By Carroll Smith
In 1949, U.S. President Harry S. Truman was inaugurated for his second term, world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis retired, and Doc Kirby, B.H. Bass Jr. and Duff Holcomb – three men from the Mississippi Delta – founded The KBH Corp. Bass bought out Kirby and Holcomb in the early ’50s, and the Bass family has held and managed the company for the next six-plus decades.
Over the years, KBH became a household name for cotton handling equipment and niche agricultural products, such as anhydrous equipment, flame cultivators, wick bar applicators and cotton trailers. In the mid-1980s, the company began its progression into the “big equipment” market with a full line of liquid fertilizer handling and application equipment and cotton harvesting products, particularly the module builder and boll buggy. Every piece of equipment is manufactured in Clarksdale, Miss.
Tim Tenhet, a Clarksdale native who was educated at Sewanee and spent nearly 10 years in a Washington, D.C., commercial real estate brokerage, joined KBH in 1991. He recalls a hot September day when Hamp Bass III, B.H.’s son, asked him to take a ride to Wayne Bush’s farm in Schlater, Miss., to witness something that could revolutionize how cotton is harvested.
“When we arrived at the farm, Hamp stopped the car, honked the horn and up popped Dr. Philip To, who was and still is a professor at Mississippi State University,” Tenhet says. “He was working on the first automated module builder along with MSU’s Herb Wilcutt, who had practical infield equipment experience. KBH had provided a grant to the MSU Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department to develop this automated system. This collaboration is a great example of how the private sector and the university sector worked together on this innovation that became an industry standard.”
Close Connection To Farmers
Many of the ideas for new KBH products originate from farmer friends and customers, says Tenhet. For example, Byron Small of Senath, Mo., and Randy Branch of Baxley, Ga., invited the KBH team to view a video they had made of what later became the Cotton Spear. At the time, the men had applied for a patent and wanted to license KBH to manufacture, market and sell the product because of the company’s expertise and name recognition in the cotton handling business. “We are always listening to our farmers to learn what equipment needs they have that are not being fulfilled in the market,” Tenhet says. “That’s the crux of our method of developing new products.
“The next step in bringing the Cotton Spear to market was to research cost and manufacturing techniques. We then conducted market research to determine whether the pricing would support the manufacturing cost and whether the market would accept a spearing technique rather than the bottom-cradling technique. Many of our Cotton Spear sales are based on front-end loader applications where the modules are loaded onto a flatbed trailer instead of being picked up by a module-mover truck. The trailers can carry eight round modules, which doubles a farmer’s payload, as opposed to just four on a module truck. They don’t even have to strap the modules down.”
Diversified Product Line
In recent years, KBH has diversified its product line beyond cotton to meet the needs of farmers whose operations are becoming more diversified as well. “A lot of our focus has been on developing bigger, faster, stronger, smarter fertilizer tenders that include multiple compartments, various axle configurations and wireless remote operating capabilities,” Tenhet says. “It’s all about maximizing efficiency for our customers, especially during planting and harvest when time is such a critical factor.
“Many coffee hours are spent discussing what we can do better or differently, but ultimately, it is our customers who are telling us how they need the equipment to perform. That’s where the ideas come from. We are always open to listening to our farmers and dealers.”
‘One Customer At A Time’
The entire staff at KBH takes pride in its team effort to produce a diversified, quality product line that fits the needs of its customers in today’s economy. “Our philosophy is to build our business with integrity, one customer at a time,” Tenhet says. “There is no better marketing in agriculture than word of mouth – the customer is always right, and we stand behind our equipment.”
Today, KBH is an international company that manufactures quality equipment, including the Cotton Spear, bulk seed handling equipment, hopper-bottom grain trailers, one-trip plows, and liquid fertilizer applicating and handling equipment. B.H. Bass’s grandson, Buddy, is the company president. Buddy’s brothers, Hamp IV and Brent, have farmed near Clarksdale for more than 20 years. Their mother, Tish Gardner, who is an accomplished artist, retains an active leadership role in the business.