August Claas – a visionary and man of action.
Quotes give an idea of people's character, and there is hardly any remark that sums up August Claas better than the sentence: "Then we'll just do it on our own". He came out with this terse response when he found that none of the German manufacturers of agricultural machinery was prepared to develop the first European combine harvester with him.
Traits such as stubbornness and the belief in his own capabilities form a recurrent theme in the life of August Claas. He was born on 15 December 1887 as the second-oldest son in the family. Within the family, it was recognised at an early stage that August was someone who liked to take control. His courage in making decisions, and also in taking risks at the right time, made him a born entrepreneur.
On his parents' farm, for example, he already assumed a kind of leadership role. When the first hay balers in his father's production business gave up the ghost, it was left to him to solve the problem. He not only had to repair the machines, but also needed to placate the customers. And when his father's business was facing ruin, he took the quick decision to register a business in his own name. This courageous step in the year 1913 eventually led to the establishment of today's company.
Although the word "visionary" is frequently used in an inappropriate context to describe routine future planning, the designation of August Claas as a "visionary" accurately reflects his greatest personal attribute, apart from his pragmatic and technical bent. He realised at an early stage that farming in the future would require more complex solutions. Within this system, a combine is only one part of an extensive chain – albeit a central one.
August Claas was responsible for the remarkable growth of the company, which he expanded from what was originally a small enterprise into a global group. International honours, orders of merit and medals, technical awards and countless patents bear testimony to his successful life as an entrepreneur.
He was a practising Catholic who, with the help of his brothers, staked everything to get their joint company started. When August Claas made the acquaintance of a young student called Paula Siepenkort, who was working as an interpreter on the CLAAS exhibition stand at the Leipzig Agricultural Fair, he proposed to her on the spot, even if it was a somewhat careful proposal. Some time later, he described his good fortune in finding such a lovable wife who could work in harmony with him – and helping not just with his growing family, but also the flourishing company.
As the father of Helmut, Irmgard and Reinhold, he often found the time in the evenings to recount adventure stories in which machines in the factory played a key role.
In his charming stories, invented as he went along, machine tools and also cars could speak. They complained that they were not oiled in time. On Sunday afternoon, the whole family went for country walks with their dog. In the woods around Harsewinkel, he explained the world of plants to his children, and whittled "flute pipes" from small branches for them.
Hunting was one of his hobbies: meeting and chatting with his hunting friends was just as much part of his leisure schedule as exchanging news and opinions with friends from the world of agriculture, in Westphalian dialect, or in the evening over a glass of "Korn" (corn schnaps). His family and circle of friends jokingly called him "De Buer" (the farmer).
Since he managed his own farm, he exchanged ideas with other farmers about ploughs, planting seeds, or the best time to harvest. He was one of the leading farmers in the region for growing maize and silage preparation. Animal breeding was another of August Claas’s areas of interest. He was also a very keen cattle breeder, and was one of the first to introduce the Scottish Aberdeen Angus and the French Charolais cattle to the region, and cross-breed them with his own Holstein herd.
However, the agricultural machinery business was at the centre of all his activities. He got through difficult periods for the family business, where he was pushed to the limit, with determination, optimism and ability – all fully in keeping with his motto "Then we'll just do it on our own". August Claas died on 12 April 1982, at the age of 94.
Theo Claas – a born diplomat
Theo Claas was the "dandy" of the family. This was his nickname among many of the workers in the company, and his brothers used it when referring to him – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. It was no doubt an allusion to his highly proper business dress style in his position as commercial manager. But no one equated his taste for style with arrogance or aloofness.
Theo Claas, who was born in May 1897 as the yongest son of Franz and Maria Claas, was considered a quiet, distinguished individual. He appreciated the finer things in life, in an "English" way – correct and fashionable clothes, a polite reserve in conversation, and stylish living. He always bought his beloved cigars in the cigar manufacturing town of Bünde, which was close by. He was considered a shrewd judge of character, was always diplomatic and would invariably look for a compromise whenever necessary.
Theo Claas was the merchant of the four Claas brothers; he would probably have made a perfect bank employee in the German imperial era. He was a man of few words, but a very systematic worker. He had his career strategically planned, with a series of practical training stints in reputed, forward-looking companies, for example in the Heinkel aircraft factories in the Berlin region. At the time, Heinkel was synonymous with pioneering advances in aircraft construction – "those magnificent men in their flying machines". He worked on aircraft development in a work team lead by Ernst Heinkel, who was nine years older than he was. Theo Claas then moved to the Rumpler aircraft factory in Berlin. Next, he travelled to Vilnius in Latvia to work on a project in the bridge-building sector. Finally, there was another quick move to Kiel to the Germania shipyard to work on the first U-Boot in German history. In the autumn of 1916, the same fate befell him as his three brothers – he was conscripted.
