Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:04 pm
Step outside on a summer day in the neighborhoods and subdivisions of metro Milwaukee and it’s not uncommon to hear the hum of a lawn mower cutting grass. There’s also a good chance the engine on that mower was made by Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp.
The challenge for Briggs, however, is the odds that the lawn mower operator is also the homeowner are decreasing, and it is increasingly likely the lawn is being cut by a landscape professional with equipment trucked from job to job, instead of stored in a garage.
For a company that hit its stride by helping bring lawn and garden equipment to the masses and was known for serving the residential market, the trend away from do-it-yourself towards do-it-for-me is a recipe for a major issue. Limited housing inventory for younger, first-time homebuyers only compounds the potential problem.
“The business was oftentimes focused on residential and when housing was going straight up, the business was good,” said Todd Teske, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Briggs & Stratton.
Sales of lawn mowers track closely with the new housing market and in the early 2000s, Briggs saw its revenue grow rapidly, peaking at $2.65 billion during its 2005 fiscal year. While that year was the first of eight straight years with more than $2 billion in revenue, it was also a high-water mark, and 10 of the next 12 years saw sales declines.
Briggs divides its business into two segments. The engines segment provides engines to lawn and garden OEMs like Husqvarna Outdoor Products Group, MTD Products and Deere & Co. Major competitors include Honda Motor Co., Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Kohler Co. The products segment produces lawn and garden equipment, turf care products, portable and standby generators, pressure washers, snow throwers and job site products. That segment competes against Honda, Generac Power Systems Inc., Techtronic Industries Co. Ltd., Deere & Co., Scag Power Equipment Inc. and others.
Both segments have offerings for commercial and residential markets.
Briggs made the strategic decision in 2012 to exit the mass market for lawn and garden products, opting to focus on supplying its OEM customers instead of competing against them, while still producing some high-end products. The decision, combined with a weak storm cycle since 2013 and an uneven housing market recovery, has pushed sales down by $324 million since 2011.
“Right now we’re in really kind of a weird spot in terms of the housing cycle,” Teske said.
But potential problems also create potential opportunities. So for the past eight years, Teske and his team have been working on the evolution of Briggs & Stratton.
Those efforts appear to be paying off.
The company’s guidance calls for a 7 percent revenue increase when it reports full-year results later this summer, even after a slow start to the selling season. Gross profit margins have also been trending in the right direction, steadily climbing from 16.3 percent in 2012 to 21.5 percent in 2017.
After Teske and Briggs executives outlined their plan for increased emphasis on commercial growth, Tim Wojs, a senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., wrote in a research memo that it was good to have increased visibility, but the plan also calls for an acceleration of revenue growth and the expansion of margins.
“We prefer to see some initial traction play out,” Wojs wrote.
The transformation has the company expanding its focus on the faster growing commercial side of the business. Engineers are now thinking about and introducing electric, battery-powered products, and innovation – or “user-driven problem solving,” as Teske calls it – has become a new point of emphasis.
“Customers are important,” Teske said. “But when we use the word customer around here, no one ever seems to know who we’re talking about. Are we talking about an OEM? Are we talking about a retailer or dealer? Are we talking about the end user? So we very deliberately started talking about users, people who use the equipment.”
Even the goal of innovation has changed. Teske, who has been with the company for 22 years, acknowledged that Briggs had tried to be a fast-follower, seeking to quickly match the innovations of others.
“What we found is we should be a leader in innovation,” he said.
CONNECTING WITH THE USER
Briggs has introduced plenty of new features on its residential and commercial engines and products, including things designed to limit the storage space needed, reduce or eliminate the frequency of oil changes, and improve starting. But last fall, the company introduced an Internet of Things offering aimed at making life easier for commercial cutters, an increasingly important user for Briggs.
InfoHub is a small device installed on a piece of gas-powered equipment. Users pay $260 upfront and a monthly subscription fee of $23 for each unit. Company officials say a key feature is that it doesn’t matter what brand of equipment the device is on; it just needs a spark plug and a battery to work.
The device transmits data to a user interface, where businesses can track crew and equipment locations, mowing patterns and speeds, whether equipment is running, and log maintenance information. The offering also has tools to improve quoting and bidding and for demonstrating proof of service.
“For us, it’s the first time something doesn’t come off a line and we’re not bending metal,” said Carissa Gingras, director of marketing for global support at Briggs.
