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Use of prototype fuels dispute over Cuban tractor project

Use of prototype fuels dispute over Cuban tractor project

Cleber, a company formed by ex-IBMers from the Triangle, plans to make,
sell ractors in Cuba
But their prototype was a tractor made by another company, Tuff-bilt,
which is threatening to sue
Cleber says patents on the tractor have all expired

BY RICHARD STRADLING
rstradling@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH
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.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Source: Use of prototype fuels dispute over Cuban tractor project | News
& Observer – www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article61325262.html

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