Father’s Guidance Helps Shape Hoehn’s Passion

Klaus Hoehn, John Deere’s Senior Advisor of Innovation & Technology is the winner of the 2018 Senior Fellow Award.

In post-World War II Karow, Germany, much is not what it used to be. The Hoehn family’s neighborhood is modest. Houses are zippered next to each other, many small and unassuming.

At the edge of the block sits a nondescript, three-bedroom home. In the 1950s it is a simple beige. It is well-kept, although others are not as lucky. After all, war is war, and some battles are nearly impossible to win. As local businesses and nearby families struggled to regain their footing, Artur Hoehn preached, and maintained structure despite the surrounding scars.

Klaus Hoehn was the center of attention when he was “surprised” by his Senior Fellow Award presented to him last year by, at left, Marc Howze, senior vice president and chief administrative officer, and, at right, Chairman and CEO Sam Allen.

Every Saturday, following a lunch that ended when he stood up promptly at 1 o’clock, his children would head outside and groom the lawn. Some may call it raking, but as his young son, Klaus, learned early on, it was more than that.

Actually, much of what has shaped the oldest of three children came from lessons inside the home, from his father – the most important being a life of structure and understanding the value of working with your hands.

“He wanted our yard to look the best it could before Sunday,” Hoehn said. “And this wasn’t just raking up leaves and sticks, this was making sure all the grass went in the same direction, in as straight a line as possible. There had to be order to it.”

Hoehn’s life is catalogued with examples of his father’s influence. During a nearly two-hour interview he would say the word “dad” 34 times.

“I had two things in my household,” Hoehn said. “One, a very supportive environment, particularly from my dad. He said, ‘Klaus I will always support your education. You don’t need to worry about this.’ He never put undue pressure on me. But, and this is the second thing, he said, before any of that, you have to learn in life that you have to work with your hands. You have to earn your money with your hands.”

His father’s garage provided him the outlet to get his hands on all things mechanical. Engine repairs – both to automotive and agriculture equipment – paid the bills for the Hoehn family.

Sweat and Luck

The structure suited Hoehn, as it provided him boundaries for daily life and eliminated the concern of trying to figure out what was to be expected of a young boy. He lived a carefree childhood. So much so that it took a visit from his school director to put his future into sharper focus. Until then, Hoehn admits, he never really had any intention of going to college.

“I was just a happy kid,” he said. “I got to work on anything, and I could drive tractors or combines. It was a lot of fun.”

Then one afternoon while in eighth grade the director met with his dad in the beige house. He knew the conversation was serious as he watched the two men talking. When he was brought into the discussion he was asked a standard question: What do you want to do with your life?

His answer was of the moment: “As long as I can work on machinery that’s all I want.”

“As long as I can work on machinery that’s all I want.” —Klaus Hoehn

The director looked at Artur. There was a level of disappointment. “That’s great,” Hoehn remembers the director telling his father, “but this kid has bigger talents than that. Just make sure he’s not jumping too short.”

The visit, and insight, was a springboard. Hoehn’s father assured the boy that, again, he needn’t worry about paying for school. He would go to college, but his father wanted him to do three apprenticeships first.

“I did those in parallel with my high schooling,” Hoehn said. “That was the request of my dad. He told me, ‘You never really know what happens in life, and I want you to understand that you have to work with your hands and understand how hard it is to earn your money and be able to deliver on something in your career.’”

The last part of that sentence is filled with concepts that would define Hoehn for the next 50 years: hands, hard work, and being able to deliver.

“Some people will tell you that success comes with 80% sweat and 20% luck. That’s not even close. It is 98% sweat and 2% luck,” Hoehn said. “I quickly discovered I had it in me to work hard, to do a job right, and to live in structure.”

All traits he picked up from his father.

“My dad, for some reason, had more of an impact on me,” he said. “I’m a dad kid. My mother was wonderful and this is not judging her, he just had more of an influence on my life. You don’t know it when you’re growing up – it took me another 25 years before I began to digest this.”

The University Life

Hoehn was one month away from turning in his Master’s thesis when he took a trip home to be with family. He had not yet figured out what his next step was, something he would label a “common theme.” That, however, was not the purpose of his visit, or so he thought.

“My dad has this conversation with me and tells me he’s worried that he felt like he was pressing me too much to follow in his footsteps. That was not the case at all,” Hoehn said. “It was a total surprise to me that my dad even thought about that.”

Once back at school, Hoehn crossed paths with a professor who asked what his plans were after his Master’s was completed.

“Had I not gone home a few weeks earlier, I would not have been open to any other ideas. I would have become an engineer. I was 23 and ready to move on.”

Instead, the professor discussed a doctorate and working on ground-breaking laser technology. The idea of something new – even unknown – had always intrigued Hoehn. So, he stayed and built a laser from scratch, earning two patents in the process and his PhD.

With his schooling now complete, Hoehn turned to teaching and eventually became a tenured professor, leaning on his background for success.

“I really never thought about it – the need for those apprenticeships – until about 20 years later when I was on the academic side and I recognized how much good it had done for me in my life. Students and others knew – they could tell – that I knew what I was talking about,” Hoehn said.

Then, in 1992, Hoehn decided he would take a sabbatical from teaching and go to John Deere’s Product Engineering Center in Mannheim. He hadn’t anticipated that he would never return to teaching.

“I found my heart was closer to this, the technology.”

Gears as a Metaphor

He soon discovered that what made him successful as a professor – combining the academic and hands-on practicality – would get him noticed as the product engineering manager in Mannheim, all within three weeks of starting the job.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and the 6000 Series tractor introduction was looming. Monday was the deadline and the final stages prior to production release had hit a snag.

“A guy running the test stands came to me and said there was a problem. I didn’t even know his name. I had only been there three weeks,” Hoehn explained.

The issue was a transmission gear jumping, not able to catch its counterpart and release in an efficient manner, making the shifting off.

“I said let’s go down there and take a look. Keep in mind, I had never seen that transmission.”

Hoehn walked into the test area and saw drawings on tables, blueprints scattered, and a transmission he knew nothing about. The scene, he said, was tense. Then, his humble nature takes over.

“You know … luck is part of life.” It is said with candor. And grace.

Looking at the undercut of a gear tooth he noticed that, perhaps, it wasn’t enough. A poor cut would mean the gear would slip.

“Some people will tell you that success comes with 80% sweat and 20% luck. That’s not even close. It is 98% sweat and 2% luck. I quickly discovered I had it in me to work hard, to do a job right, and to live in structure.” —Klaus Hoehn

“I had repaired many, many transmissions on my own and had a pretty good pragmatical feel of what an undercut on a gear should look like, even though I had no background on that transmission. It just didn’t look right. And, the consequence was, guess what, the undercut was wrong.”

Hoehn convinced the others that a long weekend was in store in order to cut new gears and meet the Monday deadline. The diagnosis – and success – earned him a reputation that he has been building on for the last 26 years.

The symbolism of precise harmony is not lost on Hoehn. His two gears are clear: The practicality of an engineer and the academic professor who is able to educate and explain – in sync, meshed together. The undercuts of his life being, as he described them, “good enough.”

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Father’s Guidance Helps Shape Hoehn’s Passion

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