This year marks the 50th anniversary of the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois, and Richard “Dick” Roels is proud to have been a part of it for the past 33 years. He started as a grounds worker for the company after working several years on a golf course. He says he learned from “great mentors” as he worked on the crew. In 2008 Roels was named grounds maintenance supervisor of Deere & Company.

He insists he feels the same love for the job as he did as a rookie groundsman way back in 1981. Even so, he admits he doesn’t view every responsibility with unbridled and unbounded enthusiasm. He can do without snowstorms. Who can blame him? Who appreciates being roused out of their bed in the bitterly cold pre-dawn hours for what promises to be a long night of snow fighting? Or, having to contact colleagues and asking them to do the same?

“I have to talk to a couple of my guys a little bit more than the others just to make sure they are awake,” he says in a voice that’s more understanding than critical. The fact is that Roels greatly appreciates the people on his grounds team. “They are not your typical 9-to-5 people,” he says.

His department consists of nine full-time grounds pros and two greenhouse attendants. Five seasonal employees (usually two college students and two seasonal veterans) join his crew from mid-spring to late summer.

“These are the folks that make my job enjoyable. They pay attention to detail, know what is expected of them and have the same vision as I do. We also get great support from our superiors,” says Roels.

He and his staff maintain the corporate campus – 1,300 acres of which 120 are maintained turf, trees, gardens and two ponds. The campus also contains 350 acres of farmland and 25 acres of prairie. A two-person crew regularly visits and takes care of about 40 acres of landscaped grounds at five other nearby John Deere properties, all within a 10-mile radius of the main campus. These other Deere properties are maintained at the same level as the corporate grounds, says Roels.

Grounds Manager Dick Roels knows every square inch of the Deere properties. He joined the grounds staff there in 1981.

Turf care is a big deal at the campus and at the other locations.

“John Deere is very engaged in environmental management and safety. This requires we document our applications whether it is to our grounds or to the ponds,” Roels says. “Our sites are open to the public, and we are very sensitive about the products that we apply and when we apply them. All of the grounds and greenhouse employees have Illinois applicators licenses.”

Roels and his team maintain more than the greenery on the properties. They’re also responsible for snow removal on more than 50 acres of parking lots, roadways, fire lanes and sidewalks; and the maintenance of the property’s two small lakes. One of the lakes is stocked with colorful koi, and the other functions as the cooling tower for the campus buildings.

They also maintain a traditional Japanese garden on the northwest corner of the main building, and they regularly switch out the Deere equipment at the giant display area within the main building and at the popular John Deere Pavilion in downtown Moline. Prior to the holidays, they decorate two 20- to 25-foot-tall Christmas trees at the administrative center.

Deere Headquarters Still a Marvel at 50

Moline seems like an unlikely location for the headquarters of an internationally recognized company that racked up worldwide sales of $37.8 billion in 2013. Moline is far from a backwater town, however. It is the hub of the Quad Cities, a metropolitan region of about 400,000 people clustered on either side of the Mississippi River. Moline and Rock Island are on the Illinois side of the river and Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the John Deere & Company World Headquarters. How it came to be in Moline is two stories. The first, of course, is Deere’s Midwest heritage. The company takes its name from the inventor and blacksmith who in 1837 hammered out his first successful self-scouring steel plow in Grand Detour, Illinois. He sold it to a local farmer who quickly discovered it was ideal for cutting through the tough Midwest soil. The word got out and within four years John Deere was manufacturing more than 75 plows per year. In 1848, he moved his operation 75 miles southwest to the Mississippi river town of Moline to take advantage of cheaper transportation. By 1855, his factory was manufacturing more than 10,000 plows annually.

The second key figure in making Moline the site of the company’s headquarters was Deere & Company President William Hewitt (1955-1964), the last Deere family member to lead the company. In the mid-1950s Hewitt resisted pressure to move the headquarters to a major U.S. city, such as Chicago, New York or San Francisco. Instead, he insisted the headquarters remain in Moline. He felt that the location reflects the company’s Midwest roots. Then he and Deere management took the bold move of hiring renowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch fame) to produce a headquarters design to showcase Deere’s growing global reach.

