Below is the full interview between Bob Walker and Farm Equipment Managing Editor Lynn Woolf.
Lynn Woolf: We definitely wanna talk about the beginnings and your memories of that time, and what you know about your dad’s time.
Bob Walker: Sure. One, I lived it, so, almost very beginning, I'm not sure where to begin. Well, my dad made a little caterpillar for me, a little miniature caterpillar, and that was when I was in the first grade. I got it for Christmas, so that's 1953.
Lynn Woolf: Did you know what was happening with your dad, and what his plans were?
Bob Walker: Well my dad had grown up on a farm in Southwest Kansas and was farming with my grandpa and a couple uncles. And he began to look around and realized that farming, the trend that has so clearly happened was already underway where family farms were getting bigger and bigger, and fewer and fewer families were able to make a living. He saw there was no way that four families were gonna continue to be able to have a lifestyle off of the farm. And he began also looking around Southwest Kansas out there a lot of the small towns, there was a manufacturing company and the story would be, generally, a farmer would make something, usually related to agriculture and improvement. Or the neighbors would see what this farmer had created and they would come and say, “Well, I want you to make me one for me, one of those, too.” And, next thing you know, they're in the business and making things.
My dad was fascinated with that. From a farming point of view, he always enjoyed the machinery side of the business more than the animal side of it. So, my grandpa was more on the animal side of things and my dad loved machinery and then began to hone his skills as somebody that could go to a farm shop and actually create things, like the little caterpillar thing, so that, that gave him an idea that, what if he could get into the manufacturing business. So, established in the mid '50s, a friend of his, who was a salesman, came to my dad and said, “I think there'd be a market for a gasoline-powered golf car.” You know, my dad never played golf, never even really care about the game of golf, but he took that as a challenge to see if he could build a gasoline-powered golf car. Back in those days a lot of the cars, golf cars that were being used for rental, the batteries just wouldn't hold up even for one round of golf. And so, if you were using the rental, the idea about gasoline-powered golf car was interesting.
My dad also had ideas about creating something unique in its design, so instead of making a boxy little thing, he made a golf car in a nice curvature. It was very much a product of the '50s, 'cause back in those days, cars had tail fins and curves to them. So the golf car was created, the first one in 1957, and it was a red color, but then, later on, some of them were painted pink and turquoise and the colors of the '50s. After the first prototype, and then a couple years of working after-hours or moonlighting, he farmed during the day and made golf cars at night. Finally, enough business was created that he was able to build a small little building close to our house, maybe 50 yards from our house and began manufacturing golf cars, and it became a full-time business in 1960. And so that was the very beginnings of the company. My mom worked alongside with my dad. The thing there I kind of remember is that my dad, because of World War II, didn't finish his college education and he had no training in engineering, manufacturing, business, marketing, none of the things that you kind of need to know about in being in the manufacturing business. But, he had the dream and he had the courage and the risk-taking in his blood to basically say, “I wanna do this. My dream is to get into the manufacturing business.” And it was a lot of hard work, but it became true, and it became a reality.
Lynn Woolf: I love the pictures and some of those old designs were just so interesting. You know you were talking about the 50s, and it really has a Jetsons sort of look to it.
Bob Walker: I was looking at some old letters my dad had written, he passed away 2011, some letters that he wrote back when he was newly married back in the early 1940s and before I was born, my dad had cursive handwriting and you don't often see — cursive is hard to even use today. He had top penmanship in a bold kind of a script style. As I saw it I was reminded of the golf car, it had those french curves to it kind of like a cursive style. And it is so much easier to build something out of a box, you can build a little box, but he had this unique shape, it was amazing to even think about, and that was his idea. I don't think I talked about it, but the earliest golf car, some of those shapes were sent in the form of a maple tree. Out of the Old Farm Shop there was a tree standing there and it had a fork in it he would take me there to take some of the metal and get on the fork and bend down it and then create the shapes he would draw. He would take chalk and round the floor of the shop, then shape that he wanted to achieve and kept bending it until it got exactly what he wanted. Later on, he built tools to do that bending work, but in the beginning, it was all him.
Lynn Woolf: Every machine was unique.
Bob Walker: In the very beginning, yes. He had little to work with, but with what he did have he took that and went to work with it. After a few years of the golf car business, dad became interested in a little utility truck. Back in those days there were a couple companies, Cushman being a primary, they made little trucksters, they call them, and they were little off-road trucks. The forerunners of today's utility vehicles that are so popular, but dad went to work and what he'd learned on the golf car created a- another product called Walker Power Truck. And this was a little, little off-road truck and his idea was, the golf car was just limited to golf, whereas the little truck could be used in a number of places, industrial plants and resorts, airports, all kinds of places, that are today, these little utility vehicles, used in those kind of ways. And so, he finally sold the golf car project to another group of people in Kansas, Solana, Kansas, and took back funds and put them into the truck business and started making Walker Power Trucks.
