In 1956, contractor John Peed was struck with an idea as he searched for a piece of used construction equipment: wouldn’t it be great if a contractor could quickly locate whatever heavy machinery he needed in one place? If you wanted to buy used equipment back then, you had to hunt for it. No dedicated construction equipment marketplace existed.
The world wasn’t quite ready for his idea, so he waited another 10 years, trying to persuade banks to lend him money for his newsletter focused solely on the untapped but unproven market of used construction equipment. “They just kept showing me the door,” the late founder said in a 1973 newspaper interview. Down on his luck, he nearly shipped out to run a quarry 45 miles from Saigon, Vietnam, but gave the newsletter idea one last chance. This time, it stuck.
On Thursday, April 14, 1966, Contractors Hot Line, the newsletter and the company, was born. No one would have predicted that little four-page weekly flyer would turn into a multi-milliondollar publishing company now known as Heartland Communications Group, based in Fort Dodge, Iowa, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this April.
The company now publishes more than 40 print and digital magazines and guidebooks for the construction, agriculture, livestock, aviation and industrial machine markets and reaches an expanding global audience. Besides its headquarters in Fort Dodge, Heartland also operates branches in Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Lincoln, Neb.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Denver, Colo.; Manitowoc, Wis.; and London, England.
Mr. Gale McKinney, Heartland’s president and CEO, credits the company’s employees and its thousands of loyal clients and readers for making this milestone possible.
“Heartland’s success is a direct result of the dedicated, passionate commitment of its staff past and present. Heartland has persevered for 50 years because of our staff’s significant skill set, the personal relationships we have developed, and the customized solutions we consistently tailor for our clients to reach their customers,” McKinney says.
Newsletter Launches a Company
Initially, Contractors Hot Line included free “want to buy” listings, which were sent to paid subscribers each week. As the newsletter became more popular, it expanded to include advertisements of machinery for sale. When weekly communication wasn’t fast enough, the company also began offering a daily version that was mailed—and later faxed—throughout the country five days per week. As the company grew and increasingly shifted to conducting business by telephone, its customer base had expanded to more than 230,000 contacts, a number that has grown exponentially through the years.
On Aug. 8, 1968, the company became incorporated and changed its name to Contractors Hot Line, Inc. Over the next few years, the small and agile business started new trade and consumer magazines in various niches, a pattern that has continued to this day.
In December 1974, the company started Computer Hot Line, which provided a means for buying and selling used computer equipment, and in September 1975, the company founded Farmers Hot Line for buying and selling used farm machinery and equipment. As the company broadened, it clearly had outgrown its name, shortening it to Hot Line, Inc. in October 1976.
Joe Peed Elected Chairman
In 1976, Joe Peed was elected chairman by Hot Line’s board. Joe is one of John and Dolores Peed’s seven children—five boys and two girls—and was raised on a farm near Otho, Iowa, south of Fort Dodge, where he cultivated his characteristic work ethic, self-discipline, determination and entrepreneurial spirit.
Under Joe’s leadership, Hot Line flourished. From 1976 to the early 1980s, Heartland continued to develop and expand its telemarketing services, which it offered to other businesses and organizations. In 1977, the company started Printers Hot Line and Aviators Hot Line, which became nationally acclaimed titles. In 1985, the company had 17 publications, 614 employees and approximately 500 telephones with which customer service representatives made 20,000 to 25,000 calls per day.
On March 14, 1988, the company changed its name to Heartland Communications Group, Inc., to reflect the company’s Midwestern roots and the services it provided. Besides the publications and telemarketing divisions, at that time Heartland also operated the following divisions: business services, communications, business development and real estate. The business services division offered marketing fulfillment, mailing and graphic design services, and the communications division provided telecommunications and data processing services. The business development division offered custom publishing services, and the real estate division managed company properties in downtown Fort Dodge.
Heartland has published many print and digital magazine titles and guidebooks throughout its history. Some titles, such as Computer Hot Line, Printers Hot Line and Plastics Hot Line, were sold to larger companies. Besides Contractors Hot Line, Farmers Hot Line and Aviators Hot Line, some key magazines in Heartland’s current portfolio are: AcreageLife, American Cattlemen, American Dairymen, BusinessAir, Crane Hot Line, Industrial Machine Trader, Fabricators Hot Line, Lift and Access, Lift & Hoist International and Parts Connection. The company also publishes annual guidebooks, including Antique Tractor Guide, Compact Tractor Guide, Construction Equipment Guide, Crane Guide, Farm Equipment Guide, Material Handling Guide and Transportation Dimension Guide.
