Ben Sheppard was on his way to an Oregon State Football game with his dad, Craig Sheppard, the first time they talked about him coming back to help run the family business.
Ben was in his mid-20s and working in Portland at the time. The idea of returning to his hometown of Hood River and becoming the fourth generation to join the farm machinery business, C.M. & W.O. Sheppard, Inc., was something Ben brought up.
“We never talked about it growing up,” Ben recalls. “It was never an expectation.”
When they were younger, Ben and his siblings always knew it was an option. But Craig Sheppard told his children to do what they wanted, what made them happy. That no-pressure approach mirrors what Craig experienced from his father, Bill Sheppard, the former general manager.
“People don’t need to think they have to do something,” Craig says. “If they are willing, they do a lot better job if it’s their choice.”
Bill Sheppard had worked for the company his father and uncle founded before leaving to study business at Oregon State. When he graduated in 1950 and returned home, he quickly found himself in a position of having to run the company.
“They made me the general manager, and they walked out,” Bill recalls.
Bill successfully ran the business for 30 years until Craig was ready to buy in. Along the way, he tried new things, selling Toyota cars and John Deere tractors for a time before settling on sales and service of farm machinery, including Kubota tractors.
Sheppard’s core customers have been different generations of the same family farmers in the area. But they’ve broadened their appeal to smaller farms and home-owners.
As Sheppard approaches its 100th year in 2019, the business continues to evolve, guided by new ideas and different ways of doing things with input from non-family board members, as well as the third and fourth generation owners.
“Each generation seems to be supportive when the next generation comes in with an idea to grow and expand the business or try new things,” Ben says. “We’re pretty open with each other.”
The recent decision to leave downtown after 88 years and build a new location is an example of how things get done at Sheppard’s. They needed more space for future growth.
“There was a lot of history in the old building,” Ben says. “People enjoyed being in there.”
But it was difficult to maneuver tractors around downtown with all the tourists. The business needed to be someplace customers could get to easily.
Ben took lead on the new building project and moving, Craig says.
“But it actually took all three generations to make it happen,” he says. “I don’t think any one could have ever accomplished it anywhere near as easy.”
Craig values Ben’s contributions, the same way his dad valued his.
“Generations that come along … they have a different mindset, and their experiences are different,” Craig says. “There’s a lot more technical things going on.”
When Craig started out, making a sale often involved calling on farmers and growers, sitting down with a customer at a kitchen table and talking one-on-one. For Sheppard to keep pace with changing times and business practices, Ben brings a different approach and new skills.
“Dad will just shake his head when I sell a tractor via text message,” Ben says.
Technology may be changing how business gets done, but the family values remain the same.
“What we strive to be known for is honesty and integrity,” Ben says. “We’re a small business in a small town.”
The Sheppards feel a sense of obligation to give back to the community. Ben is an elected Port Commissioner and participates in Rotary with Craig, who serves as Rotary Foundation President. Every generation has been part of a search and rescue group that Bill’s father helped found. The CragRats is the oldest certified organization for technical rock and avalanche rescues in America.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” Bill says.
Bill is officially retired, and no longer has an official role.
“But they still let me come in,” he says.
And that’s the best part, Ben says. He gets to work alongside his dad and grandpa.
“When you own a family business, you get to work with your family every day,” he says.
Ben’s kids are already excited about the family business. But what’s not to like about a tractor store when you are 8? If they choose this career someday, Ben says it will be great. But he won’t tell them that.
“It’s the only fair way to do it with the next generation,” he says. “It’s their choice.”