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. 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 earth mover, electric wheel, tree crusher, log picker, bulldozer, airplane tow, the air crane, the two-wheeled tractor called “Tournapull,” and the first mobile offshore oil platform. 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 of 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, 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 reign 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).
After LeTourneau turned his attention to manufacturing earthmoving equipment and was becoming financially successful, he and his wife Evelyn determined to give 90% 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 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 book 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.’”
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