All four brothers returned safely to Harsewinkel, but building up the factory in Harsewinkel would now mean total commitment on the part of the Claas brothers. Theo Claas could have led a busy social life at the time, but the company came first. When a few friends invited him to join their bowling club, he firmly refused. He said that a bowling club would involve unnecessary expenditure that he could not afford, and that the company first had to be doing well. He steered the young, ambitious company with a combination of consistency and thrift. As a partner of equal standing with his three older brothers, Theo ensured that there was always enough of their own capital circulating in the company. For him, two of life's priorities were keeping the cigar in his mouth and enough water under the keel.
He also led the company through the tumultuous years after 1945, displaying the precision of a Prussian official in combination with the craft of a French diplomat – and with the assistance of August's wife, Paula Claas. During this period, she was specially issued with sole power of attorney. Should anything happen to Theo, Paula Claas had already had joint authority to represent the company for decades.
Especially in the chaotic post-war reconstruction phase, when production was initially at a complete standstill, then followed by tentative new beginnings, Theo Claas was just the right man. Someone with reliable business sense and a knack for negotiating with the new bureaucracy, as well as a man with a deep sense of responsibility towards his employees. He showed his mettle by preventing the partial disassembly of the undamaged factory.
He succeeded in convincing the British military authorities of the quality of the CLAAS SUPER. These combine harvesters were then tested in the United Kingdom and their quality endorsed. The company was subsequently issued with the production materials it required before any other company in Germany, and exports to the United Kingdom began.
In the first issue of the new company magazine "Der Knoter" in 1948, Theo Claas wrote: "If we had not had these export orders, we would not have been able to keep on half of our current workforce of 320." Theo Claas loved the world of figures. With guaranteed purchase prices, precise sales analyses, and tight control of a cost-efficient approach to working to back up his arguments, he ensured that the company was on a sound footing through heated discussions with family members. He could always produce irrefutable facts and figures, and in many cases these helped steer the family decisions in the right direction. Theo Claas died at the age of 55.
Franz Claas – machine builder and designer.
Franz Claas junior was born in 1890 as the third-eldest son in the family. In choosing the name, his father Franz perhaps hoped to pass on to the next generation his own passion for mechanical engineering. At any rate, his own affinity for machines and technical problem solving was seamlessly continued in his younger namesake.
While still little more than a child, Franz junior was given responsibility for ensuring the smooth operation of the flour mill on his father's farm. A lathe was the chief tool used for repairs and spare parts which, of course, were manufactured in-house, and this was where Franz junior constructed his first machines and models. Later, when the sawmill went into operation, he was also responsible for technical work procedures there.
When World War I broke out in 1914, he was made weapons master in his army company on the basis of his knowledge of machine construction and mechanics, with the task of modifying seized weapons for use in the German weapons system. Always the pragmatist, he manufactured cigar cutters and cooking utensils for his fellow soldiers in addition to his principal duties, using an ancient pedal-driven lathe.
A degree of improvisation was needed in the first few months of the young company named Gebr. CLAAS ("CLAAS Brothers"). In 1919, in the immediate postwar period, the first new machines were initially produced from old hay balers, because of the shortage of raw materials. Despite all the external difficulties, Franz managed to adjust the standards, and build up a smoothly flowing production system, thanks to his feel for material, and for technical relationships. "He talks with the material", was the approciative comment in the factory.
At an early stage, he realised that to achieve smooth-running production that would also meet high quality standards, modern technical operating equipment and intelligent, high-quality tools were needed, and were in fact essential. His objective was to create an in-house tool and machine production facility for CLAAS.
By 1928, this objective had been achieved. Franz Claas set up a special department: "The Tool Workshop". Under his supervision, all the fitters and turners now worked in one area, and this is where Franz Claas now constructed and manufactured all the equipment and machinery needed for production.
Taking matters into their own hands, having in-house manufacturing instead of outside purchasing, staying independent of suppliers and quality norms – these were principles that all the Claas brothers had taken to heart. Franz Claas expressed their attitude very clearly: "For model making, we first used outside companies, so we were dependent on them. Thanks to extensive investment in equipment and the continuous modernisation of our in-house tool workshop, we are now in a position where we can manufacture ourselves all existing tools and any tools still to be manufactured."
The employees gave him the respectful title "Father of the Tool Workshop". Once international business began to steadily increase after 1945, Franz Claas started to make frequent trips with his son, Günther, to the USA, to attend tool trade fairs and look at the latest operational equipment. "The only way we can compete is if we can provide the best there is", was his philosophy.
