True North Equipment adapts to pandemic challenges by rethinking business

John Oncken
True North Equipment CEO John C. Oncken, left, and chairman Dan Gorder, right, have developed a specialized facility in which to build and repair farm equipment in Grand Forks, N.D.

On the rare occasions when I’ve written about my son, John C. Oncken, and his life as CEO of True North Equipment in Grand Forks, N.D., readers have asked for more frequent updates about him and his family.

True North Equipment was born

John was a Sun Prairie High grad and then went on to gain an ag technology degree at UW-Platteville. He then worked in several marketing positions at John Deere for some 18 years, including at Grand Forks. While working with Grafton Equipment, the local John Deere dealership some 40 miles away merged with several smaller dealerships into Grafton Equipment, and he was offered the opportunity to become a partner in the firm with the retirement of an existing partner. He accepted the offer and joined majority owner Dan Gorder as a partner.

In the intervening years, Grafton Equipment has become True North Equipment and moved its headquarters to Grand Forks, where it has grown in size from four to eight locations and over 200 employees. A year or so ago, John became CEO with co-CEO Gorder assuming the chairman position.

A family update

John and his wife Joan have three children who are now (just recently) all gone from home. The eldest, Megan, is married to Brock; they have one daughter and live in Fargo, N.D., where she also works as a nurse. Joe, their middle child, recently received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech in Houghton and soon begins work at National Laboratories in Idaho. The youngest, Nicole, received a doctorate degree in pharmacy from North Dakota State University at Fargo just last week and will shortly begin work in a pharmacy in Grand Forks.

There is space for many pieces of big machinery to be worked on at the same time at  the new facility.

The challenges of COVID-19

As for John, he and partner Dan Gorder had an exceptional business year at True North Equipment despite challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And they admit that they learned a lot during the pandemic – especially how to be creative in their business approach and carry on a growing business in spite of locked doors at the Grand Forks headquarters and stores in North Dakota and Minnesota.

As was the case for many companies, the start of the pandemic presented challenges for True North. Out of concern for the safety of both employees and customers, True North closed all of its retail locations beginning in mid-March of 2020 and remained closed for about 60 days, the peak time for sales of consumer lawn and garden items and large ag equipment. True North turned this challenge into an opportunity, capitalizing on its previous investment in technology to make it easy and safe for lawn and garden customers, farmers and cattle producers to order parts and equipment online using the MyTrueNorth mobile app. True North also created outdoor showrooms in their parking lots and adopted a socially-distanced sales approach.

The cranes will handle most all farm equipment at the True North Impact Center.

The biggest move of all

In what was the company's biggest move of all, as explained by the Grand Forks Area Economic Development Corporation, “EDC member True North Equipment purchased the former Wells Concrete Building in the Grand Forks Industrial Park. The building will serve as a central location for receiving, assembling, and reconditioning farm equipment and will initially house 16 to 20 technicians."

"The new 66,000 square-foot impact center will help take the load off our company’s nine other locations in Minnesota and North Dakota,” John C. Oncken said. “In addition, the new facility will also extend their capabilities with customer clinics and certified educational programs.”

Formerly a prestressed concrete manufacturing site, the refurbished and remodeled 400x160' building is now the True North Equipment Impact Center, serving the eight stores of the John Deere dealership.

“It’s not just about growing our business, but also adding a highly capable facility that produces real value for both our customers and employees. The facility has four bridge cranes equipped with six to 20-ton winches that will make working on big equipment and loading and unloading it easier and safer. Plus, there's a modern wash area to clean new and used equipment as well as a huge storage and office area," Oncken added.

“The new facility offers True North Equipment the opportunity to accomplish those various challenges in an impactful and value driven way. By centralizing new machine assembly and reconditioning of used equipment, the regional True North Equipment service departments will be more agile in meeting their customer service demands and doing it in a more efficient manner and allowing those offices to focus on providing a more customer-focused approach,” Oncken said. (Author's note – I didn’t know that new machinery came to a dealer often requiring some assembly.)

A tractor is being washed with foam detergent in the wash bay in the new Impact Center.

A first in the industry

“Basically what we’ve made a decision to do is take some of the stress away from our retail locations, allowing us to store corporate parts and overstock of inventory,” Oncken said in late December. “This is really a first in the industry in our arena of work, to have a facility like this.”

Of course, I’m proud of that son who wore the tires off a pedal tractor as a youngster and today is CEO of one of the most progressive John Deere dealers serving farmers and consumers anywhere. Not bad for a company that traces its roots to 1897 when it sold plows in Grafton, N.D.

That’s the latest from North Dakota. Now you know.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at