The golf car, we made — we don't have good records — but we think about 1,000 golf cars were made. Even today, if you go on the internet and look up Walker Executive Golf Car, you'll find some collectors and people still have these and have restored them or preserved them, even a product of, you know, the '60s. Same thing for the little truck, look up Walker Power Truck and you'll find there are collectors that have them and have restored them back to the kind of like when they were new.
Lynn Woolf: Okay, so the Power Trucks, about how many did you make of those?
Bob Walker: About a thousand of those were made as well during the '60s, up to 1968. And the next thing that happened is, dad struggled — the company struggled — from the very beginning to have enough capital or enough money to really... They had a little bit of money, but they didn't have enough real capital to finance. And so, we're depending on a bank to pick, especially the golf car and the Power Truck too also, were seasonal products. They mainly sold at certain times of the year and the other times were more time of building up inventory and you had to have the cash to be able to do that. And the local hometown bank, it was basically a farming bank, an agriculture bank, and so when my dad started wanting to borrow money to buy components and materials, the bank at first kind of went, worked with him, but then later on they became basically scared, I think, of what we were trying to do. It was unfamiliar to them, so they began to back down our credit line, but it was kind of like putting their hands around our throats and choking us, my dad went to a number of other towns around our hometown looking for another bank: Dodge City, Garden City, Pratt, Kansas, are all places that I know he went to talk to banks and each one of them said “Well, we'd love to be your bank, but you're gonna have to move your business to our community, we're not gonna finance an activity in another,” which, that was what banking was back in those days, very territorial.
So, along came some people from Casper, Wyoming — another story — but these were some business people who wanted to invest in a business and bring it in to their economy in Casper, mainly a mining and oil economy, and they wanted to diversify, so they bought the whole company and in 1968 moved it up to Casper, Wyoming. My dad, at that point, had stock in the new, reorganized company, but he didn't have control, so over the next couple of years, under new management, new financing, the company continued to make the little Walker Power Trucks, but by 1970 the company went into bankruptcy. And the whole thing was closed up by the bank. They told my dad, for the next year, there was talk about refinancing and reopening the company, but that never happened, that was the end. My dad, at that point, lost everything. I remember him saying to me and to others “I lost everything except our family and our faith in God. It’s alright, but everything else was gone.”
And he tells this story, he took a job in a construction company just to buy groceries and, during this period, one day at the construction company, “I was told to get down and prepare some footing, I was getting ready to pour concrete footing for a building,” he said, “I was shoveling the dirt out” and he said the wind back in Wyoming was blowing back in and, he said “I prayed a little prayer. Lord, I worked hard all my life. I'm 48 years old. Is this where I'm supposed to end up?” So, he said, “I came home that day and there was something in the mail.” I've forgotten what it was, but a letter or something, that was the beginnings of a new opportunity and that new opportunity came from a group of people in Greeley, Colorado. My dad knew one of the men from Kansas days and this man was part of the company, a sales company, who was primarily selling agriculture items and one of the items that they were selling was a tractor cab cooler. Back in the older years, a lot of the tractor cabs came aftermarket, and they didn't come with refrigerated air conditioning. They just put a cab on the tractor and, of course, it needed to be cool and air-filtered, so back out in the West you could an evaporated cooler or swamp coolers, some people call them. This company was selling a particular unit that had come from Kansas, but they were having trouble with it, it wasn't working very well. So the man that my dad knew from Kansas approached him and said to him, “Would you design an improved version of this tractor cab cooler?” Well, my dad went to work on it, and my brother at that time was in his early college years, he took off a semester. Together they created a new unit, and the company was called Byco, so it was called a ByCool. And my dad took the design rights, and there was a patent involved, and sold that whole package to the people Greeley, and took the money that they paid him and went and bought his tools back from the bank, which had been locked up by the bank in Casper.
Reopened in 1971 and '72 to manufacture tractor cab coolers, something that was completely off the radar as far as golf cars and power trucks, but now tractor cab coolers. But for the next 11 years we managed to manufacture 70,000 tractor cab coolers.
Lynn Woolf: Were you part of the business at this point?
Bob Walker: I wasn’t. All this happened: the bankruptcy of the company, the move to Casper, and the development of the tractor cab cooler and they were always manufacturing, but all that, I was in college. And then took a job at Cessm aircraft company after graduating and working for six years of aircraft. My brother, on a different track, graduated from high school, went to college — and then both of us in 1975, he graduated from college, we came to work together with our parents in 1975, and that's my first real entry into the company.
Lynn Woolf: So, when you were seeing different inventions and you were seeing some struggles and some success and then some failure, how do you think that influenced you as owner of the company now?
Bob Walker: Well, the entrepreneurial spirit, as is risk-taking, is just part of your DNA. To take calculated risks and know that sometimes, even doing your best, failure is a real possibility and there's no bail-out plan for, you know people like to think about, how they're the safety-net and somebody will bail me out, well, at the end of it, a real failure, you really have faded and potentially, you can lose everything and... I mean, that's my dad and, I guess, you could say that my brother and I have some of that same spirit in us to the point where we can look back.