The commercial turf InfoHub offering is an evolution of a similar product Briggs offers for its standby generators. The company launched the commercial lawn product with a pilot study on about 100 pieces of equipment in 2016.
“We … thought that a lot of what would be valuable data to end users, to landscapers, would in fact be engine data,” Gingras said. “Wouldn’t they want to know how their engine is running on all of their equipment?”
The landscapers Briggs worked with liked the tool, but Gingras said what they really wanted was a way to track their crews and equipment. So the InfoHub team – a core group of about a dozen people within Briggs’ support group – reconfigured the offering to reflect the lessons of the first pilot and tried it out again, this time on 200 pieces of equipment.
By tracking crews and equipment, one of the companies using the device discovered a potential two-hour time savings on cutting a 100-acre property that for years had taken a crew of 12 up to nine hours to complete, Gingras said. It turned out the team was actually waiting 30 minutes to start, double cutting some areas and then waiting 30 minutes to return to the shop.
“These guys are not making money unless they’re out cutting grass,” said Andrew Ewig, a marketing manager on the InfoHub team.
Briggs has built the InfoHub team from scratch, in some cases looking to the agriculture industry – where precise tracking of equipment is more advanced – for talent. The company worked with outside firms to develop the gateway and the user interface, but the team drove the design, customer research and development of sales tools. The work also extended to the legal department, to make sure data privacy protections were in place, and to accounting, to address the recognition of recurring revenue.
Teske said it was important for the InfoHub team to be based in the Briggs & Stratton support business. That group works with the company’s three other business groups – engine and power, turf and consumer, and job site and standby – and he said the technology can eventually go across all three.
“It’s going to go well beyond just commercial cutting, but we wanted to make sure we launched it the right way first to prove out the concept,” Teske said.
He said his work on the board of Brown Deer-based Badger Meter Inc. and Texas-based Lennox International Inc., both of which have connected offerings in their own industries, helped inform the development of InfoHub.
“It’s a cool space to be in, it’s a fun space to be in because it is untapped right now in a big way,” Teske said, describing the challenge as focusing on problems that users need addressed.
“If you’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, no one is going to value it,” he said. “The cool factor lasts only so long; the value factor lasts a long time.”
The cultural shifts needed to understand connected technology and recurring revenue streams pale in comparison to a gas-powered engine maker breaking into battery-powered products.
“That was a huge culture shift because essentially, we have historically thought ‘internal combustion engines’ all day, every day,” Teske said.
The company increasingly thinks of its mission as providing power, not building engines. Just as a shift to think about users instead of customers has helped fuel innovation, the change in word choice has propelled Briggs’ battery work.
For years, Briggs maintained an engine application center at its West Burleigh Street plant. The highly secure area is where customers bring their next generation of equipment to make sure it works with a Briggs engine. That work has given Briggs & Stratton engineers a lot of experience in using the power of an internal combustion engine to get the most work out of a piece of equipment.
But to Teske, the experience was more about applying power and less about the source, so the company changed the testing facility’s name to the power application center to help shift the mindset toward batteries.
“We know what torque curves are, we know what kind of conditions a blade needs to cut grass in, we know all these different kinds of conditions. How do we now take the power in that battery and apply it to get work done?” Teske asked.
Like InfoHub, corporate structure has also played a role in the company’s development of battery technology. In 2010, Teske created a centralized research and development function that reports to him. Previously, those functions were embedded within each of the business groups.
When the head of R&D retired a few years ago, Teske made it a point to find a battery expert to lead the team and ended up hiring one from the power tool industry.
“People asked me, ‘Why are you hiring somebody that doesn’t have internal combustion engine experience?’” Teske recalled. “I said, ‘Because we have a lot of those around here; we don’t have many battery people.”
In a little more than two years, Briggs has introduced 16 battery-powered products and 97 SKUs, including an 82-volt lithium ion battery that powers a series of engines.
Steve Ryczek, global product manager for battery products at Briggs, said the company is having to evolve just as the automobile companies are evolving with electric vehicles. He said it is important for outdoor power equipment to have batteries built with that purpose in mind and added there will still likely be gas or diesel options moving forward.
Teske said he feels “really good” about where Briggs is positioned for the electrification of lawn and garden equipment.
“We’ll see how the market plays out. There is a place for battery,” he said, adding the company will ultimately seek to be agnostic about the type of power source and it will be up to what users want. “Right now it’s really impossible to tell you how the mix shifts over time.”
