Saturday, April 30, 2005

Victory Tour Across the USA—On a Mower?

Visiting entrepreneurial, locally owned manufacturing operations is one of my favorites when I’m touring small towns as part of my speaking tours. This week I visited one such firm, Excel Industries, in Hesston, KS. The company started 45 years ago to build tractor and combine cabs, a rarity at the time. They built those cabs for companies like John Deere until 2 years ago. John Deere accounted for 2/3 of their business, so losing that business to Deere’s in-house plants was a shock and required a major shift for the business.

Bob & Paul Mullet, majority owners of Excel, fortunately had another product that accounted for the other 1/3 of their business, zero turn mowers. They’ve expanded that business and grown it to replace what they lost to Deere. Refocusing from only commercial into residential and expanding the dealer base has allowed them to refocus the business, making it better. Bob Mullet told me, “One of our challenges is handling all of the growth. We’ve been up 40% per year for the last 3 years running.”

The zero turn mower was invented in 1963 in Hesston by John Regier who wasn’t an engineer but a “putterer” or mechanical genius who loved to work on equipment. Taking a design from Lyle Yost’s Hesston Manufacturing swather (that cluster thing again!), he adapted it to mowing his lawn. Excel named the new machine the “Hustler” after the Air Force’s workhorse B-58 Hustler fighter-bombers.

Excel developed the Hustler for commercial use only, selling the machine thru 80 dealers scattered around the country. When they lost the Deere cab business, they refocused the company solely onto the turf business, expanding into machines for the homeowner. From that base of only 80 dealers they’ve expanded to over 900 and gone into overseas markets. Only 5% of their sales are overseas today, but they expect it to grow to 25% within 5 years. It’s another example of American ingenuity developing markets around the world.

Their major residential mowing promotion this year is built around famous NASCAR racer Richard Petty and a fundraiser for Victory Junction Gang Camp, a children’s camp that he sponsors in North Carolina. Called the Mow for Victory Tour (, Josh Schmidt, 19 year old son of Excel’s sales manager, is driving a Super Z Hustler painted to look like Petty’s racecar from CA to NC. He left CA on February 26, is in western AL right now and should get to the camp on May 28th. They hope to raise $250,000 for the camp with this promotion.

When I asked Paul Mullet what the Mow For Victory Tour was costing the company he told me, “I don’t want to know what it is costing us. I just know that our marketing budget is way over budget.” I loved his follow on comment, “Next time we’re going to see how fast we can drive one of our Hustlers across the country.”

Tomorrow’s blog is on the challenges that US manufacturers like the Mullets face.

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