I mean the company has nearly went broke another time, that I haven't told you about yet, and it concerned the lawnmower project, but, anyway... Failure ... And particularly, I admire the women: my mother was — I never saw her question my dad's leadership in the company or question whether we were doing what we oughta be doing — I never heard that. She was always supporting whatever my dad was trying to do. She was there, right in there, not being critical. I look at my wife and my brother's wife and some of the same characteristics are there, the one of support and willingness to take risk when, I think, a lot of people, and not just women, but men and women both, want security more than they want that. There's nothing wrong with it, it just stops a lot of, birthing of new opportunities where risk is involved.
Lynn Woolf: So, now we're at 1975, and you leave your chosen profession at that point, aeronautical engineering? Was it the pull of the family?
Bob Walker: It was. I'd always dreamed about working with my parents and, I mean, when I first got out of college, I probably would've worked with them right then, but there was nothing to come home to, so to speak, because the family was in the bad time. But by 1975, the other thing that happened is the company had moved to Colorado to be closer to the people in Greeley, Colorado, so we moved to Fort Collins in the fall of 1974 and I came out to visit and saw what they were doing and we decided — my wife and I — to take the risk and make the move and just to follow a dream that I had had, family business.
Lynn Woolf: So it's 1975, and then talk about the beginnings of what you call the lawnmower project. Let's talk about how that came to be.
Bob Walker: Sure. So we're making tractor cab coolers, that's paying the bills, we're not making a lot of money, but we are paying wages and putting effort into that whole project that is the tractor cab coolers. We also developed a couple other versions of it in those years, but it fell out the line a little bit. One was a version that would go on top of road vehicles, motor homes or so forth, a cooler that would go inside of those, but we were just out minding our own business, so to speak, in the spring of 1977. One bright day my dad and I begin to talk about maybe buying a riding lawnmower just for our own personal use. We were using push-mowers on our properties. Again, we both had maybe about a half acre. So, we thought “Let's go buy us a couple of riding mowers,” so we went shopping and bought a couple little rear-engine riding mowers with steering wheels, gear shifts and, after a few weeks, we didn't do a demonstration, we just went to a showroom and bought them, assuming — and it was a good brand, it was... don't know the name of the brand, necessarily, but, anyway, they were really good. You know, the best available.
Anyway, after a few weeks of using the mowers, my dad and I started talking to each other and we said, you know, “We made a bad mistake. We shouldn't bought these, these mowers aren't helping us out.” These mowers were not very maneuverable and, so, it was actually taking longer to mow the property, the property didn't look nicer than it did before, and we were also using a grass collection system — that was important for us, out in our climate, to catch the grass clippings — and the catching system didn't work that nice, we'd have to take a clog out them.
So, anyway, we said, you know, “We think we can make a better machine than what's available here on the market.” We had a little slogan “If you can't buy it — build it!” And so we did. We, my brother and dad, went to work. I must say quickly, my brother, who has a degree in business administration, inherited the ability to design and build machines from my dad. I have a degree in mechanical engineering and I'm a book engineer, but I don't have my brother's gift. I couldn't keep up with him in terms of this ability to design and build. I can do the book work and lay out engineering drawings, which I did quite a bit — I had that kind of work, — but my brother was the real design forge behind creating of the first Walker, and my dad worked with him — I would say it that way. My brother has a tremendous talent, even though, again, he's not formally educated as an engineer.
So, anyway, we built the first prototype in a few weeks, and, by the middle of that summer, 1974, mowing grass with our own little mowers that we created. We were getting to learn a few things. This is Kansas coming back into the story too, because back in that time there were Excel Hustler, Grasshopper, Dixon, were three companies that were making steering-lever — they were pioneers — that were making steering-lever or ZTR style machines. We were fascinated with that design because that was one of the problems that we found with the other mowers — the steering rail wasn't very maneuverable. Especially the Grasshopper and Excel, they had chosen to make rather large versions of machines with their steering levers, what I call, industrial-sized machines, so we were trying to mow residential properties and it would be completely — it wasn't the right size to take a big ole machine and in order to turn it right around it was too big to fit on the property. So our vision was to create a very compact, small, little machine with steering levers on it that would fit in residential property. And that was one of the key ideas — a simple idea, but still one that helped us get into the market.
Another thing we did that was unique is that we created a built in diligent grass-catching system. Most everybody created — these other patents included — would make a side-discharge mower deck and then if you wanted to collect you'd put a big tube up on the side and a catcher on the back. We had the idea of bringing the grass through the middle of the machine, build in the system right into the tractor with a rear discharge deck. Our prototype, which we could show you, had that idea in it. So, those were a couple things that we looked at to make — we didn't just copy what somebody else has done, we wanted to create our own design to do the job that we had in mind for it to do and...
Lynn Woolf: Were you thinking about it being another manufacturing project? A project that you and your brother and dad were working on?
