Martin Richenhagen toasts his new French knighthood with Monique Seefried, who officially bestowed him with the designation at the AGCO headquarters in Duluth. Photo by Trevor Williams

AGCO Corp.’s chief executive doesn’t paper over the differences between Germany, the country of his heritage, and France, where he has pursued a life of learning that culminated in his being knighted by the French government this week. 

When the tractor and agricultural products manufacturer decided to move the home of its Massey-Ferguson brand to Beauvais, France, from England, some feared there would be a clash of German directness and French sensitivity. 

Instead, AGCO Chairman, President and CEO Martin Richenhagen focused on the promise of marrying German precision and French creativity, and today the company is set to embark on its third expansion in the northern French city since taking over a local plant nearly 25 years ago. 

Since joining AGCO in 2004, Mr. Richenhagen has made use of experience gained at a young age, when he visited France on multiple high-school exchange programs.

Negotiating with French labor unions has been relatively painless, contrary to outside perceptions, and it’s made easier by understanding the way they think — and the way they think about him, he said. 

“Our language always sounds very tough and very unfriendly,” he said of his own mother tongue. “Germans are known all over the world for the lack of humor, so when you can relax a little bit, make a joke about yourself, then you get a lot of tension out of the discussion.”

Those talks have been key to AGCO’s success since choosing France as the home base of the Massey Ferguson tractor brand. Overall, the company has invested 300 million euros to date and plans to swell its total workforce from 2,500 to 3,000 in the coming years as it takes over yet another building recently purchased from Swiss food giant Nestle in Beauvais. 

French Consul General Louis de Corail extols Mr. RIchenhagen’s (and AGCO’s) achievements.

It’s precisely this respect for France’s capabilities — and his consistent engagement at the highest levels — that won Mr. Richenhagen induction into the French government’s highest order, the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, or the Legion of Honour, this week. 

Mr. Richenhagen accepted the award Monday from a fellow chevalier (or knight, of a different order) Monique Seefried at the company’s Duluth headquarters, exhibiting his customary humility and humor in a closed-door ceremony mostly attended by employees and family members. 

“I think you gave this order to my team, and I only got it because I am the oldest,” he joked. 

Though it was a lighthearted event, Louis de Corail, France’s consul general, was serious in highlighting Mr. Richenhagen’s commitment to France. The AGCO exec has attended major business summits organized by former President Francois Hollande and current President Emmanuel Macron, and importantly, he has resisted the temptation to “outsource to Poland or China” even in tough times. 

Instead, Mr. Richenhagen says he is “in-sourcing” — bringing more work to France despite its reputation as less friendly to foreign investment than some other European countries. 

“I am absolutely convinced that many families in Beauvais and Ennery, who owe you a great deal since the financial crisis of 2007-08, will agree with me that no official order of merit to a foreign national is more deserved than this one,” Mr. Corail said. 

Investing in France has simply made economic sense, Mr. Richenhagen said, especially given its connectivity with Africa, a vibrant current and future market for the Massey Ferguson brand. 

Thought it’s traditionally a Canadian-British mark with “no French DNA,” AGCO was able to meld France’s post-colonial linguistic ties with the fact that “Massey” had already entered the local African lexicon. 

“In several countries there is a Massey Ferguson tractor on the money, and in some the African languages, Massey is the name for tractors,” Mr. Richenhagen told Global Atlanta in an interview. 

Valuing Cross-Cultural Education

In his speech accepting the honor, Mr. Richenhagen might have made some educators cringe at first, recounting study-abroad misadventures in the 1960s that included a brief detainment by French police after shouting slogans during Parisian street protests. 

The self-described “lazy student” was quick to point out that his education didn’t stop at the walls of the classroom. He even invited his now-84-year-old French teacher to the induction ceremony, crediting him with inspiring a lifetime of learning through travel. 

Definite business advantages accrue from the humility gained by learning new language and culture, he said. Rather than trusting just in their intelligence, intellectual or emotional, young business leaders should strive to up their “learning quotient,” a willingness to entertain new ideas and try new approaches. 

“When you want to be successful, and when an organization wants to be successful, you need to be prepared to learn,” he told Global Atlanta. “When you think you are the best, you are not interested in learning anything.”

Dr. Seefried, an advocate of international education and historical preservation as head of the World War One Centennial Commission, acknowledged Mr. Richenhagen as a “renaissance man” when presenting his knighthood. 

“You are an extraordinary example of how a humanistic education, which included Latin and theology, prepared you to become one of America’s greatest global business leaders, with an ability to look at the future knowing fully well the essence of the past,” she said. 

Mr. Corail, the consul general, also nodded to the shared history of Germany and France with a story of personal connection. 

Both he and Mr. Richenhagen were born in Cologne — but not the same one. Mr. Corail’s was a small village in France that in the 13th century appropriated the “brand” of the historic Rhine trading center in Germany, part of an effort by the local lord to boost his territory’s own cosmopolitan appeal. 

“You see, French and German links go back a long way.”

The ceremony inducting Mr. Richenhagen into the Legion of Honour took place among friends, family and employees at the AGCO headquarters.

Milestones of AGCO’s operations in France (via AGCO):

  • 2013 – The Beauvais 2 Cab facility and International Sales Training Centre for the Massey Ferguson brand opens. This 15.5 million euros investment created 100 new jobs.
  • 2016 – The Beauvais site receives two coveted awards: Best Foreign Exporter 2016 as the first producer and exporter of farm machinery in France; and Factory of Year 2016 for its lean manufacturing implementation and number one in quality approach.
  • 2017 – At Ennery, AGCO’s European Parts Warehouse and Distribution Centre moves from 30,000 m² to 100,000 m² and will create 62 jobs by the end of 2018 after a 2.1 million euros investment.
  • 2018 – Only five years after the opening of its new cab facility, on August 28th, AGCO launches the operations of its new Logistic Centre in Beauvais after investing another 11 million euros and creating 103 new jobs.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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