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Glenn Pope, Crop Harvesting Engineering Fellow

Pope’s career stays true to his first love - combines

Glenn Pope standing in front of an X9 combine

Glenn Pope, a 2021 Fellow Award winner, says the ideal career for him would be “combines start to finish.”

Today you're going to get a front row seat to what happens when your entire career is focused on one thing. Here's hoping you like combines as much as Glenn Pope does.

Because in telling Pope's story it would be impossible not to talk about the product's impact on him and his impact on the product. It's what earned him a 2021 John Deere Fellow Award for Crop Harvesting Engineering.

The best place to start on this journey is now, as John Deere's industry changing X9 combines finish ripping through farm fields around the world. When first released the public saw an engineering marvel – a massive machine capable of efficiencies not yet realized in harvesting.

Beyond the trademark glossy green paint there was increased capacity and innovations around grain handling. What wasn't seen was the previous 10 years of development, refinement, wins, losses, wins again, anxiety, and perseverance. And perhaps no singular Deere employee was more equipped to ride that rollercoaster than Pope.

He's known for the patented "Bullet" rotor that made Deere's STS and S-Series combines ("the vehicle that defined me") so potent in earning customer trust and sales. He also played key roles in identifying and helping solve major issues with the X9 such as the cleaning shoe performance, power efficiency goals, turning radius, and helped in the overall full definition of requirements. But to say his understanding of the product line began with these models would miss Pope's unique formative years.

Growing up he was so mesmerized by the arrival of custom harvesting teams that he often treated the annual event like an Advent calendar treats Christmas. By 11 he was driving his first combine on the family's small grain farm in eastern Colorado.

"Sure, I drove a tractor as a little bitty runt. But the combine was so much more complex. There's belts and pulleys and chains and stuff running all over the place, and it just totally captivated me," Pope, senior staff engineer, said. "And then the first time I rode it, I was hooked. Every year all I wanted to know was "when's harvest?" I lined up all my green and yellow farm toys in the living room and did some carpet farming of my own."

Making lasting connections

Affectionately referred to as "The Pope of Combines," Pope has spent more than three decades understanding customer needs and aligning them to product development. He has crawled inside hundreds of combines, changed thousands of parts, and optimized efficiencies for customers throughout the world. When he shows up in the field with a pair of pliers at his side just know they were not put there as a fashion accessory.

And while his knowledge of the equipment is unparalleled, sometimes who the person is – how they interact – is as noteworthy as what they've accomplished.

Pope uses a mixture of relatability and humor to connect to people – all people – whether they're a customer, dealer technician, production employee, or co-worker. His blue-collar appeal means he looks more like the guy on the line responsible for putting on the side panels instead of the guy with four innovation awards, 31 inventions, and 138 patents.

"That's the biggest compliment you could give me," he says sincerely.

His sense of humor comes from two places, his parents and at one time being a 6-foot-1 uncoordinated, non-athlete 14-year-old.

"How do you combat someone making fun of you when you're a bad athlete? You beat them to the punch," Pope said. "I learned to deal with things by laughing at myself, and that's contagious. You get people all chuckling and laughing and joining in, and I can make fun of myself faster than anybody else can."

Pope has employed that tactic on more than one occasion while working on a combine. He recalled being in Oregon and dealing with a new feed accelerator part. A design he said, "I was pretty proud of." But "the rubber meets the road" in the field and within a few hundred yards the combine plugged up. A dealer technician was on-site and started in on the process of unclogging the feeder housing.

"Cleaning it out is not easy and is slow-going," Pope said. "Finally, the tech's like, "You know, just once I'd like to find the guy that designed this and give him a piece of my mind." I had this sheepish look on my face and said, "Well, if you lean up you can look him right in the eye." We had a good laugh over that."

Pope's smile fades now as the conversation, by his definition, gets serious. It's a moment of candor and humility.

