Ditch Witch Founder, Inventor of Compact Trencher, Dies

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The utility construction industry lost a giant with death of Ed Malzahn, chairman of the Charles Machine Works Inc. (CMW). Malzahn’s invention of a compact trenching machine paved the way for changes in the way essential utility services are delivered to customers.

Malzahn, 94, died Dec. 11 in Perry, OK, the small northern Oklahoma town that washis lifelong home and where CMW is headquartered. A memorial service was held Dec. 18 at the Ditch Witch training center on The Charles Machine Works campus with funeral services at the First Presbyterian Church of Perry, Malzahn’s long-time family church.

In 1948, Malzahn designed the world’s first compact trenching machine, a product he envisioned could be used to dig water and gas service lines to houses which at that time was done by hand. Malzahn, a recent engineering graduate of Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University), devoted two years working in his father’s Perry machine shop to perfect the new product.

“I saw it as something plumbers would need,” Malzahn said.

The first model had small buckets mounted on a vertical chain which cut into the ground as the chain rotated, digging a narrow trench. The machine’s steel frame had four small wheels with pneumatic tires. The operator sat on a side-mounted tractor seat and moved the machine forward or backward with a lever-controlled ratchet. In 1950, Malzahn was satisfied the new product was ready to sell.

“I hired an advertising man in Tulsa to print a sales sheet,” Malzahn said. “He asked what the name of the product was, and I said it didn’t have a name – it was being called ‘Ed’s Ditcher.’ That didn’t seem suitable, and we tossed around ideas for names, but nothing seemed right. The ad man said, ‘Well, what does it do?’ I said, ‘It digs ditch.’ We began looking for words to put with ‘ditch.’ It was getting late in the day, and ‘witch’ rhymed, so that was it, Ditch Witch was the name.”

Ed Malzahn on the world’s first service line trencherIn 1951, Malzahn placed the first Ditch Witch ad in Popular Mechanics magazine; it was one column wide, 2 inches deep. Trenchers began to sell, and Charlie’s Machine Shop was expanded several times to increase production to meet growing demand. The CMW was incorporated,160 acres west of Perry was acquired and a new 24,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and 8,000-square-foot office were built there.

That first compact trenching machine set the stage for development of equipment which would install not only water and sewer pipe, but also telephone, electrical cable and later CATV cables underground, out of sight and safe from weather outages. By the 1970s, new subdivisions were advertising all underground utilities – no unsightly wires, no service lines to fall or fail due to weather or accidents.

“In addition to equipment,” he once explained, “before electric and telephone cable could be placed in the ground, wire products had to be improved. In fact, early power cable carried warnings not to bury it in the ground. A lot of things had to come together to get us where we are today.”

Malzahn guided his company from a country town machine show to a global corporation. With the steadily expanding Ditch Witch line of equipment and later the products of companies CMW acquired, the Perry company today claims it offers to the world’s broadest line of equipment for installing utilities under the ground.

Engineers are not widely recognized for marketing savvy, but as a young engineer, Malzahn understood in the beginning what business schools later would call the marketing concept: identify a product that is needed; develop the product to fill that need; manufacture the product with a high level of quality; advertise and promote it to the people who will buy it; and establish a method to distribute and sell it to customers. Malzahn said it was just common sense.

In the early ’90s, Malzahn was speaking to wives of employees and dealers at CMW’s annual dealer conference. “Why don’t we build lawnmowers?” someone asked. “Everybody needs a lawnmower.” Malzahn’s answer: “We could do that. In our plant we can build about anything. But there are a lot of companies making lawnmowers – and good ones. We would have to sell a lot of mowers to equal what we get for one machine. We have identified our market and believe it’s best for us to stay focused on it.”

Firm Direction

He kept the company on track and focused on its path forward. Malzahn did so with respect for his employees, customers, competitors and the industry.

Ed Malzahn could be described as “low key.” Though proud of his company’s achievements over the years and he received multiple awards for achievement, he remained humble, never boastful.

In the mid-1970s, Ditch Witch began holding Editor’ Day events to brief the trade press in person about significant developments. Editors flew in to Oklahoma City, were met at the airport and driven to Perry, an hour away. They spent the next two days were spent on a plant tour, presentations and field demonstrations. A highlight was an informal session with Malzahn where he answered questions.

