Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Karl Matlack remembers that first summer after high school. Climbing onto the seat of the self-loading hay stacker developed by his father and uncle, he set off from the family farm in Kansas on a two-month sales tour that took him around the Texas Panhandle, to Southern California, New Mexico, and Nevada. "Dad said, 'Don't come back until you have sold the thing'," says Matlack. "I finally ended up selling it to a guy in Idaho. Then I got a bus ticket home."

If you were a farmer putting up hay in the '90s or early 2000s, a member of the Matlack clan may have paid you a visit. He would have driven onto your field in a stacking machine called a Stinger--built on the chassis of a New York City trash truck--and asked if you'd like help with your bales. "The overwhelming majority of the time they would say, 'Yeah. The sooner I get done, the better I like it,'" says Larry Matlack, Karl's father and, with his brother Bill, the company's co-founder. "After we stacked a couple of loads, they would say, 'Can I ride with you?' And then they wanted to know if they could operate it. And the next thing you know, they were interested in buying one."

Today, 700 of the $240,000 stackers operate around the country. The business, Stinger Inc., sells on average 35 or 40 a year. Consequently, many potential customers now learn about the machines from friends and neighbors and can visit nearby farms for a demo. That's greatly reduced the need for rolling cold calls, during which the rugged vehicles lumber across states at top speeds of 52 miles an hour.

Stinger is among the leaders--some years it is the leader--in the niche market of loading 2,000-pound bales of hay on top of other 2,000-pound bales of hay. "People are loyal because they know it's not just some guy sitting in an office in New York City doing this," says Karl, who in 2015 took over from his father as Stinger's president. "It's farmers in Middle America developing something for people just like them."

Stinger's patch of Middle America is Burrton, Kansas, a wisp of a town with 900 people, several churches, and no grocery store. The only restaurant burned down several years ago; in 2015 Karl and his wife, Lesley, opened a new, agriculture-themed restaurant in its place. Twenty-four people work in Stinger's 41,000-square-foot facility, a metal building that shares its property with wheat fields tended by a local farmer. The 500-acre family farm where it all started is five miles away.

With 500 man-hours devoted to production of each hand-built machine, the Matlacks call the Stinger "the Lamborghini of hay stackers." Andy Degraffenreid says the machines' performance is one reason he felt confident starting his own custom stacking business, A & L Stacking, in Yoder, Kansas. Earlier, Degraffenreid had operated competitors' products while working for a large hay company. The competitors, he says, stacked at least 40 fewer bales an hour than the Stinger.

Stinger's products "are a lot more durable and a lot faster," says Degraffenreid, who plans to buy a second machine this year. "They don't cost much to run and their resale value is crazy. They are the best."

Haul and oats

The Matlack saga begins in colonial America. Brothers Larry and Bill are direct descendants of Timothy Matlack, the 18th-century brewer and politician who penned on vellum the original Declaration of Independence. In the late 1870s, the family moved from Pennsylvania to Kansas and purchased a farm about 40 miles from recently incorporated Wichita. Another farmer's property divided their land until the middle of the next century. That's when William Matlack--Larry and Bill's father--acquired the parcel using $2,500 he won in a craps game on the train that was taking him to ship out for World War II.

For decades, the Matlack clan grew wheat, corn, barley, and oats, as well as alfalfa to feed the livestock. Then came the 1970s. The agricultural economy began to crater, with falling prices and rampant foreclosures. In 1979, Larry and another brother, Brian, rode their father's Case 1570 Spirit of '76 tractor to Washington, D.C., for the protest rally Tractorcade. That same year, William Matlack died, and Larry and Bill began renting the family farm from their mother.

In a troubled agricultural economy, the brothers struggled to keep the operation afloat. "There was no profit in grain production. You could not pay the bills," says Larry. "Alfalfa takes more man-hours. But the profitability has always been better. So we got into the hay business."

Traditionally, hay farming works like this: A farmer pulls a trailer out to the field with a tractor. He detaches the tractor and uses it to load the trailer with bales. He then reattaches the tractor and drives the trailer to a storage yard. Finally, he detaches the tractor a second time so he can stack the bales. "We went to an auction to buy a trailer to set up that way," says Larry. "The trailer was such a piece of junk I did not know if I could get it home. And it cost way too much money."

