For many, 97 years in business translates to shifting away from values and founding principles and focusing on profitability. However, this is not the case for Hardings Inc. (Hardings), an Indiana-based heavy equipment dealer. While much has changed for the third generation family-owned construction, industrial and agricultural equipment company, family ideals and a drive to offer the best customer service in the region remain integral parts of Hardings’ identity.
“I’m 54 years old now, and I started working for this company when I was only 10,” reveals Clarence Harding, now president of Hardings. “Hardings has given me everything I have, so when times got tough, I didn’t even think twice about giving back.”
While most in his position see dollar signs, Clarence says he comes to work for a different reason. “Naturally, you have to, and want to, make a profit,” he explains. “But profit isn’t always our first concern. I come to work and think about what I can do better – for this company, for my employees and for my family – and I think I’m rewarded for that in the end.”
A Family Foundation
Clarence continues a family tradition initiated in 1916 by his grandfather, Emil Harding. “My grandfather grew up in a farming family, but he was diagnosed with a heart condition that prohibited him from doing manual labor, so he got into the farm equipment business,” recalls Clarence. “In 1916 he sold his first machine, called a Work All, and by 1923 he built a shop in downtown Lowell, Ind., where he began selling John Deere equipment.”
Eventually Emil added Caterpillar (CAT) products to Hardings’ lineup. “CAT wanted him to build a larger facility to hold more product and we’ve remained in the same building since that move,” shares Clarence. “We have added on seven or eight times, but we’ve been in this building for nearly 80 years.”
With more CAT products, the manufacturer pushed Hardings to sell exclusively CAT. “Emil gave up the John Deere line and we sold CAT products until around 1963 when the company began to phase out its AG dealers,” continues Clarence. “As farm tractors evolved, the crawlers became costly to run and by the mid-1960s we were on our own.”
Fortunately for Hardings, the company was already in the midst of its own internal transition into construction equipment. “We noticed the local construction market was booming with mills and highways being built,” reveals Clarence. “So, by the time CAT pulled the plug, we were already heavily involved in construction support.”
Finding a New Niche
Over the following decades Hardings offered a range of service and repairs for used construction equipment. “We did this type of work until the late 1990s when it became easier for clients to go rent a new machine and roll it over into monthly payments,” explains Clarence. “We started losing customers to large, national suppliers and it hurt our sales.”
While continuing to offer equipment parts and service, Hardings became a Hyundai, Yanmar, Wacker and Mustang dealer to offer specialized equipment, mainly skid steers and small- to mid-sized excavators and wheel loaders. Today, Hardings still sells new equipment from all four manufacturers along with used equipment, trailers, rentals, attachments, parts, service and equipment transportation. “On the service side we have a full-scale track shop, painting shop, sand-blasting division and bore welding. We work on most anything.”
Clarence is proud of how far the company has come. “If you were to walk through 20 years ago, you would see all CAT equipment,” he details. “Now, you come through our shop and it’s not unusual to see no CAT equipment at all. We service brands manufactured all over the world.”
Hardings is also selling on an international level. “We recently sold four new wheel loaders to an up and coming Canadian firm that loads and unloads railroad cars and barges,” notes Clarence. “We’ve been doing steady business on the AG side, as well, working with cattle and dairy farmers from all over the country.”
Clarence explains that it is Hardings’ AG business that has helped keep the company’s boat afloat over the past several years. “We’re tied to the Chicago market and that has made business hard, because when sales dropped, they really dropped,” he reveals. “In just one year, sales dropped by 60 percent and we couldn’t cut our overhead fast enough to offset that.”
While sales plummeted significantly during the recession, Clarence says farmers in Indiana were holding strong. “The AG market remained steady and helped get us through,” he shares. “Prices were up and farms in this region were doing well while the construction market dried up.”
During the survival of the fittest test, Clarence admits a diverse array of clients and products also contributed to Hardings’ recovery. “The AG side got us through, from dairy farms to hog farms, but we also serve homebuilders, pavers, steel mills, transfer stations and landfills. We weren’t running on all eight cylinders, but we kept cruising along.”
Part of shaping up and surviving the downturn was getting smarter about where Hardings chose to do business. “We were forced to cut back from 40 employees to 20, but our profit margins are better now than they were with 40 employees, because we were simply doing too much,” explains Clarence. “I quit trying to be everything to everyone and started focusing on what we do best.”
Of course, Clarence knows how to maintain growth. “This dream of another location and more employees is still there, but I just want to do the best I can with what I have and that means doing what’s right for my family,” he adds. In his leadership role, but more importantly as a father and husband, Clarence continues to lead Hardings Inc. down a path that focuses on deep family roots and a commitment to quality product lines.
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