German farm machinery pioneer leaves lasting UK legacy

CLAAS Group's former boss Helmut Claas who has died aged 94

Helmut Claas taken around his 90th birthday - Credit: CLAAS

A German farm machinery manufacturer with a deep and enduring relationship with Suffolk has died at the age of 94.

Helmut Claas — the son of the founder of the CLAAS Group based at Harsewinkel — first came to the UK in the late 1940s where farmers at Little Saxham, near Bury St Edmunds became official UK concessionaire for the machinery built by his family firm.

The company said his death on January 5 had come as “a great shock” but it would continue to develop the business as he would have wished.

Helmut’s relationship with the county developed over the years and resulted in CLAAS establishing its landmark UK headquarters off the A14 at Little Saxham and investing millions of pounds there over the years.

Last year, Helmut’s daughter Cathrina Claas-Mühlhäuser — who now heads up the family-run firm — expressed her delight as she officially opened a “fantastic” new £20m headquarters on the site, incorporating the Manns dealership, training facilities for CLAAS technicians, showroom space and offices. Work on the 33,000sq m complex began in November 2017 and continued throughout the Brexit negotiations.

Claas launched the first European-designed combine in 1935, and during the war quietly continued to develop the machines. 

Following the Allied invasion of Germany, the British Army gained special permission for the Claas’s company to be provided with steel so that manufacture could fully restart. This meant farmers could have access to machinery to grow food. 

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They requisitioned 11 trailed combines Claas had developed and an army unit effectively set up a contracting operation with the firm so that crops in war-ravaged Westphalia could be harvested to feed the local population. 

Later, Bill Mann was offered Claas-built combines by the War Ministry for sale in the UK and was so successful in selling them that in 1947 he was made the official UK concessionaire for CLAAS machinery.

As a young man, Helmut was sent by his father to stay with the Mann family to help with setting up the business, and in particular a parts support arm based in the cattle buildings. Helmut spent much of the late 1940s working in the UK and grew to love the country and Suffolk. The Mann family still farms at Little Saxham. 

In the early 1930s, James Mann took on the tenancy of the 350-acre farm and was joined in the business in 1934 by his 19-year-old son Bill, and the partnership of J Mann & Son was formed. 

One of James’ first purchases was a Lanz tractor and he started to sell these and other machinery locally. At the end of World War 2, with James stepping back from the farming business, Bill decided to focus on the machinery business, while his brother Tom ran the farm.

In 1949, Bill Mann bought the current Claas site next to the farm which was gradually developed as the business expanded. Claas acquired the J Mann & Son business in 1980 to form CLAAS UK. The name for the distribution business officially changed in the late 1980s to CLAAS UK with the Manns name retained for the dealership business which had been started in 1986.

In 1961, Helmut bought a farm at Troston. Troston Farms now extends to 1,500ha and is run by a farm manager employed by the family. It grows winter wheat, barley and rye — some of which goes to Ryvita. Forage maize goes to an anaerobic digestion plant which supplies energy to the new CLAAS HQ and the farm also grows sugar beet for the British Sugar factory at Bury and sunflowers which produce wild bird seed. Land is rented out for outdoor pig production.

Troston was very much a home from home for Helmut, and has remained so for his daughter Cathrina and her family — who regularly visit, and he had many friends in the area.

He took over the helm from his father in the 1960s and was long-time managing director of the group, which today employs 11,400 people worldwide and has a turnover of about £3.6bn.

When Helmut was born in 1926, his parents, August and Paula Claas, were managing a small agricultural machinery firm with a workforce of around 100. 

The couple’s son completed an apprenticeship as a machine fitter after graduating from school and followed up with hands-on experience in metalworking firms and practical training in casting. After studying agriculture in Paris, he took over the planning and establishment of a CLAAS distributor in France, which now operates as CLAAS France SAS. He joined his parents’ family firm in Harsewinkel in 1958 where he applied himself initially to his particular area of expertise — engineering. 

He became managing director in 1962, and when the company was reconstituted in 1978, its Personally Liable Partner.

In 1996, as part of a restructure, he became chairman of the group’s supervisory board and the shareholders’ committee.

Helmut’s focus remained on developing pioneering products and mass-producing them economically. 

Following the success of the combine harvester model DOMINATOR, a completely new combine harvester construction — the LEXION — was launched. The company describes it as “the most efficient combine harvester in the world”. The JAGUAR forage harvester and the large tractor XERION were also developed during his tenure. 

In 2003 CLAAS took over the complete tractor business from Renault Agriculture in France as the company continued to become more international. It expanded with production sites in Russia, the USA and China.

Among the many honours bestowed on Helmut were an honorary Doctor of Agricultural Science from the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim, an honorary professorship from the Goryachkin University in Moscow and Knight of the French Legion of Honour in recognition of his efforts as a pioneer of Franco-German cooperation. In 2013, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of American Equipment Manufacturers (AEM).

Helmut often stayed in Troston with his wife, Erika, who died in 2016. He enjoyed keeping in touch with farmers in the neighbourhood and took a keen interest in issues concerning agricultural firms. He also had a passion for hunting.

“The death of Helmut Claas leaves behind a space in the world of agricultural technology that cannot be filled. His family, all the shareholders, the group executive board, and the staff are mourning the passing of a great personality and will continue to develop the CLAAS Group as he would have wished,” the company said.