Heartland’s Greatest Asset
Besides investing in community and industry organizations, Heartland leaders realized that the company must also invest in its people in order to succeed. Through the years, the company has provided staff with opportunities to grow and develop, and to explore different roles. Dedication and loyalty have been rewarded. Heartland now has 26 employees with 20 or more years of service at the company.
“One of Heartland’s greatest assets has been its employees, past and present,” Joe says. “I have expected as much out of them as I demanded of myself. It has taken years of hard work and dedication from countless Heartland employees for us to achieve what we have. I’m proud of them and what we’ve accomplished together over the past 50 years." — Joe Peed
One of the company’s first employees, the late Louise Hanson—aka “Ms. Hot Line”—in 1999 shared her memories of working at the company for 21 years: “Working at Hot Line gave me the opportunity to grow and mature as a person and as a businesswoman. The respect and love I have for Joe Peed and his talents are still as strong as ever. It was built through working, fighting, playing and learning side by side, sharing both the good times and the bad. We invested lots of blood, sweat and tears into the company and each other.” Hanson passed away in 2013.
Maureen Anderson, Heartland’s longest-term employee, is in her 46th year with the company. She started at Contractors Hot Line in July 1970 and continues to work as a sales representative for that publication. “Joe saw something in me that he liked and wanted me to fit into a future vision he had planned,” she says. “I resisted for less-than-smart reasons. I thank him for persisting and leading me through the quagmire of my incorrect assumptions to finally agree. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Carol Harrison, who is in her 38th year with the company and now serves as publisher of Farmers Hot Line, says one of the most valuable things the company leader did for her was “challenging me to do things I never thought I could do.” Joe was known for putting in long hours and expecting the same of his employees. Harrison laughed as she recited one of his trademark lines: “If you’re not here, you’re not making money.”
Virginia Lowrey-Rodriguez, who has worked for Heartland for 31 years and now serves as head of Heartland’s Industrial Group, says working for the company has taught her “the value of having a good work ethic, tenacity, and the importance of goal setting, achieving and exceeding.”
Mary Gonnerman, Heartland’s vice president of operations, has worked at the company for 29 years, 18 of those years as Joe’s administrative assistant. She says she admires Joe’s “faith in his staff to do what is right for the company and giving them the freedom to do it.”
Shannon Bushman, who is head of Heartland’s digital media department and has worked at the company for 28 years in various roles, says, “I’ve gained confidence, strength, passion to lead and a passion for what I contribute to the company every day.”
All employees interviewed expressed appreciation for their Heartland co-workers, who have supported them through the years in good and bad times and feel like family.
Strong Past, Promising Future
For 50 years, Heartland Communications Group has traversed the peaks and valleys of varying economic eras, showing resilience and growth despite operating in occasional down markets.
“We are grateful for our thousands of customers who have trusted and relied upon our services to disseminate their messages to their target markets, even when times were tough,” says CEO McKinney. “Their partnerships have helped us develop compelling products to better meet their needs. We value the personal relationships we have cultivated through the years and look forward to reaching new customers as we continue to grow.”
In a 1991 magazine interview, Joe Peed said: “What I’m most interested in is that there will be a company, a business here in Fort Dodge, for people who want to make their careers with Heartland Communications. I share that dream with most of the people in the company when they ask me what my thoughts are for the future. In essence, the future of the company is really up to the employees of Heartland. I enjoy watching them succeed.”
“That quote is still on point today,” McKinney says. “Our ability to generate business and to prosper is completely dependent upon the creativity and passion of our people. Heartland is truly the sum of the careers of thousands of people over the past 50 years, their imprints part of our culture. In some ways, Heartland is a bit of a throwback—relying on the attributes of a strong work ethic and a dedicated commitment to our clients’ success. These values we’ve learned through our history combined with an array of new marketing innovations will provide Heartland with a bright future.”
Heartland Communications Group and its employees have realized this dream of building a successful company that, over the past 50 years, has helped numerous clients market to their customers and ultimately improve their businesses. As it always has done, Heartland will continue to search for new and innovative ways to bring buyers and sellers together.