Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal are at a tradeshow in Cuba this month to promote an Alabama-based tractor company they plan to build near Havana for small family farms.
CleBer LLC, based in Jackson County where Clemmons lives, is the first U.S. company approved by the Cuban government to do business there since the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations earlier this year. There are still obstacles to overcome, but Clemmons and Berenthal are optimistic and determined.
That’s why they’re attending the 2015 Havana International Fair Nov. 2-7. They left in late October to get everything set up for the annual tradeshow.
“Something changes almost everyday, ” Berenthal says in a telephone interview from his North Carolina home. “After we get back from the fair, we should have a better idea what the time frames are going to be, but we’re hoping it will be the first or second quarter of 2016.”
That’s if the American trade embargo is lifted. In September, the outlook was encouraging.
“The U.S. Department of Treasury issued further amendments to regulations, announcing new ways of doing things to make projects like ours easier and faster, ” Berenthal says.
Also, Cuba’s President Raul Castro spoke to the United Nations for the first time ever, on Sept. 28, saying the warming of diplomatic relations with the U.S. was progress, but that he still sees the trade embargo as Cuba’s top obstacle to economic growth.
It will take a vote of the U.S. Congress to lift the trade embargo.
“There’s no reason trade cannot be re-established, and there’s no reason why Alabama cannot be one of the largest trading partners with Cuba, ” Berenthal says. “The products exist, the facilities exist, and there are people willing to invest. All we want is public opinion to let the people in government know that this is in the best interest of Alabama and the rest of the U.S.”
What they’ve proposed to Cuba is a change to an open source manufacturing business model, starting with their CleBer tractor, named Oggun, after a powerful warrior and spirit of metal.
Clemmons came up with the idea to build a tractor similar to the first tractors built for the 40-acre farms in the U.S. He says Allis-Chalmers built one between 1948 and 1955 that seemed like a good fit.
This particular model hit the market late, he says, after farm sizes had started growing, and Allis-Chalmers dropped it to make bigger tractors.
But it’s a good fit for CleBer.
“It’s a tractor that can be fixed in the field; you don’t have to come back to us to fix it, ” he says. “It can create businesses to do repairs, and we will compete in that area as long as we can do it better and cheaper than anyone else. But the important thing is that the tractor includes all parts that are standard, off-the-shelf parts to help create something to help them in the evolution of farming.”
He says all the patents on the Allis-Chalmers tractor had expired, so they hired an engineer to model a tractor like it with some adjustments.
The prototype is with them at the Havana tradeshow this month. The Oggun tractor is also being featured on Telemundo TV, which sent a film crew to North Alabama in early October to video a segment on the tractor and the two businessmen trying to take it to Cuba.
Clemmons says once all the government regulations are worked out, their plan is to build a small assembly plant in the Mariel Special Economic Zone near Havana. For the first three years, the parts will be manufactured in Alabama and shipped from Mobile to a new $1 billion port the Cuban government built in the Mariel district to attract foreign investment.
“We will determine how much they can source there. Then after year three, we will begin to manufacture parts in Cuba and import only the pieces they can’t build, ” Clemmons says. “We’ve clearly told them it will be an open source manufacturing process, and we will keep our margins as low as possible. We will make money, but this is more about doing the right thing and giving them the ability to make decisions in other arenas.”
It’s a business model, he says, that can be used for other types of equipment.
“They have a need for growth, and by having all open source manufacturing, it will allow them to become self-sufficient.”
Clemmons says he and Berenthal haven’t yet decided whether they will set up a manufacturing plant or contract with an existing plant in Alabama to produce the tractor parts for the first three years.
There are still a lot of ifs and whens in the business equation for two countries that are physically just 99 miles apart.
“Like I said, things change sometimes daily, ” Berenthal says. “They will probably change again before your readers see this story.”
For these two history makers, the Cuban tractor project also takes them both back to their family roots.
Born and raised in Florence, Clemmons comes from a long line of farmers. “My grandfather on my father’s side farmed 40 acres. He had eight kids and two mules, ” he says. “I walked behind that mule, and I carried an 8-foot cotton sack and picked cotton by hand, so I am a product of Alabama.”
Berenthal is a Cuban-born Jew who left the island for the U.S. to attend college not long after Fidel Castro took over. His parents, who had already fled the Holocaust in Europe, followed him to the U.S. a year later.
The pair met in North Carolina working for IBM and eventually became business partners to start Post Software International, developing a revolutionary system allowing easy price checks that led to computerized inventories. They sold the company in 1997.
Clemmons bought a Honda Goldwing and set off on a 10, 000-mile journey from the Outer Banks in North Carolina to California. Since then, Clemmons went on to build a green, self-sustaining home. He’s been a county commissioner and ran for state senate.
Berenthal started making trips back to Cuba in 2009 as a missionary. He has three important reasons for tackling the project.
First, it’s an opportunity to help the country where he was born and raised. Second, he believes it’s a chance to help heal relations between Cuba and the U.S., the country he’s called home for more than 50 years. Third, it’s a good business opportunity.
When President Barack Obama and Raul Castro struck a deal to improve relations last December, Clemmons says, his longtime friend and business partner called to tell him they were starting a new business.
“I asked him, ‘What are we going to do?’”
So they started looking at what’s happening in Cuba.
Clemmons says Cuba imports 80 percent of its food, and that struck a chord in him. He thought of his grandfather and things he taught him as he was growing up.
“The Cuban government doesn’t want agribusiness, but does want small, family farms of about 40 acres, ” Clemmons says. It didn’t take long for the tractor idea to materialize.
“I told him it will be very difficult, ” Berenthal says. “But we always say, anything worthwhile is always worth doing.”
Wendy Reeves and Tyler Brown are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
Text by Wendy Reeves • Photos by Tyler Brown