INVESTING IN COMMERCIAL
One clear shift in mix is the increasing emphasis on the commercial portion of the business. According to research from Baird analysts, Briggs has increased commercial revenue from $250 million in fiscal 2012 to $434 million in fiscal 2017. The 12 percent compound annual growth rate included 6 percent organic growth.
Briggs acquired Nebraska-based Allmand Bros. Inc., a maker of towable light towers, industrial heaters and solar LED arrow boards, in 2014. The next year, the company added Missouri-based Billy Goat Industries Inc., a maker of specialty turf equipment including aerators, sod cutters, overseeders, power rakes and brush cutters. Late last year, the company acquired the assets of Nebraska-based Ground Logic Inc., which designs and makes commercial spreaders and sprayers used to apply fertilizers, pesticide and herbicide to lawns.
The idea behind Briggs’ commercial strategy is to “fill out the trailer” of the professionals caring for many lawns today. Teske said there is more the company can do to offer products to those companies, particularly with battery-powered tools. Ultimately, he said, it comes down to providing solid equipment that’s easy to use and allows commercial cutters to run their business better.
“To the extent that you can do things that allow businesses to be more productive with the people they do have, there’s huge value there,” he said, noting landscape firms are already finding it difficult to find enough help.
Whether filling out the trailer comes from internal product development or acquisition depends, Teske said. If something will take a long time to develop and a potential acquisition target has a lot of intellectual property in the idea, Briggs is more likely to try to buy it.
“A lot of times it comes back to speed to market,” he said.
Briggs is also investing in its own operations. Last year, the company announced a $55 million business optimization program that includes moving Ferris commercial mower production to a new facility in New York and on-shoring production of Vanguard commercial engines to facilities in Auburn, Alabama and Statesboro, Georgia.
Most Vanguard engines were previously produced in Japan as part of a joint venture with Daihatsu.
Teske said the joint venture, which dates back to the 1980s, was in need of investment, with some equipment getting too old.
“Any time we need to make an investment we’ll think about where should it be, rather than just putting it in somewhere,” he said.
Bringing the Vanguard work to Georgia and Alabama will improve speed to market and keep production closer to the main customer base in the U.S., Teske said. It also brings production closer to engineering, most of which is based in Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee area could also see some additional investment. BizTimes reported in April the company was in talks with Zilber Property Group to occupy a $28 million, 700,000-square-foot industrial building in Germantown. The company confirmed its interest in the project in early June, but Teske declined to discuss details during a recent interview.
Any investment in local operations would be following a 2014 decision to close a manufacturing facility in McDonough, Georgia. Production of pressure washers, snow throwers and lawn tractors moved to the Burleigh facility in Wauwatosa, while zero-turn lawn mowers moved to New York.
The investment in Wauwatosa brought former warehouse space back to life with manufacturing activity. The facility also saw new investment in its sound, vibration and harshness testing facility. The previous lab space was built in 1972, while the revamped version was opened in early 2017.
“We had one, but this is state-of-the-art stuff now,” Teske said.
The trend for most manufacturers has been to move work from the Midwest to southern states, and Briggs was no different, with a chapter in its company history titled “Moving South.” Teske said the business climate in Wisconsin has become “dramatically better” than when he started with the company, and his commitment to the local workforce was that its Milwaukee-area plants would have an opportunity to get more work when it became available.
“They came through,” he said of the local workforce.
Ross Winklbauer, a subdistrict director with the United Steelworkers, which represents more than 500 Briggs employees in the area, declined to comment on the union’s relationship with the company, citing ongoing contract negotiations.
Briggs has 1,556 local employees and 5,195 worldwide.
“A big part of the reason we’ve been able to stay in the U.S. over the last several years is the cost of automation has come down,” Teske said, adding employee skill levels have had to go up to handle the added technology. “We’ve been able to remain competitive, but we’ve invested a lot in our plants. We have more robots in one manufacturing cell than we had in the whole company 22 years ago when I started.”
Teske said it is easy to get caught up in the things that cause fluctuations from quarter to quarter. The late start to this year’s spring, for instance, could cost the company up to $40 million in revenue in the current fiscal year. Compared to the past, however, he said the underpinnings of the business are “so different than what (they were) and different in a really, really good way.”
“I’m paid to be optimistic about the future,” he said. “I’m paid to help create a vision, but I’ll tell you, I’ve been optimistic. I’ve never been this optimistic.”
Briggs & Stratton Financial Performance