Robert G. LeTourneau (1888-1969) was a business magnate, philanthropist, and inventor who held nearly 300 patents.
Known as “the dean of earthmoving,” LeTourneau is considered “to have been the world’s greatest inventor of earthmoving and materials handling equipment.” LeTourneau had a natural genius for engineering.
Machines designed and built by LeTourneau represented nearly 70% of the earthmoving equipment and engineering vehicles used by the Allied forces during World War II and was a major factor in winning the war. During the War, LaTourneau produced 10,000 Carryalls, 14,000 bulldozers, 1,600 sheepfoot rollers, 1,200 rooters, and 1,800 Tournapulls. The building of roads, military bases, airports, etc., in Europe, Africa, and Asia “was the greatest dirt-moving project the world has ever seen.” It was the first totally mechanized war. One bulldozer did the work that 1,000 men did with shovels in World War I.
His earthmoving equipment had a major role in the construction of America’s 48,000-mile controlled-access interstate road system, one of the wonders of the world.
LeTourneau invented the bulldozer, electric wheel, tree crusher, log picker, power log skidder, airplane tow, the air crane, the two-wheeled tractor called “Tournapull,” and the first mobile offshore oil platform, among many other things. He developed low-pressure, heavy-duty rubber tires for heavy equipment.
In 1953, LeTourneau sold his entire earthmoving equipment line to the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Five years later, he developed new equipment based on his electric wheel drive invention called the “wheel hub motor.”
LeTourneau was a dedicated Christian and a Bible believer. He begins his autobiography as follows: “For 25 years or more, I’ve been traveling this land of ours and a few foreign countries trying to teach and preach by word of mouth and example, that a Christian businessman owes as much to God as a preacher does.”
He grew up in a Plymouth Brethren home and was saved as a teenager.
“No bolts of lightning hit me. No great flash of awareness. I just prayed to the Lord to save me, and then I was aware of another presence. No words were spoken. I received no messages. It was just that all of my bitterness was drained away, and I was filled with such a vast relief that I could not contain it all. I ran to my mother. ‘I’m saved,’ I cried. ‘It happened. You don’t have to worry about me any more. I have felt the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ There was a long silence, followed by a deep sigh. A sigh of vast relief. Then, ‘Robert, we knew it had to happen. Two years ago, when we discovered we couldn’t guide you, we knew God would. We have left it in His hands ever since, praying every night that He would help you.’”
As a young man, he surrendered his life to the Lord, and after counsel with his pastor, he determined to pursue his inclinations to build earthmoving equipment. He made God his “Partner,” but he had a biblical understanding of what that means.
“By accepting God as your partner, no limit can be placed on what can be achieved. But God is no remote partner, satisfied if you go to church on Sunday and drop some religious money—the small change that goes to church—on the platter. He isn’t overwhelmed if you read the Bible once in a while and obey the Golden Rule. That isn’t active Christianity, but just a half-hearted way of getting along. When you go into partnership with God, you’ve got a Partner closer and more active than any human partner you can ever get. He participates fully in everything you let Him do, and when you start putting on airs, and thinking you’re doing it with your own head of steam, He can set you down quicker and harder than a thunderbolt. There’s nothing dull about being in partnership with God. God has set me down with some terrific jolts from time to time, but when my attitude has improved, and He has seen genuine repentance, He is the only Partner Who can supply total forgiveness. Not that He is easily fooled. As one preacher put it, ‘God will forgive your sins, all right, but I wouldn’t make a policy of going to Heaven raising Hell on the way.’”
“I would not lightly refer to God as my partner. He is my Lord and Savior, and I am His servant. But by His grace He has made us members of His family, and we can refer to Him as our Father which art in Heaven. More than that, He has let us be ‘workers, together with Him.’ The Bible says, ‘We then, as workers, together with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.’ II Corinthians, 6: 1. So it is in that sense that I mean we are partners, remembering always that real partners don’t try to see how much one can get from the other. They work for the good of the partnership. They try to help each other. I remember one of my customers who told me, ‘I try to shovel out more for God than He can for me, but He always wins. He’s got a bigger shovel.’”
