Omaha businessman Robert B. Daugherty, who died Wednesday, leaves a legacy that will continue his focus on helping to feed the world, several Nebraska leaders said.
Daugherty, 88, was chief executive of Valmont Industries Inc. from 1946 to 1988 and chairman until 1996, a period when the Valley-based company literally changed the face of the planet by manufacturing irrigation systems to water parched farm fields.
Daugherty had “a profound impact on Nebraska and on agriculture throughout the world,” said University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken.
That impact will continue even after Daugherty's death, thanks to his $50 million pledge to start the global World for Food Institute at the university.
“The institute will build on Bob's lifelong work to seek innovative solutions to the one of the greatest challenges facing the world today — using finite resources to feed a growing population,” Milliken said. “It is a fitting legacy to a great man.”
Tim Daugherty said his father went to the hospital a week ago with an infection. He decided to return home Monday and died there early Wednesday.
Daugherty was married to the former Marjorie Kruse for 54 years until her death in 2002. Other survivors include sons Rob of Minneapolis and Joe of Omaha and nine grandchildren. Private funeral arrangements are pending.
Daugherty helped create the center-pivot irrigation industry and competed internationally in other products as well. He became a mentor and counselor to many of Omaha's business and civic leaders.
Valmont's systems create the green circles of cultivated land throughout arid regions of the United States and dozens of other countries, boosting production significantly to meet the world's growing demand for food.
In recent years, Tim Daugherty said, his father created the Daugherty Foundation, which has about $300 million in assets, and took a keen interest in its activities and investments.
At a foundation board meeting to consider the proposed water institute, Milliken was part way through his presentation when Daugherty interrupted. He gave a thumbs up and said, “I vote yes!” thus approving a 15-year pledge.
“He didn't mess around,” Tim Daugherty said. “He made decisions and moved on.”
Valmont CEO Mogens Bay said Daugherty was “a unique and remarkable individual.”
“He was an entrepreneur. He was a big philanthropist. He was a key player in the Omaha community, and his foundation will now continue to do good in this community.”
Bay said Daugherty loved to visit the company's production plant.
“He had a technical aptitude that was very good,” Bay said. “He was a very curious person. He read a lot. He knew a lot about so many different subjects. He had a very broad mind.”
Daugherty retired from Valmont's board in 2004, after 57 years, but remained interested in the company, Bay said.
“He was just a wonderful human being. It didn't matter if you were cleaning the office or running the office, you got the same respect from Bob Daugherty,” Bay said.
Daugherty's business sense also led the company into new ventures, from innovations such as the center-pivot and slow-drip irrigation systems to electrical light poles and computer sales.
He was a director of ConAgra Foods Inc. for 24 years and recruited Charles M. “Mike” Harper as its chief executive. Harper built ConAgra into an international food conglomerate.
Harper called Daugherty “the world's best businessman.”
“Honesty, integrity, guts — he was really a great businessman,” Harper said. “He was willing to bet on people, too. I loved that man.”
Some say the mechanized irrigation industry, initially beset with technical problems, would have died in its infancy if not for Daugherty's persistence and ability to commercialize the invention. Scientific American magazine once called mechanized irrigation the most important agricultural innovation since the tractor.
Today Valmont's equipment irrigates 10 million acres worldwide.
Robert Burdic Daugherty — his mother's maiden name was Burdic — was born in Omaha, graduated from Central High School and earned an economics degree from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He returned to Omaha in the summers to work at the Stockyards and at Gate City Iron Works, which was operated by his uncle, Frank Daugherty.
He joined the Marines in World War II, taking part in the invasion of Okinawa and other Pacific Theater campaigns, including New Britain Island and Peleliu Island.
He was training for the invasion of Japan when atomic bombs dropped by the United States ended the war. Daugherty was among the troops sent to China to disarm Japanese divisions.
When the young captain returned home to find work, Uncle Frank suggested he join Sam McCleneghan's Platte Valley Manufacturing Co. in Valley. In a farm shed at Platte Valley Manufacturing, workers made portable elevators to carry unshelled corn to barns or cribs for storage.
Daugherty invested his savings of $5,000 in the company and ran the business end while McCleneghan directed the design and manufacturing.
Their first break came when Sears Roebuck contracted to sell Platte Valley's products. They sold the elevators to Sears for 30 cents a pound, producing 3,000 units in one year.
The company also produced a device called a clodbuster that attached to a plow and broke up soil so it could be cultivated.
But business dropped sharply during the 1952 farm recession.
“We realized, too late, we should have diversified,” Daugherty said later.
He eventually bought out McCleneghan's interest in the business and changed the name to Valmont, a named that combined Valley and nearby Fremont.
In 1954 Daugherty met Frank Zybach, who had invented a machine that rotated from a central pivot point as it sprinkled water on a farm field. Zybach and his brother-in-law, A.E. Trowbridge, were making the equipment in Columbus, Neb., but needed a larger plant for production and sales.
