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.