LeTourneau learned early on to trust God’s leading, even when the situation appeared puzzling, as he describes in this testimony:
“On the other hand, my newly-declared partnership with God was bringing me a great peace of mind while doing little for Him. The crusher came that fall when I pinned everything on a winter-long contract in dry Southern California involving several hundred acres of land. I pared my bid down to where, as contractors say, ‘there were hardly beans left for the table,’ and I lost it. To quote another old saying, I was left so small I couldn’t power a treadmill in a flea circus. I must have looked as small as I felt because just now, 38 years later, I happened to mention the incident to my wife. ‘Oh, that awful day,’ she said. ‘I’ve never forgotten how down in the dumps you were when you came home and told me you had lost the job. I’ve never seen you so low before or since.’ The next morning, for lack of anything else to do after pinning all my hopes on the contract, I went out to overhaul the tractor. I don’t know why. The rains around Stockton had brought earth-moving to a halt. A nearby rancher came up and said, ‘Say, Bob, if you aren’t doing anything, I’ve got some stumps to pull at my farm. I’ll bet with this tractor you could do it in half a day.’ After losing a winter’s contract, I wasn’t much interested in a half day’s work, but he was one of those fellows who wouldn’t take no for an answer. ‘You’re making a mistake,’ he said. ‘I think you could make a few dollars and help me improve my ranch at the same time. At least you could set a price.’ He had a point so I quoted the same hourly rate I would have gotten had I won my contract. ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ he said. It wasn’t much of a job, but before I was through another rancher came along. Seeing how fast I was pulling stumps, and hearing about my rate per hour, he decided he could afford to have some stumps pulled too. To make a winter’s work short, the ranchers kept coming along one after another. It reminds me of the story in the Bible about the widow who had only a handful of meal in the barrel, but because she did what the prophet Elijah told her to do, there was always more meal in the barrel in spite of a famine in the land. There was a famine of another kind in the earth-moving business. The winter rains around Stockton that made stump-pulling easy in the softened soil spread to Southern California. The contractor who had beaten me out of that job fought heavy mud for four months and lost money. I came out well ahead, teaching me again to say, ‘Lord, Thy will be done.’”
At one point, he got off track and became more focused on building things than on his relationship with God, and he was brought to a place of repentance, as he describes as follows:
“‘My child,’ the Voice said, ‘you have been working hard, but for the wrong things. You have been working for material things when you should have been working for spiritual things.’ The words were few, but the meaning ran deep. All that long night I reviewed my past, and saw where I had been paying only token tribute to God, going through the motions of acting like a Christian, but really serving myself and my conscience instead of serving Him. Instead of being a humble servant, I was taking pride in the way I was working to pay my material debts at the garage, while doing scarcely a thing to pay my spiritual debt to God. From my lesson that night I can now say that when a man realizes that spiritual things are worth more—and certainly they will last when material things are gone—he will work harder for spiritual things. I discovered then that God loves us so much that He wants us to love Him in return. He wants us to cooperate with His program. Matthew 6: 33 says, ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ That I had not been doing. I had been seeking first my own way of life, and I firmly believe God had to send those difficulties into our lives to get us to look up into His face and call upon Him for His help and guidance.”
LaTourneau believed in and loved tithing, not as mere duty but as love for God, and eventually he gave 90% of his personal income to the Lord.
LaTourneau was a man of great practical intelligence, but his success didn’t come easily. Though he only had a seventh grade formal education, he was a diligent and lifelong student. When he would venture into a new field, he would prepare intensely, by correspondence courses, by apprenticeships, and by every other means possible. He worked hard; he learned from his mistakes; he persisted through great difficulties and trials.
LaTourneau often operated on debt to finance his commercial enterprises, but he maintained a sterling reputation with his creditors. He believed in paying his debts. When he incurred a large debt during the Great Depression, he remained true to his Christian principles.
“The surety company that had backed RG LeTourneau on the construction job that posted the $100,000 loss was going to see to it that RG paid them back every penny owed. So on LeTourneau’s next job, the surety company demanded RG work on Sundays or else they would foreclose on his business, his house, everything. Since RG’s business partner was God, he gave the problem to God to solve. The owner of the surety company, Mr. Hall, boarded a train to officially shut LeTourneau down, but upon arrival to the job site the next day, something miraculous occurred. The surety man had a change of heart and allowed RG to continue.
“Although the job was completed without working on Sundays, RG was still deep in debt. He was able to buy some time with his creditors by committing to improve his financial reporting. The surety company installed an accountant named Mr. Frost to rein in the books. What Mr. Frost found was worse than he had originally expected.
“Meanwhile, RG had skipped his yearly missions pledge the year before so he was committed to making good with the Lord. He told Mr. Frost that he had pledged $5,000 to his church for missions. Mr. Frost couldn’t believe it. RG was so far behind, even thinking of donating to the Lord was out of the question. Mr. Frost didn’t realize who RG was partners in business with. Unbelievably, the business managed to stay afloat and the missions commitment was paid in full that year. Then, his business hit a breakthrough” (“RG LeTourneau: Earthmoving Innovator,” GiantsforGod.com).