“How does it feel to have invented a whole industry?” one reporter asked.

“We’ve played an important part in developing equipment that has allowed utility lines to be placed underground,” he answered. “But at the beginning, I don’t think we or any one company could have done alone what’s been accomplished.”

He mentioned Davis Manufacturing in Wichita, an early and aggressive competitor that had also developed a line of trenchers.

Charles Davis ultimately sold his product line to the Case Corp., and he once offered this advice to anyone who wanted to sell construction equipment: Establish a dealer network like the one Ditch Witch has – it’s the envy of the industry.

Indeed, the worldwide Ditch Witch dealer network is a key element in the Ditch Witch success story.

More Than Money

During Ditch Witch’s rapid growth in the ’70s, the company became a target for acquisition. CMW is s family owned and its stock wasn’t publicly traded, so it couldn’t be purchased by outsiders to gain control. Frequent offers came to Malzahn from large corporations wanting to buy Ditch Witch.

During Ditch Witch’s rapid growth in the ’70s, the company became a target for acquisition. CMW is s family owned and its stock wasn’t publicly traded, so it couldn’t be purchased by outsiders to gain control. Frequent offers came to Malzahn from large corporations wanting to buy Ditch Witch.

“They always talked about money, how much money I would get if I accepted their deal,” Malzahn recalled. “They didn’t understand. It was like coming to a man who loves cherry pie and who always has 25 pies on hand, more than he could ever eat. It was like saying to me, accept our proposal, and we’ll give you all the cherry pie you could ever want. I already had everything I wanted and needed, so their offers were of no interest.”

Essentially, Malzahn cared more about his company and employees and what would happen to them if he sold out; he cared more about people than money for himself.

“Some people,” said a former employee soon after Malzahn’s death, “could at first be fooled by Ed’s demeanor. You never really knew what he was thinking, and that made some people uncomfortable. But talk to him, and his goodness quickly became readily apparent.”

Ed and Mary MalzahnIndeed, Ed and his wife Mary (she died in 2011) were philanthropists at a level that can’t be estimated, because they never talked about it. Money for the high school auditorium, library improvements, assistance in building a first-class YMCA, a meeting place for the local AA chapter – their giving was directed within the community. Acts of personal assistance to those in need was not uncommon, but are undocumented.

However, numerous Ditch Witch innovations to the underground construction industry are well documented. Fortune magazine has recognized the Ditch Witch trencher as one of the best 100 American made products. Ditch Witch innovations include more than trenchers: the first integrated vibratory plow, first backfill blades and backhoe attachments for trenchers, and the first “combo” machine offering multiple capabilities with interchangeable modules. In 1987, the company introduced a compact horizontal directional drill suitable for utility work and subsequently developed of a broad line of compact and midsize directional drills.

Changing Times

Histories of mid-size to large American corporations would reveal few where one individual has so dominated – in a positive way – the destiny of a company. Not that Malzahn didn’t delegate as the company grew, but for 63-years Ed Malzahn made all major decisions. In 2011, he took a step aside as his granddaughter, Tiffany Sewell-Howard, assumed the position of chief executive officer. Malzahn remained chairman of the board and still remained active with the company until his death.

Big changes have come to CMW in the past five years, beginning with the surprise acquisition of Wisconsin-based Earth Tool Co, maker of Hammerhead products. Soon after CMW acquired downhole tool manufacturer, Radius Tools, American Augers, and Trencor. The companies retain their names and continue to operate from their locations, but they brought to CMW companies that complement the Ditch Witch product line and industries served. Ditch Witch tracker and locating equipment was shifted to Subsite Electronics, already located on the CMW campus. Following the telecom downturn of 2000, a strong market for used directional drills emerged, and CMW has since acquired another company, MTI, to actively compete in that arena.

Years ago, a reporter asked Malzahn – he was well into his 60s at the time –if he was looking forward to retiring soon.

“My understanding of retirement,” he answered, “is it is the time of life when you can do anything you want to do. That’s what I do now. I love what I do – come to the office at seven every morning. That’s what I will continue to do as long as I’m able.”

For the last couple of months of his life, Malzahn’s pace slowed, but he still was in the office at least a twice a week.

[inline:1215-ed-malzahn-early-trenching-machine.jpg]
Malzahn demonstrating an early trenching machine.

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Malzahn with his wife, Mary.

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