An American Value

Tough Country—Forged In Steel

June 2015 Feature Steve Janes

Anyone who believes “business is business” has never done business with a small southern Texas company called Tough Country.

When other companies trying to close multi-million dollar contracts will wear their best business suits and negotiate contracts in luxurious Houston office facilities, the Pratka family, owners of Tough Country, invite their business guests out to the Pratka ranch 100 miles southwest of Houston. And while dressed in jeans and work boots, they don’t talk product or business, but rather hunting, fishing and life in general.

Tough Country, a business that has gained a reputation for making strong, practical truck bumpers, believes the quality of its product will speak for itself. The family business wants you to recognize the quality of its character. It tries to live the company motto: American Values Forged In Steel.

Diesel Tech magazine had a chance to spend a couple days in El Campo, Texas, touring the manufacturing facility at Tough Country and rubbing shoulders with the Pratka family. Although this story is supposed to be about accessory parts for trucks, the real story is about a family—how a father started a small machine business in the garage of his home and how it grew, and how three sons found their way into the middle of the business.

“My dad has always told me from the time I can remember that you have to live your life and enjoy it,” explained Brent Pratka, the eldest of the three sons. “He told me you have a job to provide for your life—do the best job you can. But if your job ever gets in the way of your pleasure…find a different job.”

For Brent and his two younger brothers, Kurt and Clay, working hard and living hard are two important traits instilled in them by their father, Mark Pratka.

So normally, this is where we would start talking product…or in the Pratka case, truck bumpers.

But the story isn’t about bumpers, and yet it’s all about bumpers. While Diesel Tech was in town, the Pratkas were in the middle of signing the biggest contract in the company’s history to distribute the Tough Country bumpers, but that couldn’t interfere with a community crawfish feast (4,000 pounds of crawfish being cooked and served to the El Campo community by the Pratka family and friends) and taking Diesel Tech on a wild boar hunt. Talk about multitasking.

“We’ll put you in the tree stand to hunt pigs while we talk business,” Brent explained. And that’s how the itinerary went.

What Is Tough Country

To understand the makeup of Tough Country, you need to understand that the company evolved from a small machine shop started with one piece of equipment in Mark and his wife Kay’s garage in El Campo.

Mark, an avid outdoorsman, was doing basically what he would later teach his three boys—work hard so you can play hard. He created a family business that would allow him to take off when he wanted so he could take his family hunting, fishing or on some other outdoor adventure. And to the boys, every outing was quite the adventure.

“It seems that almost all of my childhood vacation memories included us getting our vehicles stuck in something,” Brent said. “One time we even got a jeep stuck in a tree (after sliding off a cliff). We had to use a chain saw and cut the tree down to get the jeep out.”

Expanding The Business

So as the machine shop grew, it would custom-build practical bumpers for the Pratka vehicles. Or as Kurt explains it, “We built bumpers so we could run over [stuff].” (Okay … not a complete Texas quote … but we have to keep this sort of clean.)

To make a long story short, while Brent was at college at Texas A&M, he would often get comments about the bumper he had on his ‘93 Chevy diesel truck. After he graduated, he decided to expand Mark’s Machine Co., by building bumpers. He convinced his father to clear a small corner of the machine shop out so he could build bumpers.

Taking the bumper design that was on his truck, Brent decided to make a few simplifications.

“That first bumper was impractical because it was indestructible and could do everything,” Brent said. “We had to scale it down because it was beyond anything that most people would want.”

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But one unique feature that remained with the bumper design was the winch box.

“One of our key features was the exposed winch box where you could actually work the cable,” Brent said. “And that’s something that has been one of the spotlight features of our product line through the last 17 years…and I don’t think any other company today is producing an exposed winch box where you can actually work your cables.”

Brent found that selling bumpers was hard work. He started out driving from truck dealership to dealership, asking them if they wanted to order a bumper. He sold only one the first month to a local Dodge dealer, but eventually word got out that the Tough Country bumper was more than an accessory. It was something designed to protect the thing you love—your truck. It was also designed to protect the people you love.

