My father-in-law, Don Petterson, often said that Charlie Fleming was the smartest man he’d ever known, and Don was no slouch himself. He had bootstrapped himself from a broken home in the 1930’s and a near fatal wound suffered on Peleliu to his position as a respected leader in the small town of Beloit, Kansas. It was 1966, and I remember the day well; it was my wedding day, and my first encounter with Charlie Fleming. Charlie had married Don’s sister in 1948, and he and Norma attended our wedding. Even then, as a distracted, know-nothing pup, I could see that Charlie was special.
Charlie was born on a farm west of Stockton, Kansas in 1921. Like many boys born in that year, Charlie served in the Army during WWII. After the war, he moved to Beloit to start a business with his friend, Orland Hazen. Charlie was a farm kid, and he liked to tinker. In 1945, Charlie and Orland bought the rights to the famous Diamond Packer, improved it, and began production in a small garage in Beloit. Sunflower Manufacturing was born.
Charlie was well-known for his warm, engaging smile, a wonderful sense of humor, and especially, for his honesty and integrity. Those qualities made him an effective salesman for the Diamond Packer, and Sunflower’s sales grew steadily right from the start.
Not satisfied with a one trick pony, though, Orland and Charlie worked hard to develop new products for Sunflower’s line. In 1961, Sunflower introduced a three section, flexible, stubble mulch plow that followed natural field contours, as well as terraces. That was Sunflower’s first flexible tillage product, and the first flexible plow in the market. In that first year, Sunflower produced only ten flexible blade plows, but in 1962 sales exploded. In that year, Sunflower sold six hundred units of the innovative new product.
The success of the flexible blade plow created a new and increasing demand for other flexible tillage tools. Smart marketers that they were, Charlie and Orland introduced a flexible chisel plow in 1967, and in 1968, a flexible offset disc. By today’s standards, those first tillage products were somewhat crude, but they were best in class at the time. It helped that Sunflower already had an exceptional reputation for service after the sale.
In 1971, responding again to feedback from its dealers and end-user customers, Sunflower redesigned its entire tillage line. Sales and earnings began doubling every year. When I moved to Beloit in 1976, Sunflower’s monthly sales had just topped $1 million for the first time, and an aggressive expansion was underway.
By the late 1970’s, Sunflower had a highly skilled management team in place, along with an excellent sales and technical staff – including members of both the Hazen and Fleming families. But, Orland had died in 1969, and Charlie was ready to slow down and spend more time on his Mitchell county farm. Sunflower was sold to Core Industries of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1977, and Charlie retired in 1981.
In the years since, Sunflower has continued to be guided by the entrepreneurial vision of its founders. In 2002, the company was sold to the agricultural giant, Agco, and today, Sunflower Manufacturing still provides tillage and planting equipment.
June 18, 2010, Linda, Janelle, and I were present as Norma, family and friends, and the people of Beloit – all of whom have so much to thank him for – bid Charlie Fleming a final farewell with these words that surely define his attitude toward life:
And I think to myself:
“What a wonderful world!”
Yes, I think to myself:
“What a wonderful world!”