"Sometimes I make the famous career limiting move by what I say in meetings," he admits. "I can do those a lot. There's times where I've smacked myself in the head saying, "Man, just shut up … I know who I am, and that's why I try to stay true to that. And I try to push my personality in whenever I can to let them know there is a lighter side to all this stuff. That's a piece of me."

The words sit in silence.

Pope is then reminded that he's being interviewed for the Fellow Award, the company's highest individual honor. The words "career limiting" seem not to apply.

"Oh, yeah. I guess that is kind of silly," he says, genuinely caught off guard.

Customers first

When asked how he describes his work to others, Pope doesn't hesitate: "I'm the combine guy." It's this simple approach that has allowed him to connect with customers. Yet, to understand the customer, you must be with the customer and Pope has stood in hundreds of fields on hundreds of farms in countless locations. The value in that, to a guy like him, cannot be measured.

"It all comes to reality when you're in the field and seeing the trials and tribulations, the joy, the downfalls of being a farmer and seeing what that's all about. That's part of my whole experience I would never trade," he said.

He begins any customer thought through the scope of expectations.

"If I'm going to get into this very expensive machine and harvest my crop – and do it anywhere in the world – what do I want to have happen? Then I wonder, where's the point where I'm not happy anymore? That approach has served me well," he said.

For a kid growing up wearing a John Deere hat "every day of my life," Pope's accomplished career began at Case IH. A strained job market and "rejection letter after rejection letter from Deere" greeted him after college. "It just crushed me," he said.

For a first job Pope said he was given everything he could have wanted – freedom, travel, and responsibility. "Every single thing clicked except the color," he said with a smile. Another 10 years passed, and the economy dipped again, forcing the sale of Case and pressing Pope into a decision.

"I was told I was still employed but I needed to move to Pennsylvania," he said. "A lot of my friends were jumping ship to Deere and I took that opportunity as well. Once I switched over it was almost that euphoria of being home."

The freedom to do what he wanted came with him, allowing Pope to play a role in the smart combine transformation, Smart Industrial launch, and the "challenge of a lifetime" – building the X9.

It's here that Pope meanders through the joy and headache of the X9. It’s a fascinating tale with many key players and an equal number of problems to solve.

First, he said, consider what was at stake: the company's fourth attempt at a large capacity combine, a market segment that already had stout competitors, and the kind of financial commitment where coming up short could be career-defining – or worse.

For the better part of two years a cycle was formed, with possibilities and breakthroughs being equally weighed down by the pursuit of perfection.

"I remember sitting in Canada with my good friend Mike Meschke, and we're standing inside a grain tank parked at the end of the field and looking at this canola sample. It's mush. And we're like, "This thing is terrible." We had enough fortitude to call our baby ugly."

Leadership belief in the X9 brought with it extra time and the realization that good would not be good enough. "Yeah, to call it stressful, well let's just say that's accurate," Pope said.

From that pressure came a diamond, exactly as Pope would expect. "We're John Deere for a reason," he said. "It's about the challenge to make something great until the next great thing is needed."

A Fellow, defined

He said that approach – the push to innovate – is one of the many reasons Deere is the only place to work.

"Deere is the best of two different worlds. It's an open-minded environment that makes everybody feel good. You know, if you're not happy, try this. You know, there are all these opportunities," he said. "They will give you different experiences if you want that. You know, it's so easy to move at Deere. Or you can be like me. You can say, "You know what, I have passion. This is where I want to be. Leave me alone." And they leave you alone."

Being left alone has shaped what Pope labeled as the ideal job arc. "I think a perfect career to me would be combines start to finish."

The hope now, he said, is the Fellows allows him a broader perspective while also bringing in the voice of experience and the customer.

"I think it buys me a seat to at least be involved a little more with some of the critical issues going on," Pope said. "I hope that it changes me to get a broader perspective and brings maybe a voice of experience a bit more, with some authority. That's my true hope that, you know, when I bring up a suggestion or an idea it's got some clout behind it."

And maybe a touch of humor, a touch of Glenn Pope?

"Well, sure. That, too."