Bob Walker: That's a very good question. For us, it was more of a design challenge hobby-type project. We had no idea about getting in — it's not like we had a focus group and they told us, you know, “You need to get into mower manufacturing.” We were very focused on our tractor cab cooler business and that was our main business and this was kind of a side project and, again, we had no idea that we'd ever really... Back in those years we built a series of couple little cars, we were trying to make cars that were, you know, a 100 miles per gallon. Little highway cars. And we built a couple prototypes of that just to see what we can do. We never got to a 100 miles per gallon, we got to 70 or 80, but that was the best we could get at that time. And we had other projects that we liked to work on just to keep ourselves entertained, I guess. That design urge to design and make things and we've always taken the track “Don't make things that are already available. Make things that aren't already available.” That kind-of guided our pursuits ...
Lynn Woolf: What were those early prototypes like?
Bob Walker: Well, looking back, they were pretty crude. We built three prototypes — one each year: '77, '78, '79 — and about 1979 we had our third prototype and we still have it, we can show you what it looks like. But we decided to come back to Kansas again, we decided to take the machine as a market test to the 3. Show in Great Bend, Kansas that spring in 1979. We thought we'd show it to the farmers and if the farmers think that it looks good to them, that would give us some encouragement to go ahead and maybe pursue the project. So we did. And, sure enough, the farmers seemed to be really interested in the machine. We came home from that show and decided we'd build 25 machines on speculation —there were no orders, nobody had ordered anything — but we said let's build 25 and see if we can sell them. So we went to work in 1980 and build 25 of them. It took almost a year to build 25 too, because it was a lot of hand-building, very little tooling was available, but we had some connections going back to our days with the Power Truck and Golf Car, working in power vehicles, that guided us and we looked at some of the components that were being used by other manufacturers, admittedly Grasshopper, for example, has some componentry there that ended up in... we used a similar component. Some of the things were, just as you begin to look around, you begin to find some of the same things that you're looking for, that you need. So, yeah, we had connections with engine manufacturers, for example, we'd talk to them and get a sample engine and that sort of thing.
Lynn Woolf: So were you now at the homeplace in Fort Collins, and then who was doing the manufacturing? The actual assembly?
Bob Walker: The lawnmowers? Yes, we did that under the same roof as the cooler. We had a leased building in Fort Collins, 15,000 square feet. It was a warehouse-style building and we were making coolers — that was the primary thing we were doing, we were making those every day — but we pushed off a little corner of the building, if you will, and said “We're gonna make lawnmowers over here,” and we began to make some — again it took us a long time, almost a year, to build 25.
The other thing that happened then is “Okay we got 'em built, we gotta sell 'em.” So we had no dealers or distributors, any kind of — nobody's ever heard of the Walker mower. So, interestingly enough, when we went to the Farm Show in Kansas, an editor of Yard & Garden magazine snapped a picture of the mower and dad didn't remember ever even talking to this fellow. He went home and put the picture and a few little notes about the machine in the new product section. And, suddenly, we begin to get inquiries from all over the country, because that magazine had national circulation, asking for us, inquiring about the mower, and we hardly prepared, we just built these 25 machines, but that began to propel things along to the point of my parents made several trips around the US with a couple machines on the back of a trailer and on a trailer. And, went to see people during 1981. And one of the trips took us to Florida and it's a long way to Florida from Colorado, but I remember my dad called me the day after they got to Florida, morning after, and he said “I'm on my way home.” And I said “Well, dad, you just got to Florida, how could you already be on your way home?” He said “Well, we went to the first places that inquired and it was a contractor.” And we really hadn't thought about, we were thinking more about residential users instead of professional users, but we met a man who had a contracting company, who was mowing a lot of these retirement villages and there are millions of little units with little patches of grass in front of each one and they were mowing those with push mowers. When they saw our little machine they said this is the perfect machine we've been looking for and right in that initial meaning they've ordered 48 of our machines. Now, remember, we only made 25. And they gave us, we asked for money down to secure the order, so they gave us money down. My dad literally was in Florida about 24 hours and headed home with an order.
There were a few other trips and we managed during 1981 to collect orders for 100 machines with money down. So, in 1982 we made 125 machines. 100 were pre-sold and 25 were more for speculation.
Lynn Woolf: So, now your story received some vision of the work?
Bob Walker: Yeah, that's interesting to us and we're still making the tractor cab coolers. But what happened in the 1980s is that there was a recession that especially hit the farm market pretty hard. It was a bad time. High inflation. And the company in Greeley that we'd been making these tractor cab coolers for got in financial trouble and took in a new business partner and that new partner decided that they wanted to manufacture the tractor cab coolers themselves, than having us do it for them, they would their own over in Greeley. So we lost our contract to make the coolers in 1983, the fall of '83, and, in order to survive, we had to go full-time in the lawnmower business in '84. There was nothing left for us to do. That's the point I can tell you when we really went broke again. I mean, just imagine you've got this steady income off of making coolers. Suddenly, that stops. And you've gotta somehow shift over to... And, on paper, we should have failed again. There was not enough money to do it. It was literally a miracle. We built 450 machines that year and we sold every one of them and got paid for it.
