David Soyka reports on how stand-on mowers make this pioneering Maryland company stand out with manufacturing practices that earned Presidential recognition.
Bill Wright says that as an eight-year-old boy, he was inspired by a biography about the manufacturing genius of Henry Ford. Today, Bill Wright might be said to be the Henry Ford of commercial lawn maintenance equipment. The company he founded, Wright Manufacturing, not only produces innovative technology – from the first all-steel grass catcher to the leading stand-on riding commercial lawnmower – but its lean manufacturing practices have become a model for others to emulate. Indeed, President George Bush during a recent tour of the Wright factory noted that Wright and his company epitomize the American entrepreneurial dream. “This man started his own business. He’s a manufacturer, he employs over 100 people and he represents the backbone of our economy,” the president said.
“Bill Wright really is considered a legend in the industry,” says President Shawn Wolf.
“When we go to trade shows, everyone wants to talk to Bill. He is widely recognized in this industry for his enthusiasm about commercial lawn maintenance, the ideas he brings not only to improving products, but the ways the products are made.”
One reason for Wright’s particular insight into the needs of the commercial landscaper is that he started out in the business as one himself. In 1981, he started a company called “Lawn-Wright,” and came to manufacturing as a way to solve the problem of grass catching equipment that consistently fell apart. The catcher he developed and began mass producing, the Grass Gobbler™, remains an industry best-seller.
“As a landscaper, Bill and his employees spent a lot of time fixing equipment, which led them to thinking about ways for machinery to work more efficiently, with fewer break downs,” Wolf says. “In the late 1980s, they came up with the idea of a walk-behind mower where the operator could ride behind it.” Wright patented the first single-wheel stand-on sulky, which was called the Velke™, after Jim Velke, one of Wright’s engineers who worked on the original design.
The Velke brand name remains in the Wright product family, not only as a sulky but also as a walk-behind mower. In 1997, Velke and Wright introduced a new type of riding lawnmower, the Stander®, which allowed the operator to stand up while mowing. Three years later, this was followed by the Sentar®, which gave the operator the choice of sitting or standing. These machines offered improved maneuverability and efficiency, while increasing operator comfort and safety, over traditional equipment.
“Initially, we were making equipment and doing landscaping work at the same time,” Wolf explains. “We even started a third business, Clip Software, which sold a computer program designed to automate business functions unique to the landscaper’s business. But, then, in 1993, we sold the landscaping and software businesses to concentrate exclusively on manufacturing.”
Today, Wright Manufacturing holds over 50 patents for lawn maintenance equipment. “We are the only manufacturer that offers this type of equipment,” Wolf notes. “We have sold a limited license to a competitor, but there are limitations of the design which is really inferior to what we make today.”
Nor is Wright content to sit on its patents. The company is continually refining and improving on its concepts. Case in point is the new Stander ZK. “The ‘ZK’ designation is a kind of internal joke – it stands for ‘Z-killer.’ The new Stander goes after the ‘zero turn’ model category with a machine that has a bigger engine, higher speed and lower weight. Consequently, the Stander ZK is simply more efficient than any other zero turn machine on the market.”
MAKING TALL GRASS SHORT
Wolf adds, “We have a saying in our industry that what we do isn’t rocket science, it’s making tall grass short. What we’re looking to do is provide equipment that can make this happen as efficiently as possible. Typically, cutting a lawn involves making mostly straight runs and then turning around. Now, anything we can do to make that equipment lighter and easier to operate makes that turnaround easier and more efficient. Okay, so we’re saving a few seconds. Add all those seconds together when you’re making 200 of those straight runs on a given job, and it accumulates to the point where you can schedule more work during the week because you’re finishing individual jobs up that much faster.”
Even more critical to improved efficiency is operating in tight spaces. “Our equipment gets in and out of tight spaces easily and effectively,” Wolf notes. One example is the small footprint and lower center of gravity for greater agility and stability of the Sentar. The Operator Balance Control (OBC) lets the rider shift weight instantly to handle changing terrain; also, with no seat belts, armrests or set back, the operator can easily step off to make a quick exit or move debris. And, the small size means a landscaper can fit more mowers on a single trailer.
Wright sells through dealers and distributors primarily to commercial landscapers. “Occasionally a homeowner will purchase one of our machines, but these are estate-type owners whose properties call for commercial grade equipment that for some reason they want to maintain themselves,” Wolf says.
About 85 percent of sales are in North America, though Wolf notes, “We sell to 10 countries outside of the U.S. Our international sales are growing, and we expect this to be a significant contribution to our overall continuing growth as a company.” Nor does Wolf foresee any slowdown even in a sluggish overall economy. “We don’t see landscapers feeling any pinch. The reason is that, when the grass gets high, it’s got to get cut, and it remains ultimately less expensive to hire a commercial landscaper to mow their lawns than it would for property owners to try to do it themselves.”
Wolf notes that equipment life expectancy relies heavily on the engine, which typically averages 2,000 to 2,500 hours, which roughly translates to three to five years. “Proper maintenance helps extend useful life, so we thoroughly train our dealers to provide landscapers with full parts and services.
Wright Manufacturing is headquartered in Frederick, Md., where it maintains a 120,000- square-foot manufacturing facility that is literally a showcase for its enterprising lean practices. “We initiated lean manufacturing in 2001,” Wolf explains. Among other things, we created systems that optimized processes by identifying key steps that could accomplish a given task most efficiently. This allows us to hire for attitude, rather than skill sets. We don’t require a highly skilled workforce; we do require people who are eager to learn and are flexible. Cross training is essential. We want our people to be able to fulfill a variety of roles as demand requires. This not only makes us more efficient in the use of our labor, it makes for more challenging and rewarding jobs for our workforce.”
A big issue for Wright, as with other manufacturers, is the rising expense of steel. “This is a work in progress,” Wolf says. “We’re continually examining the markets and trying to anticipate the best times to buy. At the same time, we’re constantly looking to tighten up our designs and our manufacturing processes both to minimize waste and to reduce the amount of steel we actually have to use. In fact, by using less steel, the machines are lighter, which makes them more efficient and easier to operate. Today, our machines are about 300 pounds lighter with the reduction in the use of certain steel parts.”
The company has actually become as famous for its lean manufacturing practices as it has for the equipment it makes. “We offer regular tours of our factory that have become quite popular,” Wolf says. “Again, this goes back to Bill Wright’s enthusiastic nature to share what he’s learned and what he’s tried to accomplish with others. In fact, that’s what led to the visit by President Bush. When were told that we had been selected, my first question was, why us? The explanation was that our reputation throughout Maryland in giving these tours was just what they were looking for as an example of a small entrepreneurial company to help illustrate the need for the administration’s proposed economic growth package.”
Wolf adds, “During the tour, Bill Wright made a point of noting that the purchase of our plasma/punch steel cutting machine was enabled by the 2001 tax relief package. The purchase of this equipment enabled us to build prototypes in-house, which drastically improved our production efficiency.”
The president ended the tour by actually riding a Stander, from where he spoke to the press about the need for an economic growth package. “I love people who have a dream and work hard to achieve it,” the president said of Wright.
That, basically, is what cuts it for users of Wright equipment, who can literally stand behind what the company makes every working day.