TFM marks a milestone
TFM is a staple of the Irish machinery sector. Founded in 1982 by Jimmy and Joe Butler, it was just a year old when it became a John Deere franchise. This year, 2023, marks the 40th anniversary of that development for the then fledgling machinery company, which has since grown to become the biggest John Deere dealership in the country, and the biggest independently owned operation of its kind. It employs around 140 people directly and covers 13 counties from six depots located in Templetuohy, Clonmel, Portlaoise, Enniscorthy, Kilkenny and Tuam.
Pat cut his teeth in the commercial machinery world when he started in TFM back in 1993, as a trainee mechanic on a year’s placement from college. He stayed on to serve his time for four years before taking off to Australia for a few months. When he returned, Jimmy Butler contacted him and asked if he would have any interest in a sales role. Although he says he was ‘reared with spanners’ growing up at home, and was, by then a qualified mechanic, Pat was interested in trying something different.
“That was in October 1997. I said I would give it a go for a week or two, and I am still giving it a go,” he quips. But 26 years is a long time and Pat’s loyalty is testament to the kind of company that TFM is.
“The great thing about working for Jimmy and Joe Butler is the empowerment,” Pat says. “From the time I started, I was let off [to do my own thing], and once I could do my job, I was left alone. They are not afraid to trust, and that is the basis of our company,” he says.
“We have a culture of empowerment and that is important, and it is something that we are always trying to develop. We have created a workplace where people can come in, and do their job. We praise each other, we learn from our mistakes – we still make more – but it is all about backing each other up, helping each other, and helping the customer.”
Secret to success
In addition to this positive workplace culture, there are other secrets to TFM’s four-decade success, Pat says. First up, TFM’s suppliers – all of them, he is keen to point out – but, especially, John Deere given the year that is in it. “The big thing – over the decades – with John Deere, is the way the company keeps investing in technology and innovation, keeping the product to the fore,” he says.
“We are at the point now where the conversation in our workplace is around how we can help the farmer produce more from their land. We have moved way beyond just asking what size tractor they want.”
That conversation has evolved to offering advanced technological solutions to farmers to help them to be profitable, efficient, climate-friendly, and viable: “If we can engage in a conversation about how we can help [farmers] grow more grass, or more grain, that is where we want to be,” says Joe.
The company has introduced an Agri-Care team whose role is to ensure that TFM’s customers are fully supported in understanding and utilising the technology that machines are equipped with today.
In 2022, TFM partnered up with commercial tillage farmer, Eugene Ryan, based in Co. Laois, on a data-gathering and management mission. The partnership, Pat explains, facilitates testing John Deere machinery and its technology, out in the field, gathering data, analysing it, and feeding it back to Eugene.
“At the reference farm, we have all the technology set up with Eugene – taking GPS soil samples, measuring the land blocks, etc. – and we are providing Eugene with data to help him make decisions about whether he needs more, or less, fertiliser spread on the land, for example,” he explains.
In light of the current demands on agriculture due to the sector’s climate and environmental targets, companies like TFM have a growing responsibility to work with farmers to achieve these objectives. Pat agrees, and points out that TFM has been playing its part in this area for a long time.
“We started this back in 2002, he says. “We have well over 1,000 connected machines [out there] with the kind of technology on them, that if a farmer so wished, they could get their fertiliser spreader to open and close across different sections of land, for example.
“All our combines that are going out now, when they are travelling straight down the field, for example, they are recording information as they pass [over the ground], and that, in turn, creates a map, with various items of information on it. You can send that information to the tractor, and when the tractor enters the field, it will automatically open and close whatever implements are on the back [of it]. We are at that stage now.”
John Deere technology such as Harvest Lab, for example, can analyse crop constituents – yield, moisture content, and other things like protein and fibre. Pat explains: “We have a few silage harvesters out, and we can provide a device on the shoot of a harvester that can test the grass extensively per minute. What this means is that we know exactly what is going on with the grass that is going into the pit; the contractor can hand the farmer a measurement of the yield and the quality – the dry matter, the protein content – of the silage.”
