Dec. 1 2001 12:00 AM

In an industry where big equals bigger profits, why would you load up your truck with a couple of small zero-turn radius (ZTR) riders and some walk-behind mowers? Won?t you see your profit margin shrink with added labor costs? Won?t your competitors think you?re low-tech, or out of touch with the industry? What can these little guys do that some of the bigger stallions in your fleet can?t do faster and better?

Actually, landscape contractors, especially lawn care specialists, are finding that these smaller mowers are sound business investments and they have very specific applications.

Every contractor, big or small, has a walk-behind mower. These mowers range from the traditional consumer size of 21" to big 52" and 54" models, with a few 61" and 72" monsters available. They are usually rotary blade jobs that can be pushed or guided (these are self-propelled), or even ridden behind, chariot-style. Colin O?Neill, an officer at Prescription Landscape in St. Paul, Minnesota, has a small walk-behind on every crew, as well as a ZTR or two.

ZTRs are new on the scene and have proven themselves to be workhorses. Since they are riders, they reduce operator fatigue just like their big cousins that are used to mow golf courses. Yet the new ZTR?s small size and center cutting deck offers precision cutting. They also come in a range of deck sizes from 48" to 72". These hardworking little machines are perfect for a variety of applications that larger machines just can?t do.

Size of Job

Richard Angelo, co-owner of Stay Green, Inc., in Valencia, California, says, ?We pick the right tools for the right area.? That includes a fleet of 15 walk-behinds and 10 ZTRs for his small business. He says that his lawn maintenance jobs vary in size, since he mows commercial, industrial, municipal, and large residential estates. Although he can use his ZTRs for large wide-open expanses, they make small mowing jobs a cinch. ?As long as we can get access into a property with a ZTR, we?ll use it,? Angelo says. What can?t be reached with the ZTR can be handled with a walk-behind.

Russ Fragala, vice president of Fragala Landscape Company in Medford, New York, says the 21" walk-behind is perfect for his residential customers, though 36", 48", and 52" walk-behinds are used to mow nooks and crannies, like the small spaces between plantings at commercial sites. ?The 21? mower is a necessity due to different size areas in the home lots we?ve encountered,? says Fragala.

Frank Miesner, Puyallup branch manager of Northwest Landscape in Washington State, uses small walk-behinds to mow courtyards in hospitals, around walkways and atriums inside buildings. He even mows turf on rooftops. The only way you can mow the turf up there is with a smaller walk-behind.
Other applications, where smaller mowers are the best choice, include areas that require a lot of trimming. When there are lots of trees and shrubs or a bunch of planters, the walk-behind or the small ZTR is more maneuverable than its larger riding counterpart. Though the small deck ZTR can navigate on a dime, sometimes a walk-behind fits just a bit better, like around cars in a narrow parking lot, says Miesner.

Roy ?Dusty? Dust, product specialist at Ferris, says, ?In older commercial cutting areas like on the East Coast, properties that are more established expect to see walk-behind mowers.? These areas are often gated, have small mowing areas, and cover established or historical communities all over the country. This is especially true in the Southeast and Southwest, says Bill Potter, product manager of Textron, which manufactures Bobcat (formerly Ransome) and Bunton walk-behinds.

Ken Raney, advertising manager for Hustler Turf Equipment, says that gated backyards are the sites where he sees walk-behinds used most often. And even then, some contractors won?t mow unless the gate width is at least 36". In those cases, the smallest ZTR works just fine.

Many commercial locations also have small cutting areas: fast food restaurants with only a little patch of turf, condos, shopping centers, and median strips. ?With smaller sites, less than 45 minutes per job, the fatigue factor doesn?t come into play,? says Dust. These cutting areas often have a lot of obstructions and are made for the smaller walk-behind.?

Angelo, however, found that investing in ZTRs to mow median strips for a municipal project allowed him to tackle this large acreage without buying another truck. His existing crew and a few new hands could handle the job quickly and efficiently. Angelo was able to cut down operator fatigue and increase productivity without investing in more expensive company assets.
Then there are slopes and hillsides. Due to the central cutting deck, ZTRs have a lower center of gravity and are more stable than many of the big riders on steep hillsides. However, in some areas that are extremely wet or dry, walk-behind mowers may be a safer choice for the user and the property. Mowing in drier areas or late in the fall of the year requires extra care because slipping on dry grass is as much a factor as when mowing after a rain storm or while it is raining.

