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?