With the exception of his teenage years, you could say David Withers has spent his entire career in the lawn mower/power equipment business. Passionate and driven, Withers is the epitome of the phrase, 'Enthusiasm is contagious.' It is clear from his demeanor that he exudes confidence. How did he get that enthusiastic and confidence?
As a young boy growing up in London, England, Withers realized at an early age that he was mechanically inclined. He bought his first motorbike when he was just 12 years old, and his first car at the age of 13.
After completing his education and before starting a career, Withers decided to do some volunteer work in Kenya, Africa. Although the original plan was to stay just a year, he loved it so much that he spent 30 months in Africa, helping to build schools and health centers.
He came back to the United Kingdom in the late ’80s and started a small automobile business with a close friend. The pair would buy used cars, repair them and then sell them. One of their clients was a company called Charterhouse (part of Redexim), which manufactured aeration and turf equipment. In addition to servicing the company’s vehicles, the pair began to build turf equipment for Charterhouse, and performing product demonstrations.
Charterhouse soon acquired Withers’ fledgling company and he began selling turf equipment all over the UK and Ireland.
“Then in 1992, I was tapped on the shoulder at a trade show that was held at a race track,” said Withers. “I was asked if I would like to work for Jacobsen.”
Soon after, he went to work for Jacobsen in the south of England, selling turf equipment to golf courses. At that time, equipment manufacturers in the U.S. had developed a ‘corporate accounts’ program, but it was not yet done in Europe.
Withers got the opportunity to kick off that program in Europe at around the same time Textron Corporation purchased Ransomes (a UK-based mower manufacturer).
The consolidation of Jacobsen and Ransomes was very challenging: moving people and equipment between facilities and re-structuring took much time and distracted from the core business of serving customers.
“We became so internally focused trying to sort out all the integration issues that we lost customers and share in the marketplace. It was a tough few years,” said Withers.
After this period of tumult, he was asked to take over the entire European market. He used his passion for the turf industry along with a simple vision for success: leverage the company’s quality products and talented people to rebuild the brand.
By 2002, Withers became sales director and in 2004, he was named managing director of international business, responsible for the Jacobsen and Ransomes brands everywhere outside of North America.
“We used to refer to it as ‘I to I’, Iceland to India. We expanded the business into Asia as well and as you would imagine, I was on the road quite a bit,” said Withers.
About once a month, Withers would travel stateside to the U.S. to confer with the Jacobsen management team in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, Textron was getting more involved with its subsidiaries. “There was good interface with those in charge,” added Withers.
Two years ago, when Withers was made president and CEO of Jacobsen, he relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. I asked him if it was an easy transition.
“Yes, it was,” he said. “In Europe, we had been living by my philosophy of what I call the three Bs:
1) Build relationships with customers; 2) Build good machines that meet our customers’ unmet needs; and 3) Back them up for the whole of their lives. This philosophy transferred well to our U.S. workforce and was quickly adopted. It’s simple, easy to remember and resonates with employees, partners and customers.”
“As soon as I felt like our business was in decent enough shape and we’d sorted out all the issues, we began investing in the front end of the business. We added more marketing and salespeople and started calling on more customers,” Withers explained. “We’re really a much better company than we had been for ages. And we have been rewarded for that in the marketplace with volume and share gain and just generally much better performance.”
Like all companies, Jacobsen needs to continue to grow to remain healthy. Withers believes that although there will be growth in the golf market, it will be limited, in comparison to the growing commercial and municipal sectors. So the idea of investing in the commercial space made sense.
As such, Jacobsen recently introduced a new line of commercial equipment, including zero-turn, stand-on and walk-behind mowers in addition to a full line of utility vehicles. The company also purchased Dixie Chopper for the homeowner market and for small contractors.
Withers is enjoying his time in America. “You hear negatives about America, but I’ve traveled to 55 different countries and traded all around the world. North America’s a pretty good place,” he said.
Little did David Withers think many years ago starting in this industry, that his life’s work would be turf. I believe he loves what he does and where he is.
“We use the term ‘turfie’ in Europe for someone who is truly dedicated to our industry and likely in it for life,” he quipped. “It’s definitely in my blood and I will proudly say I am a turfie for life.”