Construction of the new administrative center began in 1961 and was completed in the spring of 1964.

The award-winning headquarters feature the first use of COR-TEN weathering steel in an architectural setting. The corrosion-resistant unpainted steel formed its on protective coating and took on the color of Midwest soil as it weathered. The gambrel roof and skylight on the three-level west office building (constructed in 1988) illuminates a 13,000-square-foot atrium luxuriant with palms and tropicals. Two grounds staffers maintain the garden and the 7,000-square-foot greenhouse that supports the indoor garden.

The four-building administrative center is regularly updated to include the newest business and communication technology and to facilitate interaction among its worldwide manufacturing and distribution network.

The John Deere World Headquarters is not your typical corporate administrative center. Each year between 40,000 and 50,000 customers and visitors tour the facility, which features a giant display floor featuring vintage and modern equipment, and a three-dimensional historical timeline mural. It is open for tours daily except for Easter, Christmas, July 4th and New Year’s Day.

Weather extremes create the biggest challenges to keeping the campus and the surrounding properties pristine. Being in the Midwest, the Quad Cities are regularly pounded by storms – thunderstorms, windstorms and, of course, snowstorms.

“Mother Nature never rests. Any time there is wind there could be lots of branches and trees. There could be debris on the roads,” says Roels. Even if it’s after hours the property must be cleared of branches or whatever else has blown onto it.

Roels and his crew oversee controlled burns on the 25 acres of prairie that is maintained within the John Deere headquarters property. Photo: John Deere & Company

“My first year as supervisor we had straight line winds that took out 60 trees,” he recalls.

But it’s the snow that often makes for the longest days – and nights. Snow that falls in the late afternoon or evening can mean a long night for Roels and his crew. Usually by 2 a.m. they are firing up a range of tough snow and ice removal equipment. The roads, parking lots and sidewalks must be clear and safe when people start arriving at the campus in the morning and also when they leave in the afternoon. More than 900 people work at the headquarters, which also hosts between 40,000 to 50,000 customers and other visitors annually. Some travel great distances to tour the headquarters.

Keeping the campus safe

“Each team member is assigned a route with a piece of snow equipment that is assigned to that route. Of course, we have John Deere equipment,” says Roels. His snow-fighting fleet includes three John Deere 444K wheel loaders with 12-foot plows, one Deere 524 wheel loader with a 12-foot plow and a 12-foot snow pusher for the same unit. They also use 1-ton pickups equipped with V-plows and salt spreaders. Two Deere X748 lawn tractors fitted with snow blades, power brooms and salt spreaders keep campus sidewalks clear and safe. He says his department uses, on average, about 100 tons of salt per season.

Who wouldn’t appreciate this view from their office window? The 900-plus employees at the John Deere World Headquarters can look forward to enjoying beautiful scenes like these when they arrive to work each morning. Photos: John Deere & Company

“We try to have our lots plowed and salted by 6 a.m.,” adds Roels. “If snow continues during the day, we do our best to keep the aisles and roads open for traffic.”

Being in the center of the Deere administrative universe you might guess that Roels’ department gets whatever it wants in terms of professional grounds and snow equipment, and it certainly doesn’t lack in that department. Even so, there are strict limits to what Roels can spend, as well as what he can add to his equipment fleet. “I have to budget this equipment and buy it like the rest of the industry.”

Photo: John Deere & Company

The seven years he has served as the manager of the grounds department has taught him a lot, and not just about operations either, he says. Because of his many years of service in the department prior to becoming a manager, he thoroughly understands the scope of the work. He knows every square inch of the properties. Being a manager, of course, requires that Roels keeps learning new job skills.

“I’m now more involved in project management. I spend more time writing and reviewing scopes, getting bids and working through the approval processes we have in place,” he explains. Of course, he still oversees daily in-the-field operations. He usually starts each day with an early-morning tour of the corporate campus. He also makes regular visits to the other Deere sites.

Richard “Dick” Roels values his position within the Deere family, and he does all that he can to manage the landscapes under his care because he realizes how important it is in maintaining Deere’s valuable image.

This beautiful atrium, maintained by the grounds department, gives the three story West Building on the headquarters property, a feeling of light and space. Photo: John Deere & Company