Bob Walker Talks Competitive Edge and Product Development

Q: IT'S A COMPETITIVE, CHANGING WORLD. WHAT ARE LEADING WALKER DEALERS DOING IN ORDER TO FLOURISH?

Seeing as how we consider ourselves to be a specialty manufacturer, we are best matched with dealers who are organized to be specialists themselves, as opposed to the “supermarket” dealer who has something for everyone who walks in the door.

The specialist dealer knows his products very well, knows how to differentiate his products from competitive products, and understands how to match his products with the customer application in order to achieve the greatest customer satisfaction. And furthermore, the specialist dealer offers intensified service for his products and takes the mandate to service what he sells very seriously.

Our best dealers are also keeping up with technology. Now, they may not necessarily be on the front edge of technology, but neither are they being left behind. The best dealers are shaping their organization to be best at providing service to customers; service is still the distinctive and “value add” that sets dealers apart from other retailers and marketers.

The best Walker dealers are finding and bringing young people into the organization with a passion for business and their products (power equipment), blending youthful energy with the leadership and mentoring of the older generation. Also, families working together continues to be a strength vs. the large corporate business model. While very few would claim to be getting rich as a power equipment dealer, there is a lot of satisfaction that comes from being in an independent business, and helping create an opportunity for yourself and a lot of other people.

The best dealers have an independent attitude and take an active role in managing their product lines and the inventory associated with each line. They understand the value of not being captive to one supplier. They do not allow manufacturers (or their distributors) to “load-em-up” with inventory. It is their business—and they do not allow others to take control of it by tapping out their credit line, by a “default” inventory or by exclusivity demands imposed by the manufacturer or distributor.

Q: WALKER'S FOCUS HAS BEEN ON THE FRONT-CUT SEGMENT OF THE COMMERCIAL MOWING MARKET. WILL THERE EVER BE A TIME WHERE WALKER STARTS BUILDING A MID-MOUNT UNIT?

We have never thought or said we would never build a mid-mount, but our strategy is to stay focused as a specialist in front-cut mowers. We think the front-cut configuration offers design superiority for many mowing applications, although it is inherently a little more expensive to produce.

This year has been the first full season for our new Super B Model front-cut mower. We’ve received encouraging reports so far, especially in markets like Florida that have been dominated by mid-mount mowers. Our people there tell us that many commercial cutters simply want a mower that “costs less, mows fast.” And they don’t do a lot of grass collection, so the Walker grass-handling system hasn’t been a product in high demand. The Super B has given us a product that moves us closer to the mid-mount market, but still preserves what we think is the superior design of a front-mount.

Q: ANOTHER FOCUS OF WALKER MFG. HAS BEEN THE INDEPENDENTLY OWNED, FAMILY-BASED BUSINESS MODEL. WILL A WALKER DEALER TODAY STILL BE DOING BUSINESS WITH THE WALKER FAMILY IN 10 YEARS?

The family-oriented business model works because 1) there is personal contact, care and concern that is appreciated by customers, and 2) the operation is agile and responsive to change. People still like to do business with people, and want to feel like they belong to something. People like to do business with a company whose values go beyond the mechanics of taking money and maximizing profits (the corporate shareholder model).

In 10 years, dealers can expect Walker to still be in business as a privately owned, family managed business, a dependable supplier, and well on our way to passing the family business on to the third generation. Plans have been made and steps have been taken for business succession.

While the economies of scale favor the large company, and the recent spike in energy and material costs will be a challenge, Walker will continue to play to our strengths. Walker should continue to have a place in the market with our specialized product approach and family business orientation. Certainly, that would not be the case if we were attempting to compete in consumer and mass marketed products.

Walker will also continue to use a two-step distribution strategy. We take a lead position because everything trickles down. We don’t have perfect control over everything in marketing, but with respect to inventory, it starts with us. We don’t load up our distributors and put pressure on them, and they, in turn, don’t feel pressured to do the same to their dealers. We also allow cancellations of orders by our distributors. Sometimes dealers feel the brunt of poor decisions made at the factory level in terms of how much product is being produced. That’s something we try to avoid. 

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