A Lawnmower You Want to Ride

When Philip Wenzel joined Uebler Milking Machine Co. in 1972, he didn’t think he’d be selling lawnmowers some day down the line. The business, founded in 1909, began by selling milking machines, but within a few decades it had broadened its product line to include a broader array of agricultural equipment. Even as it expanded, Uebler remained a family company, primarily supplying small farms in and around Munnsville, N.Y.

Then the recession came: Not the 2008 downturn, but the 1986 agricultural recession. Suddenly, the farmers who comprised the client base of the company-now called Ferris Industries, after its founding family—were unable to purchase its products. The business had survived the Great Depression and several recessions since, but now a dairy downturn was threatening Ferris with extinction.

For Ferris, it was diversify or die. So the company decided to focus on a single product, to make one thing better than anybody else did, and to use that product to gain a foothold on a new market. Farmers could get barn ventilation fans elsewhere, and bigger companies might sell lower-cost drinking buckets for cows. But what about lawnmowers? At the time, there were a number of mowers on the market, but all were clunky and bulky; they might be effective, but nobody actually wanted to ride them. For Wenzel and third-generation owner David Ferris, that presented an opportunity to expand into a new market—and to dominate it.

Wenzel and Ferris began producing high-quality commercial mowers that were easy and efficient to operate. They found early success by incorporating features no other company’s machines offered; in 1987, they premiered the world’s first hydrostatically driven walk-behind mower, which they developed with technology borrowed from their feeding machines.

But the biggest breakthrough came in 1998, when Ferris introduced an independent suspension system, eliminating the bumps and lurches inherent to most tractor mowers.

“Hay wagons are pretty bumpy,” Wenzel says, “and up until then, most mowers were just as bad. No one had ever thought of putting a suspension in a mower. But if a car has one, why shouldn’t a mower?”

Ferris’ innovation didn’t just make mowing more pleasant. It made it more efficient. If you’re not constantly lurching with every bump, you can go much faster over much more space. The development sparked the company’s growth far beyond what it had ever experienced, and Ferris and Wenzel quickly realized they were undercapitalized. They needed to fuel their growth, so in 1999 they sold the company to Simplicity Manufacturing, a larger lawnmower manufacturer based in Wisconsin. Simplicity helped Ferris grow at an unprecedented rate for five years until it was sold to Briggs and Stratton in 2004.

For some businesses, joining a bigger company like Briggs and Stratton might reduce the focus on quality, allowing the culture of customer care to fade away in the face of higher profits. For Ferris, the move only made their products better.

“Briggs and Stratton helped us protect our culture,” says Wenzel. “They quickly recognized the value that our focus on family and quality brought to our products.”

That culture became especially important during the 2008 recession. As many companies struggled to make ends meet in the downturn, Ferris helped Briggs and Stratton continue to turn a profit, even as the economy soured.

“We had a lot of experience with survival,” Wenzel says. “Coming from a small family company, and having experienced a recession already, we immediately knew what to do.” That meant cutting overhead, of course, but according to Wenzel, “we made sure we always protected our employees.”

Better yet, the company didn’t stop doing what it did best: innovating.

“We just kept developing,” says Wenzel. “We added a number of patents, enhanced our suspension systems, worked on improving the quality of our cut. We didn’t skimp on anything that would add value to our products and to our customers.”

Wenzel and his company understood that survival would be meaningless unless Briggs and Stratton could continue to compete. They couldn’t control the economy or the market, but they could control their product—and they could ensure it was the best on the market. Drawing on the capital Briggs and Stratton had to offer, Wenzel and Ferris kept their sales steadily increasing while rapidly improving their products throughout the downturn.

The result was a recession success story that proved the resilience of American industry. Wenzel and Ferris anticipated the needs of the market before they even arose, building a product to match (and surpass) those needs. Now, with Briggs and Stratton, they have the capital to ensure future innovation and guaranteed stability. Plenty of lawnmower companies compete to make the best product they can. Wenzel and Ferris decided their products weren’t good enough, so they decided to build a new one. The result? A lawnmower more akin to a Cadillac than to a hay wagon.

Image: ThinkStock