A Closer Look: Earl Harbaugh's Industry Legacy

A Look at the Industry Through the Decades with Ditch Witch Midwest’s Earl Harbaugh

Former Ditch Witch Midwest CEO and founder Earl Harbaugh spent some time with AED and the Foundation to reflect on years past in the industry and the establishment of The AED Foundation, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year. Harbaugh’s importance to AED speaks for itself, but in this article, we take a deeper dive into his history with Ditch Witch Midwest and the Association.

Harbaugh’s story begins in the mid-1960s, when he began aiding the owners of Troyer Equipment in Pennsylvania. He reflects on how that dealership was the first that he helped to turn around, assisting in taking it to greater heights. Afterward, he further refined his skills by launching two additional businesses for the Troyers, which were John Deere Industrial and Ditch Witch of Western Pennsylvania. It is clear that Harbaugh has had an entrepreneurial spirit throughout the years, with nearly six decades of progress to show for it!

Having gotten three dealerships successfully off the ground, in 1970 Harbaugh was given an opportunity to come to Chicago to start Ditch Witch Illinois. He made the move with his wife, Kay, and their three young children. As he looks back on the early days of Ditch Witch Illinois, Harbaugh humbly gives credit to the mentors around him for his success, namely, the original founder of Ditch Witch, Ed Malzahn; connections from his time working with John Deere and the Troyers and, of course, his parents. As that success grew, Harbaugh decided to expand his Ditch Witch dealership beyond Illinois into Wisconsin and Indiana. He notes that while this may seem commonplace in today’s industry practices, at the time this expansion was nearly unheard of. Ditch Witch Illinois was one of the first Ditch Witch dealerships to expand beyond its original name, becoming what is now known as Ditch Witch Midwest.

As his career continued to flourish, Harbaugh was encouraged by his colleague Richard Benck, the founder of Westside Tractor, to get involved in AED, of which he became a member in 1983. Within just six years, he received an offer from AED’s Bud Hermann, who proposed that Harbaugh become president (now known as chairman) of the Association. This took him by surprise because, although he was president of Illinois Equipment Distributors (IED) and was active in AED committees, he had not served on AED's board before being offered the position. Despite this, Harbaugh’s qualifications and experience made it clear that he was more than capable for the role, and he became AED president in 1991.

During his time as president, Harbaugh made it known that the industry matters he wanted to focus on included education and training, but it did not come without challenges. He recalled some of the roadblocks during this era: the towering interest rates of the late ’80s, and the mergers with overseas companies that were becoming increasingly common and increasing rent to rent business in the United States. Despite these pressures, Harbaugh pursued the goals he had set as chairman.

The challenges that the industry faced with technician education and training were noticed not only by Harbaugh but by others; it became evident to some AED members that the industry could benefit from increased availability of learning opportunities for students and employees. These were some of the factors that influenced Harbaugh and his colleagues to consider a solution.

He recalled that the idea for a foundation was first proposed by Bud Hermann, who appointed a committee to work on establishing a foundation. Harbaugh noted that Hermann was interested in developing a way to further support industry members, and the idea of a foundation aligned with those values. Harbaugh was a part of this committee, which had been tasked with putting together a thoroughly researched report that was to provide insight on the state of training, the industry’s job market and management programs.

The results of the report made it clear that the industry was in need of quality employee and technician training. Funding for this new idea, however, proved to be difficult. AED dues would need to be raised to support the creation of these educational endeavors. This caused AED to search for an alternative solution, one by which AED could offer valuable training opportunities without raising member dues during an economic recession.

The decision to create a foundation was set, but a vote from the AED board was needed to proceed with this new project. At the time, the board was divided on the decision, but Harbaugh recalls the deciding vote that was crucial to the birth of The AED Foundation (AEDF): a vote from the Canadian VP, Lucille Johnston. Harbaugh fondly remembers Johnston as a supportive friend who recognized the merit in the foundation’s mission from the beginning. With her vote, The AED Foundation’s journey began, with Lester Heath of Albany Ladder Co. becoming AEDF’s first president.

Once the AED 501(c)(3) Foundation was formed timing was critical to initiate startup. The forming of the Foundation had the support of new AED CEO Toby Mack. During this time, Harbaugh recalls that he personally sought funding for the foundation and enlisted $10,000 commitments from 15 additional distributors along with an AED match. Harbaugh made the first donation to the Foundation.

Reflecting upon these beginnings, Harbaugh said of the Foundation that it has “come a long way” considering today’s opportunities for school accreditation, training and the support of more widespread funding. “The paths that are drawn today are a result of what was done back during the planning for the Foundation.” The AED Foundation Board established the first AEDF program in Chicago in the early 90's. 

Still, Harbaugh is well aware that student engagement is a weak point that the Foundation is aiming to strengthen. He commended its recent decision to focus more on students at the high school level, as evidenced by the change in Vision 2025 that increases the goal of the number of recognized high schools in the next few years. Harbaugh noted that AEDF faced a similar challenge during its early days.

“How do you get people to want to go to tech schools if you don't get their interest in the high school and say, ‘This is an industry that creates them.’ There’s opportunity for wages, opportunity for job growth, opportunity for management, opportunity for everything.”

Harbaugh believes that with a continued increase in awareness, achieved by efforts on behalf of the Foundation, more young students will be attracted to the industry. This will positively impact the industry by reducing the workforce shortage and simultaneously increasing diversity.

Harbaugh’s final piece of advice for the Foundation? “Listen to what industry members want.” 

He asserts that supporting organizations and their needs is the foremost responsibility of the Foundation.

As AEDF moves forward with its mission, it is important to remember the reason for its development. Education and training are vital resources that were as needed by the industry in the 1990s as they are today. Now AEDF is able to provide everything from research reports to webinars, seminars and virtual learning opportunities to help sharpen the skills of the heavy equipment workforce. AEDF is grateful for the vision of Harbaugh and his colleagues for putting in motion the plans for the Foundation. Their hard work made it possible for AEDF to provide countless opportunities for the workforce over the last three decades. AEDF aims to continue to support industry members for years to come.

Q&A with Ditch Witch Midwest Founder and Former CEO Earl Harbaugh

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Stay true to your faith. When you want wisdom, ask God. Check your ego at the door - as ego gets in the way of our lives more than anything else.

Is there someone that you considered a role model early in life?

My parents, a high school teacher, many mentors at Penn State University, and the founder of Ditch Witch, Mr. Ed Malzahn.

What are your favorite books?

The Bible, books on leadership, entrepreneurship and capitalism.

What is your favorite genre of music?

Country music.

What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?

I’m an agrarian at heart, so anything that has to do with plants or animals.

What characteristics do you believe leaders should possess that are keys to developing the next generation of leaders?

Have integrity. Stay humble. Listen to others’ wisdom.

Where do you hope Ditch Witch Midwest is in 20 years? AED?

Wherever good vision and planning takes the second generation family, Mark, Leanne and Scott.

What is some advice that you’d give your younger self?

Follow your vision and be patient.

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