One time LeTourneau got behind with his missionary pledge because of financial difficulties. Even when his finances turned around, he had put off his pledge for a year, promising the Lord that he would get caught up later. The following is what happened:
“[T]his was the Sunday the annual pledges for missionary work were taken up. I listened to the speakers, especially a foreign missionary with a highly stirring plea, and I said to myself, ‘Lord, I’m sorry, but there just isn’t any way I can make a pledge this year. I can’t even meet my payroll.’ Right then I had the thought that I had failed to share with the Lord the year before when I had my first big profit, promising to share with Him this year when my profits would be big pickings. Certainly in dropping me a hundred thousand in debt He had shown me the error of my ways. Was I to fail Him again? I was almost sold on that reasoning when I had another disturbing thought. I had been pledging $ 5,000 a year for some years past, and I had the feeling that the Lord wanted me to pledge the same amount again. ... I pledged the full amount for His sake. ... No one has to be afraid of admitting his debt to the Lord. No one has or ever will be able to give as much as He did when He died on the cross to make forgivable the sins of man, past, present, and through all eternity. I will say Frost [the accountant] was appalled when I insisted upon adding the pledge, plus the same amount for the year I had missed, to our mountain of debts. ‘There goes the business,’ he said. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘We’ll add the pledge to the payroll, and whenever we can meet the payroll, we’ll meet the pledge.’ ‘I think I’d better get out of here,’ he said. ‘The Bible isn’t one of the books we use in cold-cash bookkeeping.’ ‘You thinking of quitting?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said slowly. ‘We can’t be any worse off than we are now. I’ll stick around to see how the show ends.’ Within a month we were meeting the payroll—and the pledge—on time.”
LeTourneau also determined not to work on Sunday, though that was a difficult thing for a busy construction company with deadlines and payrolls to meet. It was said of him, “You can count on his being at church for the prayer meeting and on Sundays, or out giving his testimony whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Following is his testimony about being faithful to church:
“In working around the clock, we had also worked straight through our Sundays, four in a row. ‘Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy.’ That was a command generally ignored in the construction business, but not by me when it can be avoided. I now saw myself in a position to avoid it in the future, and resolved to do so. I see I have failed to mention the burr under my saddle. Because of my heavy losses on the Boulder highway job, I was in hot water with my surety company in San Francisco. To explain, when a contractor undertakes a job running into hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars—and there he is so broke from the last job that he is lucky to have two nickels to rub together in his pocket—the contracting company, or county, or state, or federal agency wants some assurance that he is financially capable of completing the job. In that case, if his performance record is good, and he has demonstrated a certain amount of integrity, he can get a bonding company to support his financial responsibility for a small percentage of the amount he is to be paid, if and when he completes his contract. In my case, my surety company, headed by a Mr. Hall, was backing me on the Orange County Dam in the hope of getting back what they stood to lose on me at Boulder. To that end they had put their own man on the job to look over my shoulder and scan every move I made, and every dollar I spent. ... He was a firm believer in Sunday work, and was convinced that only by working on Sundays could we stay ahead. I told him that now that we were organized, we could take Sundays off and still increase our output. He blew his stack. ‘We got ahead by working on Sundays,’ he said, ‘and I intend to stay ahead by working the same way. Either that, or we foreclose and take over the job ourselves.’ That was his legal right, and I couldn’t argue with it. But I had a lot of catching up with my Lord to do, and I figured that came first. I passed the word around to my men. ‘We knock off at midnight Saturday, and we start at midnight Monday morning. Tell your crews, but don’t let the word get back to the surety man.’ They knew what I meant. It seems incredible that there wasn’t a leak amongst hundreds of men. On that August Sunday morning the only two men present in that whole silent, dirt-heaped valley were the surety man and his assistant. I leave it to you to imagine his frame of mind when he confronted me Monday morning. He started to tell me what he thought of my trick, and I just said, ‘No profanity, please.’ ... Left speechless, he turned and ran for his office. Figuring he was calling San Francisco to report my laxness on Sunday work, I decided I had better stay close to my own phone. Five minutes later the phone rang, with Hall on the San Francisco end of the line. ‘Bob, did you get my check?’ was his first abrupt question. The check, amounting to some $ 30,000 if I remember correctly, was to cover two weeks of completed work, and is known in the construction business as a ‘progress check.’ You use it, and the ones that follow as you progress, to meet current expenses and the payroll until such a time as you complete the contract and get either the check that gives you a profit, or the bill that shows what you’ve lost ‘I’ve got it,’ I said. ‘Well, don’t cash it. I’ve chopped it off at the bank and I’m coming down myself.’ When he slammed down his receiver in San Francisco my own telephone nearly fell off the wall. Just the same, I resolved to stand firm on the no-work-on-Sunday rule. I prayed long and earnestly, and Wednesday morning, when Mr. Hall was due to arrive, I awaited him prepared to turn over my company if necessary. I stood up when he entered my trailer. He was a big man, filling the door, and I couldn’t see his face against the outside sunshine. ‘Bob, you’re all right,’ he said. ‘Go ahead and cash the check. No work on Sunday? ‘Not if that’s the way you feel about it.’ I’ve got powerful legs, but they nearly let me down that time. Mr. Hall hadn’t come all the way from San Francisco to tell me I was all right. I knew, and he admitted later, that when he had started out, it was to take over the job. Something had happened to him on the way that had caused a change of heart. I know what caused that change. It was the power of prayer. I didn’t ask the Lord to save my company. I was sincerely trying to work with Him as a partner, and it was His company, too, and if He wanted me to lose it He would have His reasons. But I did ask Him to help me observe Sunday, and that is what He did.”