And Claas was proud to measure its own strength as a company on the basis of its machinery and equipment: "In 1962, our factory has over 2,000 modern, or the very latest, tool machines and more than 6,000 cutters and fixtures of all kinds."
Franz Claas was an extremely modest individual; personal fame and public attention meant little to him. He preferred to work quietly in the background. His family, consisting of his wife Christine and their three children, Walter, Günther and Helga, were his refuge and retreat. Nevertheless, the obligatory Sunday walk with the children and the family dog still brought him back to the site of the plant.
He and his wife Christine believed in unconditional cooperation with his borthers and in the welfare of the CLAAS company family. Indeed, they saw these as binding obligations.
To mark his 70th birthday, Franz Claas was made an honorary citizen of the town of Harsewinkel and awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class, one of the highest awards in Germany. On his 75th birthday, in recognition of his services on behalf of the church, His Holiness Pope Paul VI awarded him the Knight's Cross of the Order of Saint Sylvester. Unfortunately, Franz Claas did not live to see the establishment of a separate subsidiary called CLAAS Fertigungstechnik ("CLAAS Manufacturing Engineering"). It represents the culmination to date of a development that can be traced directly back to Franz Claas junior.
Franz Claas junior, the "Father of the Tool Workshop", died on 24 December 1965.
Bernhard Claas – a man people could trust.
Bernhard was the oldest of the Claas brothers. In the 1920s, the fledgling company needed someone like him, someone who had the necessary composure and life experience to retain a general overview, and bring in his own farming expertise and extensive general knowledge.
He was born in 1885 on his parents' farm in Clarholz-Heerde, a neighbouring town to Harsewinkel, and was the first person in the family to be conscripted. In the army, he soon acquired a reputation for being an expert on agricultural machinery. On the battlegrounds of northern France in World War I, he was assigned to a unit commissioned with ensuring that French farmers' agricultural machinery and traction engines were repaired in time for the coming harvest.
Specifically, he worked in a small factory looking after technology for threshing machines, towing vehicles and later milk centrifuges – all familiar territory to him. A background in both farming and technology was certainly a key influencing factor in the way Bernhard Claas was deployed during the war. And his involvement in these areas during the war may also have been crucial for the development of CLAAS over subsequent decades.
Without realising it, Bernhard Claas took a crucial step in setting the course for the later expansion of the company: his superior officer in the army was Karl Vormfelde and, as business officer, everyone in charge of agricultural machinery factories in occupied France, including Bernhard Claas, was subordinate to him.
Vormfelde came from eastern Westphalia, near the town of Enger. After the war, when Karl Vormfelde held the chair for agricultural technology at Bonn University, Bernhard Claas learned of his whereabouts from a newspaper article. He wrote a friendly note to Vormfelde, asking if he remembered him. The professor did indeed, and contact was quickly reestablished. In collaboration with CLAAS, Karl Vormfelde developed the first European combine harvester and always remained a intimate associate and friend of the company. Today, in professional circles, he is considered the pioneer of the European combine harvester. At the time, however, he was just a lone voice in the wilderness.
Bernhard was involved in all the key decisions taken by the company, but without pushing himself into the spotlight. People liked his calm, relaxed nature and the sensible advice he gave. This was also one reason he got on so well with his brothers.
Bernhard Claas enjoyed the quiet life he led in his small building opposite the porter's lodge at the main entrance to the CLAAS plant in Harsewinkel, and he liked the close contacts that he and his wife Käthe enjoyed with the neighbours, in particular with his close friend, building contractor Josef Heitmann.
The CLAAS employees liked him. Even though he had no job description to tie him to an everyday routine, he looked after "his factory" and "his people". He was on the premises every day, and was totally familiar with every operating procedure. He acted as a unofficial employee representative, exercising a control function, but without upsetting those being controlled. He was said to possess keen powers of observation. He noticed defects and inefficiencies, and remedied them without any fuss, sometimes without saying anything, and always in a socially acceptable manner. He made improvements to the company, yet without turning it upside down. He was satisfied simply by seeing the change made promptly.
He never quite expressed the principle that something could be any good only if it was of use to the company, but that was nevertheless how he operated in practice. His biggest contribution as a team player came in 1935. Since he had no children of his own, he transferred his shares in the company to his brother Theo: "Our Theo has not been a partner up to now. Now that he has a family, Käthe and I agree that I should resign my partnership and give my share to Theo. Our factory is now so big that we really need to think about the future." Bernhard was given an employment contract with double the salary of a foreman, and retained the right to live on the floor above what was then the business office. Bernhard Claas died on 18 February 1955, in Bielefeld.