Instead, the brothers bought an old school bus chassis that had a seat and an engine, so they could drive instead of pull it around the fields. To further speed the process, they installed tilt beds on the back that could be raised to slide the bales off in the storage yard. "That improved the system," says Larry. "But if we would go out and bale for four hours of an evening, it would take two guys four to six hours the next day to pick those bales up and stack them. That was just too much time."

Bill came up with the idea of a self-loading vehicle that could lift a bale over the front and drop it onto an inclined bed with a slick surface so, Larry says, "it would go down like a Slip 'N Slide." Their initial design used four 40-inch steel spears sticking out from the front to skewer each bale like a piece of meat. Hence, the name Stinger. (The company later replaced the spears with mechanical arms that squeeze the bale from each side.)

An uncle funded the venture in exchange for 10 years of royalties. He also built the first Stinger, in 1991, at a small fabrication shop he owned in Colorado. (It was hay season, and the brothers were too busy to do it themselves.) Larry recalls testing that machine for the first time. "When the bale got up over the top and tipped over and was coming down, I jumped out of the seat," he says. "I did not know if it was going to come right down into the seat with me."

The loading and sliding mechanisms worked fine, but the chassis wasn't rugged enough to withstand the rigors of farm work. "We went looking for the heaviest, toughest, meanest-looking truck that we could afford," says Larry. They ended up buying a trash truck that had been repossessed by a Wichita bank and stripping it down to the chassis. For the next few years, the brothers made periodic trips to New York City, where they could buy retired trash trucks in bulk at auction.

In 1997, the Matlacks engineered their tilt beds to rise up and deposit bales neatly into stacks for transport. The idea to add a stacking feature came from a customer. "We said, 'What the heck? We're not busy right now, and the guy wants it,'" says Larry. Virtually every Stinger sold since then has been a combination hay mover and stacker.

The curse of durability

The Matlacks sold most of their early Stingers by driving around the country. Sometimes they made appointments with customers in advance. Mostly, they just kept an eye out for farm work and joined in. After showing an early version at a major agriculture expo, they picked up a distributor in Twin Falls, Idaho, who has sold roughly 100.

The Stinger's price--which started at $25,000 for that very first machine--has risen over time with improvements and new functions. (The current version costs the Matlacks around $210,000 to build.) The biggest upgrade came in 1998, when the brothers stopped building Stingers on used trash trucks and instead contracted with the maker of those trash trucks to create a chassis optimized for farm work. "The very first one with the new chassis that we ever sold is still out there operating," says Larry. "It is finally on the second owner. The first owner put over 10,000 hours on it."

But if the Stinger's durability is a selling point, it is also a challenge. The market for hay stackers is small and not growing. "At some point, we will saturate it," says Larry, "because our equipment does not wear out nearly as rapidly as the baling equipment that it is following."

The future, the Matlacks believe, is renewable energy. Today, Stinger's primary customers are farms that sell hay to large dairies for animal feed. But increasingly farmers also sell biomass--the residue left over after crops like corn and wheat are harvested--to companies developing fuel from organic material. In October, when hay season ends, Stinger employees drive machines to energy companies, national labs, or universities doing alternative fuel projects and help the farmers that supply them bale, stack, and haul residue left in their fields. For those jobs, the energy company, not the farmer, is Stinger's customer.

Such projects account for a small fraction of the company's revenue. The goal, explains Karl, is to showcase Stinger products. "Long term, if these [energy] plants are successful, then the local people will buy into it and then buy their own equipment from us," he says. The Matlacks expect to sell both to individual farmers and to startup companies that will stock multiple machines and bale, stack, and haul as a service to biomass providers. If energy from biomass takes off, says Larry, "it will probably double the size of the industry's ability to absorb equipment."

For now, the Matlacks ride the fortunes of the agricultural economy and banks' willingness to make loans for major equipment. In a good year, they may sell 60 machines. In a bad year, maybe 20.

Larry and Bill are semiretired from the 24-employee company, although they often talk business with Karl and his brother Justin, who is vice president of sales. (Larry and Bill's brother, Brian, also works at Stinger, as do several other members of the next generation.) Larry, 70, still operates the family farm.

"It's been an interesting opportunity to deal with all these different farmers with their different needs all over the United States," says Larry. "Our customers are extremely independent. They work twice as hard as most people. And their minds never stop trying to figure out a better way to get something done.

"I don't have any better talents than anyone else," says Larry. "We succeed because we help them get it done."

 

Published on: Feb 21, 2017