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ARCHIVED  April 1, 1996

Walker Manufacturing turns mistake to profit

Walker Manufacturing Co. knows that mistakes can be opportunities in disguise.

In 1977, Max Walker and his son, Bob, purchased riding mowers to mow their larger-than-average yards. But after experiencing several weeks of unsatisfactory service, they agreed that the purchase of the mowers was a big mistake.

What the Walkers wanted was a compact, maneuverable riding mower. When they realized that there was no such machine on the market, Max, Bob and his brother Dean began to design and build one. According to Bob Walker, president of Walker Manufacturing Co., there was no marketing plan back then.

“We simply had an idea about making a machine do a job, and then when we got it done, we found that other people had the same kind of needs we did,” Walker said.

Over the next two years, the Walkers built prototypes. Because the riding mower was designed and built by its end users, it functioned exactly as expected. The mower worked so well, in fact, that the Walkers decided to take it to a Kansas farm show to get the opinion of farmers, experts in machinery use. The farmers were so impressed that some of them were ready to buy the mowers. Unfortunately, the Walkers had only prototypes.

By 1980, the Walkers were convinced that there was enough interest in their mowers that they should begin manufacturing them.

A representative from Yard and Garden Product News had been at the Kansas farm show and seen the prototype riding mower. Unknown to the Walkers at the time, the magazine decided to run a new product announcement of the Walker riding mower. That bit of advertising, coupled with a sales trip around the country demonstrating the mower, were major breakthroughs.

On the sales trip, the Walkers discovered that their mower was perfect for landscape contractors. The machine was especially well-received in Florida, where landscape maintenance was big business. In 1981, a Florida landscape contractor ordered 50 of the mowers and gave the Walkers a down payment so that they could begin production.

Today, 70 percent of the riding mowers manufactured by Walker Manufacturing are sold to the contractors’ market. The Walker mower does what other small riding mowers can’t do. It not only has a zero-turn radius, but it’s also compact and maneuverable in tight spaces. Even Walker’s biggest competitors, Toro and John Deere, can’t make such a claim.

Jib Charles, owner of Greening-Up Landscape Maintenance in Fort Collins, uses six Walker mowers in his business.

“As a midsize rider, it’s definitely the most efficient mower we’ve ever used,” Charles said. “It’s extremely flexible and versatile.” His company uses interchangeable decks on the machines for a variety of mowing applications and snow removal. Charles has calculated a 20 percent decrease in mowing time by using the Walker mowers.

Initially, the company tried to find someone else to do their marketing, but soon realized that control of sales and marketing was as important as control of manufacturing.

“If the products are not being sold in the right way, the manufacturer ends up in the back seat,” Walker said. “The manufacturer and the seller need to work together.” Setting up its own marketing organization has helped secure the company’s long-term success. Walker also stressed the company’s commitment to backing its product.

“Service after the sale, [which] goes with this type of product, is important. It’s necessary to market the product in such a way that those services are being provided,” Walker said.

The decision to move to Northern Colorado proved to be an excellent one for Walker Manufacturing. Originally from Kansas, Max Walker had had trouble convincing banks that his projects deserved funding. The banks were willing to finance farming operations but couldn’t understand a manufacturing business.

The cyclic selling season and short-term operating capital requirements made outside funding necessary for Walker Manufacturing to get started. In Colorado, Walker was able to develop and maintain a good working relationship with a Loveland bank.

Revenues from 1995 were more than $20 million, with $25 million projected for 1996.

Walker also feels that its location west of Fort Collins has aided their success. With 25 percent of its products being sold outside the United States, the company’s proximity to Denver has made transportation efficient and economical. And Colorado’s favorable climate has drawn numerous people to the area, resulting in an excellent labor pool.

“We’ve had no trouble finding good people to work for the company,” Walker said.

The timing for marketing Walker mowers has fit well with recent lifestyle changes across the country. Whereas in the past, lawn mowing was a typical weekend chore, many people now hire someone to do the job. And the increased emphasis on landscaping in recent years has resulted in more landscape service businesses, widening the market base for riding mowers.

Bob Walker is close to attaining one of his original business goals, which was to capture 10 percent of the commercial riding-mower market in the United States.

“We’re closing in on that,” Walker said, “we’ll make 4,500 machines this year, so we’re zeroing in on 10 percent.”

A riding mower sits in the lobby of Walker Manufacturing Co. It’s the typical yellow of the other mowers, but swirling green pinstripes and the signatures, “Max, Bob, Dean” set this one apart from the rest. A gold plate on the front of the mower explains its uniqueness. Manufactured on Jan. 9, 1996, this is mower number 25,000.

Walker Manufacturing Co. knows that mistakes can be opportunities in disguise.

In 1977, Max Walker and his son, Bob, purchased riding mowers to mow their larger-than-average yards. But after experiencing several weeks of unsatisfactory service, they agreed that the purchase of the mowers was a big mistake.

What the Walkers wanted was a compact, maneuverable riding mower. When they realized that there was no such machine on the market, Max, Bob and his brother Dean began to design and build one. According to Bob Walker, president of Walker Manufacturing Co., there was no marketing plan back then.

“We simply had…

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