butz uttered, however, didn’t deter their efforts to secure the funding.

“We continued to press on and starting working with Governor Dan Evans, got $10,000,000 allocated, and got it built. I got to preside.”

Thieme has also served on state advisory committees, was the chair of the National Private Industry Council that helped facilitate policies to assist non-public district start-up computer assistant competency-based alternative schools and learning centers in Othello and Moses Lake, and has also been active on school boards and a staunch supporter of Adams County Pet Rescue.

His decision to sell Evergreen Implement was motivated by John Deere.

“They have been on the route to having larger dealers with scale like RDO has — 70 retail and service sites in 11 states. I like to run my own ship, but haven’t found enough people to partner with. I had been thinking about getting out of the business for the last couple of years anyhow. I’m 82 and don’t want the organization to grow old. Like a peach: if you wait too long, it gets rotten and loses its value. But, if you have a peach when all the bees are flying around it wanting a bite of it, it’s time to sell it. We still have a good age spread here. Rich Mollotte is only 60. He’ll be the one to lead this team going forward.”

“I have been with Evergreen Implement for nearly 40 years,” Mollotte said. “It’s been a great career for me. Roger has been a great professor.”

Mollotte began his career near the ground level of the company in 1978, and went on to become Thieme’s right-hand man.

“I started out in the freight department checking in freight and putting away parts. I transferred up to the parts counter, then be­came the parts manager, the general manager and finally the CEO, all under the tutelage of Roger and his training.”

He and his wife had six children under the Evergreen Implement umbrella.

Mollotte isn’t the only employee that has had longevity with the company. There are more than a handful of people that have worked for Thieme for 30 years. One individual has been with Evergreen Implement for 44 years and is set to retire in September.

“Roger is beyond measure — has been a great influence in all of our (employees’) lives. He treated us like his kids so he expected a lot. But he was always willing to give a lot as well. He calls you to accountability and then forgives you for your mistakes — just like a parent would.”

Mollotte said Roger has always valued the customer-employee relationship at Evergreen and emphasized the trust aspect of it. “That’s what this business is all about. “If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have the dealership.”

He went on to say Thieme is recognized as a visionary in the ag supply industry.

“He saw trends coming well before anyone else and was not afraid of technology. Back in the ’80s when people worked with parts books, he bought all John Deere had, had them scanned and computerized, and made an electric parts catalog (EPC) 10 years before any other John Deere dealer had one — and did it all on his own nickel. He was way ahead of the technology curve.”

Mollotte said Thieme was also invested heavily financially and emotionally in Evergreen Implement, which he says makes it difficult for him to step away.

“This is a very hard thing for him. It’s been his entire life — it’s who he is. I’ve left here on a Saturday afternoon and he stays. I’ve seen his vehicle in the parking lot on Sunday when I head to church. He’s dedicated his whole life to building this business and he’s done a wonderful job of it.”

Mollotte added Thieme knows he can’t take all the credit for the success he’s had.

“Roger attracted good employees to work for him over the years. He recognized their value; let them think on their own and didn’t micromanage people.”

Thieme has not only been a savvy business owner; he’s been an invaluable asset to each community in which he’s conducted business.

“Roger has changed hundreds of people’s lives — done a lot behind the scenes. He’s given a lot of money to different local causes in the five communities we have stores in. He’s gifted money to food banks, to Adams County Pet Rescue and to Othello’s Sister City project.”

Thieme has also made a huge impact on the livelihood of individuals halfway round the world by donating a cargo container of brand-new ag equipment valued at more than $100,000 to tribal chief Dr. Kwesi Osei-Bonsu for the mechanization of farm land in the remote village of Assaasafofum, Ghana.

Mollotte credits Thieme for having a bigger impact on his adult life than his dad did, who died when he was 33.

“He’s influenced how I think of business and problem solving, how I treat people and interact with a different pod of people. He’s been a great example — not a perfect one, none of us are — but he’s treated our family of employees very carefully, very lovingly, and at times he’s had to reprove us, but has always done that with care. There have been times that I have thought he was going to tell me I was fired. But he just said, “Now that’s the last we’re going to talk about it.”’

Thieme may not have been born and raised here, but Othello is his home. There have only been a handful of people like Thieme in this community, Mollotte said. One was Pete Taggares, “who did a tremendous amount of good.”

“Roger was a student of Pete’s, really admired what he did. He (Thieme) knew the community needed another Pete Taggares and he’s tried to take those steps that would provide people opportunity and the funds to do things no one else would. He’s done a lot for the Adams County Fair, the rodeo, Taggares Park, and had the stage the built the city uses for events at Lions Park and has never asked for anything in return.”

What’s next for Mollotte and company? Mollotte said RDO has extended continuous employment to the staff at Evergreen Implement. Titles and job responsibilities may change, but he will retain the position of CEO. However, he says, he needs to perform well enough to keep it.

“I earned Roger’s trust, now I have to build trust with the new organization that I can do the job I was doing for Roger. I have no fear for our employees because RDO just acquired the best group of professional people in the ag industry. You can buy tractors and parts from John Deere, but you can’t buy people like we have anywhere.”

The transition to new ownership is expected to be near the end of February.

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