After LeTourneau turned his attention to manufacturing earthmoving equipment and was becoming financially successful, he and his wife Evelyn determined to give a large portion of their income to the Lord. LeTourneau was fond of remarking, “It’s not how much of my money I give to God, but how much of God’s money I keep for myself.”
The decision was a joint one by the LeTourneaus, reminding us of the beauty of a marriage of spiritually likeminded people. Following is the conversation that the young couple had about their finances:
“Evelyn and I found a seat on the back stairs that no boarders were occupying at the moment, and figured it out. ‘We claim to be in partnership with God,’ I began, ‘but we aren’t really. We have a good year, and we give Him a tithe as his share. In the old days a tithe was forced on people, and they had to give ten per cent of their income to God whether they wanted to or not. Now we aren’t compelled to give to God. It’s all voluntary. The only thing is, when you consider what God has done for us, we ought to do better for Him out of gratitude than the doubters had to do by law. You get right down to it, and we believers aren’t doing a bit more than the doubters had to do in the old days. ... Let’s set up a foundation. A foundation dedicated to God and His works. We give half the stock in the company to the foundation, and keep half for ourselves. Then half of what the company makes goes to the foundation, and half goes to us.’ ’That sounds fine, Bob,’ said Evelyn, ‘but the company is getting so big, and pretty soon it will be doing all the work. You know what I mean.’ I didn’t, but I could sense what she was driving at. A hick from Duluth and a small-towner from Stockton, and neither one of us with a high school education. And sales zooming toward a figure that would go over the two million mark for 1935. She was frightened, and now that she brought the subject up, so was I. ‘You mean if we just give God half the profits of the company, we won’t feel anything personal about it?’ I asked. She nodded. ... ’Okay, we’ll give half the company profits to the foundation, and then we’ll give half of our own income to keep it personal. How does that sound?’ I thought that sounded fine, but Evelyn, wasn’t through. ‘That still leaves an awful lot.’ ... Since then we’ve been able to increase the holdings of the foundation to 90 per cent of our common stock and 90 per cent of our income.”
The LeTourneaus had a heart to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they had a special interest in young people. Evelyn started Sunday Schools and youth camps.
Overcoming his fear of public speaking, LeTourneau traveled widely giving his testimony and challenging his fellow Christians to do more for the Lord.
He founded LeTourneau University, a private Christian institution in Texas, which offers degrees in engineering, aeronautical sciences, and liberal arts.
His autobiography has a lot of colorful statements, such as the following:
“Which reminds me of the comment of another graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. ‘Our school colors are black and blue,’ he said grimly, ‘and our school yell is Ouch!’”
“[My uncle] Joshua Jehosophat LeTourneau—there was a name, and there was the man to go with it. He was J.J. for ‘Jumpin’ Jehosophat’ in the fullest meaning of the term.”
“I ran into a sign on a safety bulletin board one time that went like this: ‘Where did you get your good judgment?’ ‘From my experience.’ ‘And where did you get your experience?’ ‘From my bad judgment.’”
“We were not much better off than the little boy who told his father, ‘I guess I won’t go to school today.’ ‘Guess again, son,’ replied the father. ‘You’re way off on that first one.’”
“My worries were as foolish as those of the spinster who sat weeping beside a well. ‘What’s the matter?’ she was asked. ‘Oh! It’s terrible,’ she moaned. ‘Someday I might get married, and then I might have a child, and then the child might come down here, and climb up, and fall in the well, and get drowned. Oh, what a cruel, cruel blow.’”
LeTourneau said, “You will never know what you can accomplish until you say a great big yes to the Lord.”
His life theme was Matthew 6:33. This is the verse that he repeated to audiences thousands of times around the world, and the verse that is on his tombstone: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6: 33).
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