“It was an outstanding concept,” Daugherty said. “It worked, sort of.”
Daugherty recognized the labor savings of the center-pivot systems over conventional methods of irrigation, which usually involved hours of moving pipes by hand. But early center pivots rarely made a complete turn around a field without breaking down.
Daugherty almost gave up.
“At times, the developmental problems were almost overwhelming,” he said in a 1978 interview. “I was alternately elated and discouraged.”
Daugherty set up one of the early machines at a University of Nebraska field day in Hastings. The corn was over 6 feet tall, and Daugherty and another man, unseen among the cornstalks, continuously made repairs and pushed the machine to keep it circling the field.
Eventually the entire system had to be redesigned, and many of the changes came at the suggestion of early customers — mechanically inclined farmers.
On a visit to Texas, where farmers watched a Valmont crew install a center-pivot system, one of the observers told Daugherty, “I'll tell you, sonny, if that contraption doesn't work, it's going to make a hell of a fine buzzard roost.”
One day in 1972 Daugherty took a call from former President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose irrigation system needed fixing because, the Texan said, “my oats are a-thirstin'.”
Daugherty promised to take care of it.
One early problem was finding enough pipe, so company engineers devised a method of heating the edges of a metal strip to gumlike consistency and then pushing them together. The method was cheaper and faster than welding and gave Valmont an edge on cost, supply and reliability.
Valmont began making lightweight steel pipe in 1956 for Northern Natural Gas and also sold the pipe to carry oil and irrigation water. The company moved into the light pole business in the 1960s. The pipes also were used as casings for napalm bombs.
One skeptical petroleum executive asked for a high-pressure field test to prove the strength of a pipeline Valmont was installing in Wyoming. Daugherty made the man promise to pay for the $25,000 test if the pipe passed.
“If the pipe failed, we really were in big trouble,” Daugherty said later. “Several hundred thousand dollars worth of pipe would be in question. The financial future of the company might even be at stake.”
When the test pressure reached maximum level, the pipe held and Daugherty exhaled.
Daugherty believed in delegating responsibility to able lieutenants.
“The day of the one-man show in business is over,” he said. “You end up with disaster. We have a lot of very fine people today.”
In 1968 Valmont sold 20 percent of the business in a public stock sale. The company didn't need the capital, Daugherty said, but the sale gave him and the other executives who owned shares a chance to diversify their wealth.
The same year, Daugherty became a director of Nebraska Consolidated Mills, which later became ConAgra Foods Inc. ConAgra was in dire need of new leadership, and Daugherty, who had interviewed Mike Harper for a job at Valmont, realized he was qualified to be the foods company CEO.
After that, the late Peter Kiewit invited Daugherty to join the board of the Kiewit Foundation and later the board of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., becoming the first outside director of each.
Daugherty eventually served as a director for other Omaha corporations, including Omaha National Bank, Guarantee Mutual Life Co. and Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., as well as a number of charitable and educational organizations. He also was a king of Ak-Sar-Ben.
As farmers began using computers to control their irrigation systems, Valmont's farm stores began selling IBM computers. Valmont spun off its computer division, Valcom, but it eventually went out of business.
Daugherty said he knew it would be tough to succeed in computers. “It was a bad business,” he said.
Taking Valmont public in the late 1960s gave Daugherty the financial wherewithal to support civic and educational projects he valued. His donations have benefited students at Creighton University, Hastings College and the University of Nebraska's Omaha and Lincoln campuses.
Daugherty loved boating and once owned a yacht named Trois Soleils, French for “Three Suns.” However, it proved unreliable, so he converted a 175-foot, ocean-going tugboat named the Thames into a cruiser. He renamed it Itaska and used it to take friends to exotic locations around the world.
After 10 years he sold the Itaska to the late William Simon, a former U.S. Treasury secretary.
Daugherty also enjoyed swimming, gardening, hunting and riding a motorcycle. He had homes in Minnesota, Oregon and Florida as well as Omaha.
He donated money and raised money for political candidates. A Republican, Daugherty was President Ronald Reagan's Nebraska finance director in 1983, but he also supported Democrats J.J. Exon and Bob Kerrey.
After Enron Corp. left Omaha for Texas in 1986, Daugherty and Harper were among business leaders who helped rewrite state laws that provided incentives for companies that came here and hired people. The legislation is credited with helping to spur economic development.
His membership in the Strategic Air Command Consultation Committee led to his spearheading the fund drive to build indoor exhibit areas near Ashland, Neb., for the Strategic Air & Space Museum's collection of aircraft, which were deteriorating in outdoor displays in Bellevue.
“If a company took a disinterested view on those things, it eventually would affect its ability to attract exciting and productive people to the company and the community,” Daugherty once said. “It makes good business sense to be involved in charitable, cultural and educational activities.”
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