Lynn Woolf: So, in the science, really your mom and dad travelling around, is that how ...
Bob Walker: Well, it quickly... That was just to get them started. We pretty quickly, and that is kind of my area of work now in the company, even though I am an engineer by training. My dad always had the idea, I'm a manufacturer, I design and build machines, other people need to sell them and market them. Then, through the golf car, the Power Truck, tractor cab cooler, which we can build for another, we had learned a hard lesson that, as a manufacturer, if you don't want to be in control of the whole process, you have to in control of marketing, even though you're not a marketer, that's not maybe your passion, but still, you need to be in control of that process. So I took on that work. It was an area I haven't trained for, but I began to work and develop the marketing program, we began to go to some trade shows and we began to do quite better. We didn't have enough money to do real advertising, but we did quite a few new product announcements and publications. I helped develop some of that.
Lynn Woolf: How did you know how to start doing that?
Bob Walker: Well, we met some people, one guy was a dentist that I had met in Fort Collin, he was an inventor, he was a dentist and he was an engineer and he showed me how he developed a press kit for his dental devices and I just imitated what he did with the lawn mower, so we got a lot of publicity just my new product announcements in those couple… we just, you know, without spending a lot of money, we were able to build a lot of interest.
We began to find that we wanted to show there was a big show, there was another show. And it was well, the first one that I went to, in Cincinnati. And that gave us national exposure to distributors and dealers. We were setting up a program of distribution and dealers and, as we could find the right kind of people, sometimes we made mistakes, because we just didn't know better: Not connecting to the right kind of people or the right kind of distribution. Well, we began to build the program that we have today, we have 49 distributors around the world and about 1,200 dealers that sell and service our product. All the development started, back to the beginning point. And the idea of having control of that has been a key thing that helped us succeed and kept control of the process, because there is a lot of ways to lose control of your marketing program, one of them is the private label or someone will come along with their larger, stronger program and say “well, make the same product for me, I want to put my name on it and paint it a different color” and that's, I think that's a way to quite often lose control of your own marketing program.
Lynn Woolf: Was it... You know, you having control, that you're also working now with two-step distribution and people out there selling the product, was that something you had to, again, take a risk on? Just make sure that you're making the right decision by choosing the distributors and dealers to make that success?
Bob Walker: There's risk. Any time when you try to bring two parties together or very keen of the idea of staying independent. My dad saw what it looked like when he sold the company back so many years ago what it looks like to lose control and lose your independence, so we became stubbornly independent in our thinking about keeping control, so that's been a continuing effort on our part to try to work, be an independent company, but also work with other independent-like distributors who have the same kind of spirit about them. That is, we both want the same things in terms of how to succeed in the market. And we have the idea that some manufacturers, some of the bigger manufacturers have enough resource, they can drive a whole program and control the whole thing themselves, without distributors or, some cases, the dealers.
We've always understood that we needed the partnership and in a number of ways we didn't have enough resources ourselves. We weren't able to just get the machine developed and manufactured, let alone trying to adhere the whole load of getting the product from our factory door out to the sales and servers to the customer. That's huge, takes a lot of money, a lot of capital, and it takes a lot of organization and infrastructure to make that happen. And some people are able to do that, some of the biggest manufacturers, but we understood who we were, that we needed some people to partner up with and that we were looking for opportunities and it has proven itself to be, you know, what we're... A number of our distributors now are celebrating 30, some of them are now 35 years now of working with the same people. We love that. We treasure the long-term relationships that comes from working with people for a long time.
Lynn Woolf: One thing I always find interesting about family businesses is that. So, you and your brother, and other family members did that, are all working together and when people work really hard, they sometimes succeed. But then, you're also a family, in the off-time. How does that work?
Bob Walker: Well, there is the family side and there is a balancing that has to take place and it is not always easy — a lot of families can't even get along together when they even have to try to work around they try the iron table, but we, we were blessed with our family, not to say it has always been easy, there's ... By the time you have your direct bloodline, your brothers and sisters, but then you marry and you have your in-law side of things… Bringing all that together and trying to make that cohesive... Sure, that's something that each one of ours, my brother, he has his family, I've got mine and we are not necessarily, socially we are not spending a lot of time with each other. We do you share in a number of other ways, my brother and I, and our families, we share the same church, for example, so there is a church life the kind of brings us together. Anyway, especially in the beginning I was trying to do some engineering and there was a point where I understood that I had to get out of my brother's way and let him do what he does so well and find things that I could do to contribute. I don't think my engineering training was wasted, it's just that I ended up in some other areas that have been very interesting to me. My brother, he continued to do what he does so well, so we made a lot of progress working together. 43 years we have worked together.
Lynn Woolf: Well, you are also now competing with some of those big names that you have talked about. So what was that like, to try and to show that your machine is different?