Kevin Harrison, vice president of operations at Dunn Lawn and Landscape in Missouri, which does residential mowing, says, ?In general, on hillsides, walk-behinds have more maneuverability and control.? Raney echoes that, too, saying, ?Especially on steep slopes with landscaping, the walk-behind will be better to handle.? And Dust adds, ?You don?t have to worry about rollover as with riders. . . . You can always replace the machine but not the employee.?

Quality of the Cut and Customer Perception
The weight of the machine is a concern when mowing in the rain, or in some small cutting areas. ?After the spring rains,? Raney says, ?you get ruts with a big rider. Walk-behinds are lighter.? And that makes sense. Riding mowers can literally weigh a ton and that can rut a lot of turf. Miesner, whose company mows in the rain regularly, says, ?Big machines definitely have their place?but in the rain, the weight factor is more important than anything else. The smaller walk-behind is better than heavy equipment.?

Potter says that in trimming jobs, ?The bigger the deck, the more inclined you are to scalp the turf or gouge it.? That?s a factor whether you use a walk-behind or a ZTR. Miesner says that the tight turns of many riding machines, especially the large commercial ones, can rut or tear up turf. ?The turf recovers better with a walk-behind,? O?Neill adds. New machines have larger wheels in the back. These distribute the weight of the mower and rider, making digging into the turf less of a problem than it was in the past.

O?Neill says that he gives up mowing speed for the quality of the cut with a walk-behind, because it?s the look his customers want. The industry, he says, has had customer complaints about using too big of a machine in a small space. Miesner, whose company serves a high-end residential clientele (condos and estates), found that his customers wanted a nice line; a quality appearance after the job was done, especially in front lawns or front entries that welcome the public.

Because grasses in some areas are very different for the front and backyards, being able to quickly adjust the cutting height in walk-behinds and ZTRs is a real plus. Potter says that longer St. Augustine grass is often a turf of choice for front lawns, while tougher Bermuda grass is ideal for high traffic backyards. Customers, he says, want the backyard cut shorter and the front cut longer and in a pattern. Harrison adds, ?Walk-behinds enable our crew members to key up a pattern, crisscross or diagonal, that the customer wants, especially for front yard mowings.?

It comes down to customer requests and customer perception. Dust says, ?Even if a large 60" to 61" machine is used, as long as the operator is walking, some customers perceive they are getting value.? It?s the personal touch. ?Some customers feel that if they see a guy riding a mower, the guy?s not working,? Dust claims. ?If he?s walking behind a mower, he is taking better care of what he?s doing.? And with the new ZTRs, Dust adds, ?people assume the guy is having too much fun!?

Cost can often be a factor in small landscape operations, or those just starting out. ?The walk-behind is the entry-level machine for the commercial cutter,? says Ken Raney, advertising manager for Hustler Turf Equipment. This is echoed by Potter, ?Even though the zero-turn riders? cost to the contractor is coming down, there is still a significant price advantage to a walk-behind gear-drive.? Yet, compared to the increased productivity ZTRs give a contractor, they are well worth the investment.

?In addition,? Angelo adds, ?many of the new ZTRs and walk-behinds do an effective job of mulching.? Maintenance crews don?t have to bag grass clippings and put them into trash containers on the property or even haul them away. They can leave them at the site, where they feed the turf by adding nitrogen and nutrients. This is a huge labor savings.

Worker Factors

For some contractors, especially start-up companies, their labor force may not be experienced or may suffer from yearly turnover, because these companies employ many seasonal workers. The maneuverability of walk-behinds gives the operator more control, minimizing turf damage and customer dissatisfaction, despite the fact that these workers may be new to the industry.

Self-propelled and hydraulic ?floating? decks on some walk-behinds reduce worker fatigue. Some machines are even ergonomically designed so as not to put the wrist in a bind, thereby reducing wrist stress. Mike Houge, business manager for commercial turf products at Husqvarna, says one mower line even cuts down operations time: ?The entire deck is ad-justable from the operator position.? Though changing the height of the cut is easier with any walk-behind, this feature allows the worker to change the height of cut in a few seconds.

Finally, small walk-behinds and ZTRs take up less space in the truck. When your fleet is limited, every inch of equipment space is precious. Even when you send out a large crew with large-scale riding mowers, these smaller pieces of equipment can always fit into the truck for small jobs.

When sending your crew out for its next job, tuck that little walk-behind or ZTR wonder into the truck. In tight spots and for small applications, and especially if mowing hillsides, or in the rain, the walk-behind mower and the small ZTR are the landscape contractor?s best choice. Using them will please your customers and ensure repeat business.

November December 2001