As two ex-IBMers from the Triangle pitched their idea for making and selling a small farm tractor in Cuba, they had a prototype that they featured on their website and at a trade show in Havana.
Now an Alabama company says that prototype was actually one of its tractors and says it is planning to sue Cleber LLC, the company behind the Cuban venture, for fraud.
Chris Matthews of Tuff-bilt Tractor Systems says the tractor Cleber used was a Tuff-bilt. He says Cleber put the logo for its tractor, Oggun, on the fuel tank, but that you can still see the Tuff-bilt logo on the steering wheel.
“If I put my name on the Ford Edge and went to the news and said this was my product, I’d have Ford on me in 30 minutes, “ Matthews said.
This month, the federal government granted Cleber a license to set up an assembly plant in Cuba and sell tractors to private farmers and cooperatives there. It would make Cleber the first U.S. company to manufacture and sell products in Cuba since the U.S. trade embargo was put in place after the Cuban revolution more than 50 years ago.
Cleber’s founders, Saul Berenthal of Raleigh and Horace Clemmons of Alabama, say their tractor is an updated version of the Allis-Chalmers Model G introduced in the U.S. in 1948 and discontinued several years later. They say all the patents on the small, rear-engine tractor have expired, freeing them to copy its basic design, the way Tuff-bilt and more than a half dozen other companies have done over the years in making a version of the Model G.
“If there’s a product that has no patent, they get one, figure out how it’s done and make it,” Clemmons said. “It’s a fairly common business practice.”
Matthews and Clemmons both say that Clemmons approached Tuff-bilt a year ago about the idea of licensing its tractors to sell in Cuba. Matthews says that after several months of negotiations Clemmons informed Tuff-bilt that Cleber had hired an engineer and would build its own.
“About a month later, we saw our tractor on the local news,” Matthews said.
Clemmons says during those negotiations, Matthews’ father, Rowland, claimed to hold patents on the tractor and demanded $125,000 up front. Clemmons says he quickly learned there were no active patents and told Matthews that he would not give Tuff-bilt any money until the company shared some of its know-how with Cleber.
“I offered to pay him when he delivered something; he wanted money up front,” Clemmons said. “So I said I’ll just go reverse engineer the tractor.”
Matthews acknowledges that his company owns no patents on the Tuff-bilt. In fact, it no longer owns the brand, which it sold last month to a company in Nebraska that plans to sell them by the thousands in Africa. John Grolmuss, CEO of the new company, Tuff-bilt Tractors Manufacturing Inc., declined to comment.
Both Tuff-bilt Tractor Systems and Cleber are based in rural Jackson County, Ala., east of Huntsville. Tuff-bilt Tractor Systems began making tractors there in 2007, after buying a Georgia company that had made the tractors from 1974 to 1989, Matthews says. He says his company made as many as 40 or 50 a year. And while it won’t make any more, he said, the Matthews’ company will continue to make and sell implements for the tractors.
Clemmons acknowledges that Cleber bought a used Tuff-bilt tractor and used it for its prototype. Matthews says you can see a serial number on the tractor on the Cleber website that indicates it is one Tuff-bilt made in 2011 and sold to a man in Georgia.
But Berenthal and Clemmons say that in the end the Oggun won’t be an exact replica of the Tuff-bilt. They say their engineer is working on improvements, such as a new axle system for the rear wheels.
“We are completely upgrading the technology on the tractor,” Clemmons said. “It’s going to look exactly like Tuff-bilt, but it’s not going to be like Rowland’s tractor.”