According to second-generation Duo Lift President Jim Hellbusch, the company owes its existence to 2 things: his dad Arthur’s sore back and a load of corn stuck in a wagon box.
“In 1943, my dad was scooping corn off a wagon, and he hurt his back,” says Hellbusch. “The doctor said, ‘Lay on the living room floor until your back gets better.’ So my dad thought there should be some way to get the corn off that wagon without scooping it.
“We think he was the first to invent the idea of taking cables and pulleys to lift the wagon box off the running gear and let it run off the back. He produced it in the back of our milk barn.”
From there, word spread about Arthur’s invention. Soon he was selling the mechanism to a neighbor and then to the neighbor’s neighbor.
Jump to today, and Duo Lift has exited the lift market and now manufactures liquid and dry fertilizer equipment, as well as a variety of trailers for the ag and industrial markets. Hellbusch says they build up to 4,000 trailers per year and operate over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
The fateful day the family realized they were truly in the manufacturing business came in 1946, thanks to the State of Nebraska.
“They came out and said, ‘You’re not a farmer. You’re a manufacturer. You need a name and a Tax ID,’” says Hellbusch. “So the story goes that my mom and dad were sitting at the kitchen table and mom says, ‘Well, you used two cylinders, and you lifted it [the wagon box] a bunch. Call yourself Duo Lift Manufacturing.’”
A few years later, Arthur worked his inventing magic again. In 1952, he bought an irrigation pipe trailer and was the first in his county to irrigate his crops. However, the trailer wasn’t living up to expectations, and he went to work improving it.
“We had a very good crop that first year,” he says. “Then the same thing happened. The neighbor bought a trailer and the neighbor’s neighbor and so on. I don’t want to belittle it, but it was like a hobby for my dad.”
Jim Hellbusch wouldn’t enter the picture until 1969, when he declined a well-paying teaching job at a college in Des Moines to “turn my dad’s hobby into a business,” as he puts it. His father told him he was probably the dumbest person on earth to turn that job down.
“I told Connie, my wife-to-be, that I’m going to see if I can’t turn dad’s hobby into a business,” he says. “If I can’t do it in 3 years, I’ll go back to my degree.”
Those 3 years weren’t the prettiest according to Hellbusch. His wife earned the title “honeymoon widow” with how often he was gone.
“I was never home. We had a family farm, and I would help farm in the morning, from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.,” he says. “Then I’d go back in the shop until 6 p.m. After that, I’d come home, throw down supper and farm until dark. I did that for about 5 years.
“Farming was putting food on the table, and manufacturing wasn’t back in those days. Duo Lift had $50 in the checking account. I’d take out $5 to go buy milk.”
Hellbusch says Duo Lift has survived the ups and down of the ag market by being conservative. But nothing could avoid the pains of the 1980s.
“Interest rates were 18%. You couldn’t sell a piece of equipment. It was just terrible,” he says. “By that time, I owned some land. If I wouldn’t have had the land for the collateral, I don’t know what would have happened. We’d been with the same bank for a long time, but you can only do so much.
“It was a struggle, but we made it through. You pinch your pennies, and you quit buying paperclips. For 8-10 months, Connie and I didn’t take one dime out of the company whatsoever.”
Today both Hellbusch’s sons, Ben and David, have followed him into the family business in leadership roles. Ben Hellbusch was elected as president of the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Assn. in October 2022, just like his father was in 1990 and 1999.
Visit www.farm-equipment.com/innovators-docuseries to view this and the other episodes in the series.