Still Growing

Fast forward two years and Tough Country was selling over $100,000 a month (and expanded well beyond that small corner of Mark’s Machine space). It grew so fast that Brent struggled to keep up with sales, management and production. He needed help and little brother Kurt needed spending money while he was going to college. It all made sense.

“I saw the business growing and Brent was telling me he needed some help,” Kurt explained. “I was going to college, taking night classes so I could help out during the day—putting in 40 to 50 hour work weeks while still trying to pass my classes.”

After a year, Brent convinced Kurt that he could make more money working at Tough Country than he could make anywhere else—even with a college degree. It was time to commit to the family business and help the company grow. A few years later, the youngest of the Pratka brothers, Clay, came aboard working in the sales and marketing portion of Tough Country.

Now you have Mark’s Machine Company and Tough Country working in harmony. But it doesn’t end there. The three Pratka boys and their wives are constantly finding other segments of the business for expansion. They have a sawmill and they custom-make the pallets to fit the size of their bumpers for shipping. They also do custom woodwork and sell cutting boards (a great Christmas gift). They use wood from their ranch. They thrive on not only being innovative with what they produce, but efficient with the materials they use.

Tough Country Products

Throughout their lives the Pratkas were taught to solve problems with their hands. If they needed a trap to catch wild pigs or tree stands for hunting, they would design and weld their own. They would surround themselves with good workers and good people to produce the best products possible.

“We have excellent people—it’s our people who make our company,” Kurt explained. “And our employees have the best job in the world. We work four days a week—Monday through Thursday—typically a 12-hour shift. And they get off by noon (on Thursday for a long weekend).”

The Pratkas still work Fridays to stay up on sales and inventory management.

UTV Needs

Truck bumpers are still the driving force for Tough Country. But UTVs are the fastest-growing segment of their sales, now representing 15 percent of their revenue.

The truck bumper was a natural. That’s what the Pratkas started with and how they expanded their business. But one day about three years ago their local Ford dealer (who also had the Kawasaki UTV dealership in town) called them up and asked a special request. The new Kawasaki Mule was just introduced but didn’t have a bumper on it. The local dealer knew unless he got something to protect it, it would be destroyed in the harsh Texas terrain.

That first UTV bumper was such a success, and the UTV market was so large, the Pratkas knew it was something they could be part of. After all, they used side-by-sides on their ranch and often on hunting excursions. They recognized what the needs were and designed the bumpers to be practical and strong. In other words, the Pratkas knew that if they built stuff to suit their own high standards, others would naturally benefit from these designs.

Building bumpers wasn’t about competing with other bumper-building companies. In fact, during their negotiations during the Diesel Tech trip, the major distributor suggested they should cut a few corners on their bumper design in order to make them more price competitive to the market. Brent explained that he listened to the suggestion…and then politely and respectfully informed the distributor that there would be no compromise with quality that would turn the Tough Country bumper into, “just another choice for consumers.”

“We’re not going to devalue our product just to compete,” Brent explained. “We have a better quality product and we’re sticking with it and we sell it on the value of our product, not to compete with the price.”

The Pratkas want consumers to know when they put a Tough Country product on their vehicle, it’s the best product on their vehicle. They want their dealers to know that the product will be strong, practical and reliable. Tough Country stands behind its product.

So for the four hours Diesel Tech was hunting pigs, the Pratkas were conducting business in the only way they know how.

“We showed them what Tough Country is all about—not just about the product, but about the lifestyle,” Kurt explained. “That goes so much beyond just a standard product or a standard company. We showed them that they have our family behind our product.”

Brent added, “Ninety percent of what we talked about was nothing to do with building bumpers or selling product. It was about lifestyle.”

And to the Pratkas, this sales meeting, as well as the visit from Diesel Tech, was less about bumpers and more about making friends, new hunting buddies and forging relationships that will last long after the business is done. If business happens, great. But Tough Country is about people, it’s about life—things that make life easier, people that make life more enjoyable.

That’s the Tough Country story. That’s the Pratka story. And for years to come, when friends gather around the campfire and adventures are shared, events from two days in El Campo, Texas, will certainly be woven in the fabrics of life.

Now let’s shoot a pig.

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