Briggs & Stratton closing Kentucky plant as walk-behind mower sales lag

Will move work to Missouri

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Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton plans to consolidate production of small vertical shaft engines into its Poplar Bluff, Missouri factory and close its Murray, Kentucky facility.

The company said demand for the walk-behind mowers the engines are used on has not recovered since the Great Recession, in part because of a lack of affordable housing, rising student debt and a shift away from do-it-yourself lawncare.

“We acknowledge 10 years is a long time,” Todd Teske, Briggs & Stratton chairman, president and CEO, said when analysts asked why the company had waited so long from the end of the Great Recession to close the Murray plant even as residential mower sales did not grow.

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“We obviously recognized several years ago that the housing market just wasn’t acting as we had anticipated,” he said. “We still believe at some point the housing market will return.”

A 2018 BizTimes Milwaukee cover story took an in-depth look at changes Briggs & Stratton was making as it tried to adapt to market shifts.

Teske said if the availability of starter or affordable homes increases, potentially increasing demand for walk-behind mowers, Briggs will be able to add capacity at the Poplar Bluff plant by adding a third shift.

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He said the company had considered closing the Murray plant a few years ago, but opted to instead move forward with the onshoring of its commercial engine business first.

The decision to close the plant now comes at the end of a chaotic year for Briggs. The company dealt with a number of weather related factors, the bankruptcy of Sears, brand and OEM changes, inefficiencies in a business optimization program and increased costs from tariffs and freight.

For the year, Briggs reported a net loss of $54.1 million, compared to an $11.3 million loss last year. Net sales also decreased 2.4% to $1.84 billion.

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The company’s stock dropped from around $8.27 per share on Wednesday to $4.32 per share on Thursday after the company reported its earnings.

Teske called the results “not good” and said the year was challenging but “foundational.”

“Regardless of the cause of the various headwinds, it is our responsibility to address the issues and restore the company to growth and profitability,” Teske said.

In addition to completing the business optimization program and closing the Murray plant, Teske said the company will be bringing in “outside help” to analyze the market dynamics in the retail landscape, improve working capital and reduce debt, and refinance existing debt.

“There is no question that fiscal 2019 was enormously difficult from both a market perspective and our execution on operational excellence,” Teske said. “Still, the several foundational changes we implemented advanced our commercial growth and diversification strategy and position us well for the long term.”

Briggs is projecting its net sales in fiscal 2020 to be up around 5.5% to $1.91 billion to $1.97 billion. The projection, however, is down from the previous estimate of $2.01 billion.

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