Jim Becker describes himself as an "opportunist" and that seems to be a fair portrayal of a man who does so many things ranging from farming to owning a calliope, to selling cheese to bagging hay.
I first met Jim Becker at the recent PDPW business conference where he and Ag-Bag of St. Nazianz had a new 14-foot ag-bagger on display .
During the course of our conversation, Becker said that he owned what was probably the biggest custom ag-bagging service in Wisconsin and the United States, and was developing a series of lawn and sport stores across the state. He also owned and ran a roller skating rink.
With that kind of early discussion, I asked Becker if we could talk more at a later date and I could learn more of his what-seemed a really interesting story.
"Give me a call, and we'll get together," Becker said.
So I did, and we did, and he told me a story that proved to be unusual, fascinating and almost unbelievable, but true.
As a youngster, Becker lived in Monroe but always worked on farms and was an active FFA member.
After graduation, he went into dairying via a 50-50 arrangement with 45 cows and a couple hundred acres of land.
After several years of dairying by himself, Becker left the farm and began driving a semi, only to again go back into dairying with an FHA loan.The 1980s were not good years for milking cows, and Becker returned to trucking.
In 1987, Becker got a job with a company that was subcontracting the making of car seats in Brodhead for the Ontario-based Woodbridge Company, who also had a Brodhead location. The work involved inserting components such as metal frames/wires into the seat before it was taken to the nearby plant for the addition of flexible polyurethane foam.
Before long Becker bid on, and won, the contract for the seat-making and began doing the job in a former cheese factory in Brodhead. The business grew and soon had 32 employees.
The car seats were trucked from Brodhead to Louisville for finishing, and again, Becker saw a business opportunity, bought a semi and began his own trucking operation. The trips to Louisville increased, and he soon owned eight trucks, and they made as many as three runs a day to Louisville.
"I bought my first new truck in 1993," he said. "I also built a building in Juda as a trucking headquarters and was soon up to 30 semis and was hauling many products, including cheese, across the country."
Becker sold the trucking business in 2000 but continued a truck repair business until the highway was reconstructed, traffic slowed and the business died.
During a period of relative business inactivity, Becker invented and patented a specialized truck ladder and a "Step Saver" wheel barrow caddy accessory that allowed a wheel barrow to be dumped sideways with little effort.
Although both products were practical and sold well, Becker said, they did not find a mass merchandiser and were put on hold.
In but a short time, a friend at Kuhn Knight USA introduced Becker to Kevin Waldock, an Australian who was in charge of the LDE Corporation's blasting process used in an open-pit coal mine in Wyoming.
Waldock offered Becker a job mixing explosives at the mine, which Jim accepted, and began a two-year commute between Gillette, Wyoming and Monroe.
"We were using LDE's low-density, hybrid explosives that lessened many undesirable effects on the environment and greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
While in Wyoming, Becker saw the need for trucks to haul mine products and got back into independent trucking, growing to four trucks.
The mining company wanted him to move to Wyoming, but he decided to remain in Monroe — again without a job. "I still owned the big building in Juda which I sold," Becker said. "Then I saw this big, empty building (former headquarters of a trucking company that moved out) on old Highway 11 in Monroe and bought it."
The building was almost across the street from a tire and auto service business that had recently closed," he continued, "so I went into that business as County KK Tire Service."
It was about this time, in 2003 or so, when I noticed that the use of ag-baggers was getting popular in the state," Becker remembered. "I thought this would come a popular way for farmers to store forage, so I bought one, then another and another and ended up with six.
"At first I ran the operation locally in Green County with two semis, until I got a call from a farmer at Mosinee who wondered if I would do some bagging for him. Now our Custom Bagging Company (608-558-7008) goes almost everywhere including Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Illinois and Wisconsin. We do much of our business by phone."
Becker's most recent purchase was an LX1214 Ag-Bagger, his second 14-foot machine. "All of them (two 14-feet, two 12-feet, two 10-feet) are table baggers, " Becker said.
Some years ago, Becker purchased a house in Florida — "a big house for a small price," he said. "We, my wife Kathy, our two daughters and I, go for a family vacation every year."
During the Florida vacation several years ago, Becker saw a Bad Boy commercial lawn mower in use and was mightily impressed.
"I'd never seen one before; they are made in Arkansas and were not around Wisconsin," he said. So, of course, he saw another opportunity in the making and became a dealer, and a sister company, KK Lawn & Sport, to the existing County KK Tire Service was born and is housed in the same building.
"I had an exhibit at the Rock County Fair, and people wanted to know where they could buy the Bad Boy mowers," Becker said. "So I opened a KK Lawn & Sport store in Janesville. Now we also have stores in Darlington, Oregon and Waupaca."
Now Becker's KK Lawn & Sport stores carry a number of other commercial lawn mowers and lots of outdoor equipment including the "Intimidator" 4x4 utility vehicle, something that Becker sees as a major competitor in the farm and outdoor market because of its size, power and performance. Becker's five stores are (so far) the only Intimidator dealers in the state.
Then there is cheesemouse.com, a website Becker initiated several years ago to sell Wisconsin cheese via the Internet. "We get our cheeses from local, small independent specialty cheese makers ... We offer no fancy price boosting packaging — just quality cheese at a reasonable price," the website says.
Finally, there is the Monroe Den Roller Skating Rink just behind KK Lawn and Sport that features skating, parties, banquets and Laser Tag.
Oh yes, parked in his repair shop, Becker has a beautiful Tangley Calliope mounted on wheels with a real brass whistle that can be heard a quarter mile or more.
There is much more that could be written about Jim Becker — businessman, entrepreneur, opportunist and farmer (he got his corn in last week) — but this will do for now. Besides, he'll probably have more stories to tell next week or month.