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J. Shane Mercer, Published July 27 2012

Rise of Phoenix: Designer, manufacturer celebrates its 25th anniversary this year

FARGO - From starting in an office space above a Chinese restaurant on Broadway in downtown Fargo to becoming an employer of more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and abroad, it’s been an impressive 25 years for Fargo-based Phoenix International.

The John Deere-owned designer and manufacturer of rugged electronics was founded in 1987 and celebrates its quarter-century anniversary this year.

Engineering Manager John Thomas joined the company in 1988 and remembers the early days.

“It was fun. It was exciting. It was a lot of work,” Thomas said. He described that early group of employees as energetic and entrepreneurial people who worked “extremely long hours” trying to “turn this company into something.”

And almost a quarter of a century later, he’s still around.

“I love what I’m doing,” Thomas said.

The company, which now has five locations in Fargo and West Fargo with more than 700 employees, designs and manufactures electronics for John Deere products and also serves external customers. Its products are used for both agricultural and non-agricultural applications.

Making electronics for machines such as combines, tractors, and forestry and construction machinery means the company specializes in building the components for rugged environments.

What Phoenix International produces has “to live in some pretty extreme conditions,” said General Manager Thomas Budan.

Phoenix, which was acquired by John Deere and Co. in 1999, officially took the name John Deere Electronic Solutions in 2009. While it’s still recognized as Phoenix and still uses the name and logo, the company is moving away from that identity and toward the John Deere moniker.

Phoenix has facilities in Torreón, Mexico, and Pune, India. The Fargo facilities include a 90,000-square-foot engineering, testing and manufacturing plant under construction at 4101 19th Ave. N. that is expected to be complete in October.

Tim Lundberg, Barry Batcheller and Irvin Aal founded Phoenix. The three had formerly worked for Fargo-based Steiger Tractor.

Thomas said Phoenix really started as an engineering consulting company. Its focus from the start was rough-and-tumble electronics, a focus that fit in with a shift toward the use of electronics in the agriculture and construction industries.

In the 1980s, a combine likely used no electronics, Thomas said. By comparison, a John Deere combine now has more than 25 on-board computers and more than 80 sensors, with more than 4 million lines of software written in those computers.

“Today you get into a tractor, there’s a GPS engine that actually allows the tractor to drive itself,” Operations Manager Bryan Bossert said. “You don’t steer a tractor anymore if you’ve got GPS. You push a button and you read your book or you play on the Internet.”

He said all of the hydraulics are controlled by electronics.

“All of the lights, all of the switches, everything has converted over time from being mechanically controlled to be controlled electronically,” Bossert said.

That, along with a technological shift in construction equipment, helped make for fertile business ground for Phoenix.

Phoenix was working in an emerging field and in an environment that embraced risk and trying the unproven.

“They used to have a saying around Phoenix: If you want to get something done, you go into Batcheller’s office and you tell him it can’t be done,” said Batcheller, who is now president and CEO of Fargo-based Appareo Systems. Batcheller left Phoenix/JDES in 2005 and started Appareo.

Bossert credited Phoenix employees for a lot of the company’s success.

The leadership and the culture of the company “has always been very much what I would call a Midwest culture – very hard working,” he said.

Batcheller also has nothing but praise for the people.

He speaks of them coming to work “ready to work, anxious to do a good job, anxious to do something significant.

“We’d go to customers with a very, very ‘can do’ attitude and the acceptance of risk and the ability to take opportunity, even if it’s a risky one … they were prepared to make it work. And that is a differentiator in business,” Batcheller said.

Bossert also pointed to the technical talent coming out of North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota. He said there’s been a dynamic in which people who are educated in North Dakota leave the area for work, but then return to their roots.

Another key to success has been a strong emphasis on taking care of the customer, Thomas said. He believes that if a company does that, “the company will take care of itself.”

Of course, connecting with a corporate behemoth like John Deere didn’t hurt, Budan said “John Deere as a company has grown,” and Pheonix was been a beneficiary of that growth

The relationship between John Deere and Phoenix began in the 1990s, when the Fargo-based company became a supplier for John Deere, an icon in the agricultural sector that also manufactures forestry and construction equipment.

In 1994, Phoenix was awarded the design business for John Deere engine controls, and Deere took 35 percent equity in the company.

“At the time, I think it was about a 3 or 4 million-dollar company,” Bossert said. “They were probably worried we were going to get sick and die, so they took an ownership interest.”

John Deere assumed 100 percent ownership in 1999. Incidentally, John Deere is celebrating its 175th anniversary as Phoenix celebrates its 25th.

James Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economoic Development Corp., called Phoenix/JDES a “poster child.”

“It’s like the story that you really want to really tell,” Gartin said.

Along with pointing to the success that Phoenix has had, he stressed the time, dollars, energy and expertise that come back to the community through Phoenix/JDES and its people.

“I think that giving back is part of success,” Gartin said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

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