By Scott Meacham
Charles Machine Works is a case study in entrepreneurship and innovation.
To succeed in entrepreneurship, solve a problem that lots of businesses have. You can be even more successful, if the business you are solving that big problem for is in an industry that is about to take off.
That’s the Oklahoma story of the Malzahn family, Charles Machine Works (CMW) and the world-famous Ditch Witch brand.
Back in the early 1900s, Carl Frederick Malzahn, a German immigrant, and his sons Charles and Gus traded Minnesota winters for Oklahoma winds. Together they built a successful blacksmith business in Perry, OK. After a few years, the business, then named Charlie’s Machine Shop, caught the crest of one of Oklahoma’s oil booms and pivoted to repairing parts for operators in nearby oil fields.
At the end of World War II, the demand for housing was huge. New neighborhoods required expanded utilities. Building out electric, gas, and plumbing lines from the major trunks to rows of houses under construction meant slow, back-breaking pick and shovel work. Commercial machines were too large to adapt to the smaller lines. Charlie and his son Ed, a graduate of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), recognized a new opportunity.
The pair did what all great mechanical engineers do. They spent weeks and months in their machine shop constructing a prototype machine to dig those smaller, shorter trenches efficiently and affordably. Their invention had buckets with teeth-like jags on a moving chain. It emptied gouged-out dirt into neat piles. For Charlies Machine Shop, a second business pivot was in the works.
Over the next 10 years, business incorporated as The Charles Machine Works, Inc. (CMW). They created national distribution and branding — the name Ditch Witch is inspired. Ditch Witch, the first mechanized, compact service-line trencher for laying water lines from the street to the house, was patented. The company opened international sales, and broke ground on a manufacturing facility on 160 acres outside of Perry that came to employ thousands.
From blacksmithing, to replacement parts, to the invention of the Ditch Witch, the Malzahn family and their team started up a whole new industry for safely and efficiently installing any underground utilities, including telecommunications, CATV cable, and fiber optics. The first Ditch Witch sold for $750 in the fifties.
In 2019, Toro acquired The Charles Machine Works for $700 million.
Case Study for Entrepreneurs
Not only is this a great Oklahoma story, Charles Machine Works is a case study in entrepreneurship and innovation, starting back in 1907 with a family of hard-working entrepreneurs who came to Oklahoma to build a life and a company.
Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry is part of Charles Machine Works history, as it is for so many of Oklahoma’s successful businesses. A unique aspect of CMW’s history is that their breakout success was built on trenching equipment with the Ditch Witch, and yet the company went on to become a technology leader in the trenchless industry as well.
Engineers. Vision. Pivots. Self-sufficiency. Large markets with big problems. Family. Small towns. Oklahoma. Connect the dots.
That’s why Charles Machine Works is a case study in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.