Bob Walker: For one of the early things is that when we first came to the market, there was about a 15-year period before the big guys discovered steering levers, so we and Grasshopper, Excel, some of the others to were early with ZTR designs. We were given a grace period of that many years before the bigger John Deere, Toro, Jacobsen companies began to say “Okay, I guess we better have steering levers too” and that period really gave us... We couldn't do today when we did then because the market is very crowded with this style machines. Those were years when we were able to build a place for ourselves in the market and it hasn't been taken away. We tried to play our strengths as a smaller company, compared to some of the big guys, and if it's true: They have tremendous resources, and were able to easily drive us out of business if that was their choice, but we continued to try to be agile, to be innovators, and leaders in design and innovation. One of the innovations that we did pretty quickly we were early adopters of fuel injection engines when they first became available, Kohler’s Agre Co. came to us, in 1998, actually, maybe the year before, begin to test and in 1998 we introduce fuel injection engines into our line, the big guys were selling them a number years later, before they adopted it. That is an illustration on how you can compete as a smaller company — it is to stay ahead. And we are still trying to do that.
Lynn Woolf: What are the other innovations that you think that being a small company and having design expertise all in the house there with you and your family, what are some other innovations come to mind since the early 80s?
Bob Walker: When we came into the line as a machine, primarily a grass collection machine, and that has been continues to the emerging market. It's not a real big niche, but it's a niche, and it's actually quite interesting niche for us. But we realize that there are a lot of places who do not want to collect grass, a lot of applications where that is not required. So we went back and introduced a whole line of products that are not collection machines, what are simpler machines and cost less. From an innovation point of view, we stayed... There's two styles of machines the front cut machine or the front mount machine and the mid-mount. Back in the early days, both of these machines were equally popular, but what happened is the market began to shift away from front-mount toward mid-mount. To the point that today we and Grasshopper are the only two companies that continue to make front-mount machines. Front mount has the deck mounted up the front of it, on the power, everyone else has gone over to the mid-mount style machine. From an innovation point of view we continue to focus on that style of machine and believe that that's where we could make a mid-mount like everyone else but we decided to become specialist in the front-mount style machine. It is a more expensive machine by inherent, some design parts of it, it costs more to build a front-mount, but there are so many nice benefits that come with it, so we have to be able to sell and show our customers why you should pay more to get more. A front-mount machine gives a better deck, trend following capability, where the deck articulate separately from the tractor and the power unit, and so it follows the ground contours very nicely while some of the mid middles do not do that very nicely, some of them tend to skip and scout. People love the tilt up deck, all of our decks have a joint so you can unlock it and the deck tilts up for access to the underside without having to lay down or lift the tractor up into the air. That's a key benefit that people like.
Lynn Woolf: So, when did all of the change with the attachments coming in?
Bob Walker: We pretty early on began, because the front-mount style lends itself on mounting things on front. We always designed our machines with the quick change capability so you could quickly remove the mower deck, just a couple pins and put it back off and put something else on it in its place, so we began to pretty quickly think about, we had snow blowers and dozer blades and items that would slip right on in place and give you your seasonal, in some parts where the snow is important, or can be an important part. It's easy to do, it just adds a dimension of value to the investment of the product.
Lynn Woolf: Can you talk about just really now how the company is positioned? And where do you see things going on from here?
Bob Walker: Well, definitely the main parts of the market, we’re very small market share, it's an interesting share to us, you know, in the scheme of things, we position ourselves on the high side of the market. It's in our blood line. We have always been the kind of people that tried to, when we look at things, we think of value and so when we have tried to create a product we tried to create a product that we would like to buy ourselves. So the machine reflects our personality which basically is “show me something I can get if I pay more, I can get more. Show me something like that and I will pay more. Because that is just how I am made.”
And so we have tried to make our machines like that. That puts us at the higher market. And we realize that there are people that would love to have one of our machines, but they don't have enough income or resource to be able to buy them. Interestingly enough, we sell about 30% of our machines to private owners and you think they are $15,000 lawn mowers and no one whatever buy them, but the truth is there is a whole group of people in the U.S. and other places around the world who like to do their own mowing, and mowing is a passion for them. So, instead of buying a camper or a boat or an airplane they buy lawn mowers and that is their deal. So we have that kind of customer clientele for our machines. Contractors are still our biggest market, about 60% are contractors, but we fit in the market, again, in kind of, I guess I would call it, a high end niche with the front-mount style machine, we think about ourselves as a specialist or a specialty company not trying to make a product for the mass market or the high volume side of business.
Lynn Woolf: So as these new entrants come to the zero turn lawnmower market, it sounds like that is something that you are not really concerned about.
Bob Walker: We don't get caught up in that of trying to participate by having something they everybody else already has. It is not that we couldn't do that, we have strategically chosen to position ourselves in trying to make a... As you walk around and look at the market, look at what is out there, there is a lot of machines that are quite similar in terms of the way they are put together, they're just different colors of paint, so to speak. We continue trying to create unique designs and machines that we believe that are the best performance value that we can. There are lots of more Innovations that are coming, I think, we keep thinking, “well, OK, we've been doing this for this many years, we must have everything figured out, but it just keeps going,” the opportunities for new technology and we're trying to keep our eyes open on that sort of thing.
