You can’t judge a book by its cover. The same could be said of Jon Mollhagen.
Hardened hands hook into the pockets of cowboy-cut jeans as a smile lights up his eyes, hinting of an untamed spirit. But looking deeper, the quick wit and creative mind shine through the international businessman whose intellect has put him on the map for arguably the most recognized cattle-processing equipment in the world.
Before a career journey that led to tromping through South Africa, the bush of Australia, the subtropics of Brazil and countless other countries, Mollhagen was growing up on his family’s fifth-generation row crop and cow-calf operation in the Smoky Hills outside Lorraine, Kan. Long days of working beside his father and fixing equipment instilled a set of very deep roots, planted firmly in the prairie soil.
“From an early age, especially as I got more into the vocational agriculture classes in high school, I knew I wanted to build something and sell it,” he says. “I just didn’t know what ‘it’ was.”
After high school, Mollhagen went on to pursue a degree at Colby County Community College in western Kansas. His time there was cut short when an opportunity for the 19-year-old to start up his own farming operation became available.
“I gradually bought pasture and farm land to build my farming and cattle operation,” he recalls. “That was in the mid-’80s when a 12.5 percent interest rate was considered good.”
A willing-to-work attitude allowed Mollhagen to survive those days. He started a custom farming business, operating on worn out farm equipment and doing whatever it took to get by, eventually working himself up to farming out 10,000 acres in the area.
Another way Mollhagen was able to expand his cattle operation was to lease pasture ground he describes as having “less fence than trees.” Here and there, the pastures dotted different areas of the county, and Mollhagen soon realized he needed a set of portable corrals to use in the multiple locations. First he looked around the industry, but not able to find what he was looking for, he built it.
“I spent about a year and a half perfecting the design for a corral system that could be pulled by a pickup truck,” he says. “It looked good and got the job done, so I named it and formed a corporation.”
And so Trans-Corral became the first product marketed by Moly Manufacturing, Inc., quickly proving to be a successful business venture.
“The first Trans-Corral I sold was at the 1987 Kansas Livestock Association Convention Trade Show,” he says. “There wasn’t a cheap price sticker on the display, and it sold within the first hour.”
The first taste of success was very humbling and motivating, he recalls. It wasn’t long until Mollhagen set out on the road in his pickup truck with a set of Trans-Corrals in tow to trade shows and industry events.
“Very rarely would I show back up at home still hooked to a set of corrals,” he says.
Increasingly, Mollhagen had customers wanting to purchase new hydraulic squeeze chutes to pair with the corrals, often consulting him.
“I didn’t know anything about hydraulic squeeze chutes; I’d actually never even operated one before” he says. “I grew up on a manual chute and had only seen hydraulic systems used a couple of times.”
But that didn’t stop Mollhagen from working to meet his customers’ needs. With a clean slate and a lot of windshield time, he began to process what he wanted to build. From his time traveling across the United States and Canada, he noted commonly occurring problems hitting the entire industry.
“From Canada to Texas, I heard the same story of hydraulic chutes on the market being too rattly and noisy,” he says. “There was also story after story about cattle getting pinched down too tight because the pressure points on the chutes were hitting wrong.”
Taking these points, Mollhagen set out to build the SILENCER chute — the product that put Moly Manufacturing on the map. The quiet, equalized pressure system was one of a kind, also focusing on animal exit and operator safety.
“SILENCER was the flagship that put Moly Manufacturing on the market,” he says.
In 2010, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners released a study at its conference, digging into the most adequate cattle-processing chute. At the end of the trials, researchers noted, “The total staff time/head was significantly less when using the SILENCER chute compared to the manual and hydraulic chutes. The total staff time/head between the manual and hydraulic was similar.”
On the map
It didn’t take long for Moly Manufacturing to build a reputation, quickly letting the industry know it was not just another flash in the pan. Mollhagen’s philosophy of, “only if we work, things happen,” pushed the company to building its own manufacturing facilities and bringing everything in house. A huge part of Moly Manufacturing’s success has been Mollhagen’s “movers and shakers” type attitude, with the company sinking continual investments into research to improve products and give the industry what it needs. This has led to the development of the TurretGate, which he has coined “the most innovative piece of equipment we’ve ever built.”
Mollhagen has also worked alongside some of the industry’s top animal-behavior masterminds, including Temple Grandin, to gain insight on what needed to be incorporated in his designs.
“The evolution of the U.S. cattle industry has been amazing to watch,” he says. “Concerns and attitudes toward animals are much different. People are much quieter in the working pen and much more interested in understanding and interacting with their cattle.”
Mollhagen makes huge efforts to understand the market he is in, regularly attending producer meetings across the United States and globally. Sitting in on economic and development talks around the world gives him a unique perspective on the global beef industry.
“People need to stay positive about the U.S. beef industry and where it stands at a competitive level in the global market,” he says. “We live in a world market, and the world is growing its taste for beef.”
Behind it all
“I’ve had my mind on building machines for quite some time, and with the help of a lot of people I’ve been able to do that,” he says.
Mollhagen is quick to attribute the success of Moly Manufacturing to the people supporting him, particularly his family. His wife, Patricia, takes a lead role in heading the company’s operations. The couple has two grown children, Lacey and Blaze, who have also become integral in the family business. Lacey works as the head of purchasing and coordinating projects, and Blaze runs the family’s cow-calf and row crop operation while also working as a salesman for the company. And with four manufacturing locations, it takes a lot of employee involvement to keep the business moving and improving — something Mollhagen doesn’t take for granted.
While already proving to be successful, Mollhagen’s career is far from being close to winding down. The progressive thinker will always be looking for ways to improve cattle handling, with a focus on safety and efficiency.
“It all depends on how you measure success, but I don’t think we’ve done that much yet. We still have a long way to go.”