Empowering farmers is as important as empowering each other in TFM, Pat says, and the company regularly runs educational events to ensure that farmers are up to date on the capabilities of their machines, and the data those machines create. Far from being just a seller of machines, TFM has evolved to become a data-management company with precision-agriculture a firm focus, he says.
40 years ago
John Deere entered the Irish market in the 1960s, says Pat, and when its main dealer in Ireland at the time ceased trading in the early 1980s, the Butlers seized an opportunity. In 1983 – a year after they opened their first depot at Barna, in Templetuohy – Jimmy and Joe secured a dealership with John Deere.
“At this time, John Deere had very low market share because they only entered the country in the 60s,” says Pat. Now, however, John Deere is as much a staple as TFM. So, what of the market share, currently?
“The total tractor market in Ireland hovers at around 2,000 new tractors per year, and in the [geographical] area we cover, about 1,000 tractors are sold, and we have to fight for market share of that,” says Pat. “On the six-cylinder tractors, the big ones, we would have over 40 per cent market share, and on the four-cylinder tractors, we would have around 20 per cent,” says Pat.
Maintaining this market share can never be taken for granted, but the John Deere name and its products ‘opens doors’.
“It gets us into the top end of the farming community in Ireland,” explains Pat.
“We are expensive but we bring a lot of technology to the table, it is a very good product, and it is sought after. That opens doors for you.”
Next, Pat says, is the back-up service. “All machines break down, no matter what they are. At the minute, we have 60 technicians, and growing. We are actively hiring technicians all the time. And we send all our technicians to the UK to complete the same training as John Deere apprentices.” At approximately €30,000 per technician, this is a huge investment for TFM – unlike in the UK, there are no grants available here for such training – but the company sees value in it, both for employees and customers. “People deal with us because, when they break down, we will answer the phone, we will show up, and we will fix it. And, if we can’t fix it on the day, we will provide a back-up machine, and that is the basis of how we maintain market share,” he says.
And, speaking of opening doors, does TFM plan to open any new depots in the future, or are there any potential mergers on the table? Pat is forthright: “No, there is no plan right now, but if an opportunity arises, we will definitely look at that.”
One significant update Pat provides is that TFM has been made sole importer of Mazzotti products for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Mazzotti is an Italian company, which was bought by John Deere in 2017. TFM has now hired a rep to focus on selling the product range.
Emerging from Covid-19 saw TFM embrace new ways of doing business that have stuck – for the better, says Pat. “Covid was a tough time, but we learned an awful lot. We panicked at the start, like everybody else, but a lot of good came out of it too.
“We came out of it stronger than we went into it, we learned our way through it, we got all the team back working, we did whatever was needed to make it [workplace] safe. But through it all, we were still able to provide a service to the farmer, because we quickly realised that farming wasn’t stopping, and that kept us afloat. And, in the TFM spirit of embracing technology, good old Zoom and Teams have remained as integral communications methods within the company, he says.
Gender balance within TFM is a priority, says Pat, who is keen to highlight the company’s desire to hire more female technicians, in particular. Currently, there are none but that is not TFM’s choice or will.
“A number of key roles, and senior roles, within the entire company are held by women and several recent appointments have changed the whole place for the better. TFM is seeking female technicians to join the team and is hopeful that the gender balance can even up [in that area].
“There are no barriers in our place, we are just not getting people [females] looking for work. Our HR person’s brief is to hire the best person for the job, whether they are male or female, we all just want someone to pull an oar.
“All our garages are fitted out with gantries now, so the heavy lifting is gone. Nobody is manually lifting anything anymore [male or female] so these jobs can be done by anyone.”
“We want to be the number-one place to deal, and the number-one place to work, and we live that every day, that is at our core,” says Pat.
Irish Farmers Monthly wishes the TFM team all the very best for the next 40 years, and beyond.