Lynn Woolf: So can you give us another peek at that thing that you're looking at?
Bob Walker: We're certainly gonna want to watch the electric-powered mower and battery technology, but what needs to go with that is something that we are interested in. We have some other designs that we're working on that we will probably try to stretch, we talk about being in a niche, but there's nothing wrong, in our minds to broaden that niche out a bit, you know, both up and down so to speak in terms of size and performance. So we are working on projects in kind of both directions.
Lynn Woolf: One thing that I found interesting too when I was reading about you and about the company is the values. Can you talk about that?
Bob Walker: We have a little card we created that has “what we believe as the Walkers,” the title of the card, we laminate that and hand to each employee. We also have some big versions of that push around the factory just stating our values and it's a collection of things that we learned across the years that we are, after living them first, talking about what we believe in, our Christianity has guided us, and try to apply those to work. The very first one is, for example, well, I'll give you a couple of examples, one of our is “love people and use money.” Most people kind of use the other way around and the corporate is “love money and use people.” We haven't the other way around and we try to do our best to love people, and money at that point is simply a tool that we are given to use the bless other people.
One of our first lines is “operate in ways that are optimum for your employees, do your best to take care of your employees,” and we had a number of ways we live that out. We run single shift by choice. We believe that it is important to have strong families and anything we can do to strengthen our families, actually strengthen confidently, and so, there is more shift work, which I got to be careful I am not critical of other companies that run shifts, but for us it was a choice to say “if we can do it, we would rather let our people work a day shift, single shift.” Because when you go to shift work, it’s harder on families. Some people have to do it and we are not critical about it, but it hurts families, especially rotating shifts are really hard. So that is a choice are we trying to live out, we are taking care of our employees, and we do plant vacation time. In the summertime, in July and August, we just shut the whole plant down and let everybody go on vacation and let them take that time off together without staggering. That is another way we do what is optimal for employees. It's on our website. If anybody is interested in what we believe and Walker, that is on our website.
Lynn Woolf: You've reached some really impressive milestones in terms of production.
Bob Walker: Well, it's a thrill. From where we started… We had celebration this past summer, we built 150,000 lawn mowers. We've been doing the celebrations at 50,000 and 100,000 and now 150,000, I suppose maybe there will be another one for 200,000. We are a company that likes to celebrate — big corporate would say that is not in the budget and for us it is celebrations, but we like to talk about ourselves as a family style business and family style means that we bring people together. I like to compare, not that there is any comparison, but I love the Harley-Davidson motto, where they bring people together, and it doesn't matter if you are a Harley person, if you have a Harley, doesn't matter if you are white collar, laborer, professional, a black man, white man, doesn't matter. If you got a Harley, you're in. And you're part of that. And I love the way that levels out.
So we try in the same idea, a Walkers Mower family, which includes are immediate family, of course, but then it includes all the factory workers, and all their families, all suppliers, all of the people that provide the logistics transportation, our distributors — 49 distributors and 1,200 dealers — and customers. We have had our celebration and we had about 2500 people in it, all these folks were invited, we had 2500 people come and celebrate with us the 150,000th machine number. It was a high moment. We drove the 150,000th machine out of the factory door into parade route and everybody was excited about that.
Lynn Woolf: So, this family reunion is just... You would know a lot of the people in the factory and are you starting to know the people that are coming all the time?
Bob Walker: Yeah, but there is another part of being a family style is to go meet people and, so, firstly, not just me, a number of us have been travelling around the world meeting our distributors and dealers and we have an annual meeting with our distributors and some dealer meetings also that are held on an annual basis. We go all around the world to different places where our end customers, we can meet them face to face. What I did when we had the family reunion, I stood at the opening gate, and shook hands with people for about 3 hours just people coming to get my picture taken with them and shaking hands. And yes, I know a lot of them from the past. That is one of those moves past business to relationship.
There is a lot of energy that flows, I think, we like to have people coming into our factory and taking factory tours because when you bring the people that make the machines together with the people that buy and use them or sell and service them, there's an energy that's created there. A connection that goes beyond just the mechanics of putting a machine together. Especially, when people talk about the opportunities they have been able to create, but they have been created by mower. The mower is not the whole part of the story, but people tell their stories about how they creating a business.
I remember meeting a man from Arkansas and he was working as a guard in a prison and it was a state job and he was doing all right, he was moving up the line, which she had a dream starting his own business — a mowing business. It was something he started doing and he finally worked up to the point where he went to the dealer and was ready to hand in the money to buy another mower, and the dealer said “this mower you are looking at, it is a fine mower, but you should look at this Walker mower.” Well, it was quite a bit more money, but the dealer talked him into it and he said “When I went home, my wife about had a fit.” She asked “You did what?!” But he said a mower allowed him as a man, he was working by himself, it allowed him to produce more work and also do a higher quality type of work, well he was getting paid more, and when I met him he had several employees, we have several mowers and they did a nice business, way beyond. Apparently, he was able to quit his job at the prison and have his own business. And make a good livelihood for him and his family. Some other employees too.
The lawnmowers are not the only thing about that story, but it helped him and it was a part of the story and that is exciting and when you are helping — not only creating opportunity for yourself, but you're kind of creating opportunities for other people — that is my favorite. When people ask, “why are you in business? Why do you do this?” And the answer is for some people they would say “Well I am in the business to make money, to make a lot of money.” And for me that is not a very satisfying answer. When you go to a business, if that is all that you are trying to do, make a lot of money, that is not to me very satisfying. But what is satisfying is thinking about creating opportunities. Ask this way: if this company did not exist, and this product did not exist, how many lives would be effected by it?
In a positive way, we are touching a lot of people's lives with this machine producing and it is exciting to see that, get to meet the people, hear their stories.
Lynn Woolf: So, when you go to work, each day, what is your day like?
Bob Walker: Well, my work has shifted some... For the last 5, 6, 7 years I have been mentoring my nephews. My brother has two sons who are coming into the business as our 3rd generation. We are working very hard to keep the company as a family owned and family operated business. The odds of that are pretty slim. Actually, working out in our case, these nephews are working very hard and very nice in the business and I was mentioning how special my one nephew there is probably going to take my place. So I spend time with him and we have a number of manager type meetings where he basically runs the meeting and I sit in on it and listen to him and talk with him about different things.
I love the idea. A number of years ago I used to send all of the pricing for our products, and once a year we would set the price and I would do that work, my nephew began to replicate my work and finally took over. He does it. I haven't touched the pricing in 4 or 5 years now. That connects him, you have got to be able to get the pricing right and my day, a lot of it is spent by taking calls, I used to do a lot of letters, not too many letters anymore, but I did my email and letters and phone calls.
In Walkers, we believe that every request deserves the courtesy of a reply. That means when people call into our place we have a real life person coming in through that phone. And if we are not available I will take a message and I will call back. It was my pledge to do that. Respect. So I'll be part of my day responding to different requests through different means of communication.
Lynn Woolf: You faced risk, you faced loss, now the company is successful and established and you are mentoring your nephews. There will be some failures happening. How can they be prepared for that?
Bob Walker: I think it is very important to mentor over a long period of time. You can talk about failure, and tell your story, but somehow, it's not very real to the successors until they on their own experience this. It's kind of like flying an airplane. I am a pilot, you can go to school to learn to fly the airplane, the mechanics of the airplane on the ground and off the ground — that is doable, but there really is a challenge only when taking your plane and beginning to fly distances. You’re finally nearing to say, “I have to fly where I can see out of the windshield, it doesn't matter what I have studied in the textbook,” the actual experience is where you really learn.
Mentoring a business like this is kind of, I think, is similar — you learn by looking out of the windshield to see if you do it long enough it is important that somebody says not just OK I will monitor you for a year, I would pledge, Lord willing words, to give at least 10 years, with my nephew's.
That was what my dad did with me. He did such a good job of letting me experience the business and then finally, when it was time for me to take over, I was prepared because I had already learnt, had a lot of experience and the first day I actually began to sign as the president of the company, it wasn’t any different, no doubt we haven't seen everything and maybe there are some things that hopefully my nephews will not have to experience some of the things that I did, I hope.
But they will have their own mistakes that they will make too, you know, so it is interesting we have, in our business here, you are placed without being sued from time to time, lawsuits, and in the process of defending lawsuits there is a whole process of discovering your depositions. We haven't gone to any jury trials since my nephews have been on the company, but I've been telling them that, if that happens, I want them to follow out the process, because it is something they need to experience, hopefully not very often, but you still need to. And I got to see my nephew went under a deposition last year and he did a fantastic job. I've done quite a few of them, and you know, he did a great job. I was glad he got experience that. Because you need to see what it's like and know how it works.
Companies to be sustainable and move out, in the future, companies are bringing in young blood. If you think about a company where all the people, all the leadership is over 50 years old, you are in trouble. You may not know it, but you are. It is important to have young blood. We deliberately have been following a strategy of hiring young — more for age than position — if we have a person that we recognize, a young person that has a lot of the character qualities that we are looking for in leadership, we will more or less hire them in the position. Just in bringing that younger blood.
Lynn Woolf: Is there anything that you wanted to share…
Bob Walker: Well, I think that quality of life, living a high quality life will be a life of generosity and gratitude. I think those are kind of twins. They go together. We see those as an importance of trying to live a high quality life, to be generous and to be thankful for all of us, which would believe the Lord has given so much to us and it shouldn't stop with us, we should pass on the blessings. That is another important part of who we are, we talked about in our “what we believe” statement. It is one other thing to talk about is being thankful and having gratitude. We understand what are the good things and the opportunities that we've had where they came from and that is the Lord. We are trying to live that way.
Lynn Woolf: I think it is really interesting for you to see those failures and I think the success is so much greater when you know the work that went into it.
Bob Walker: Yes, we’ve seen what failure looks like. You don't appreciate success until you lived some of those low spots for sure.