Some people meander through life without any idea of what path they would choose for their career. Others plan, but somehow feel their choice never quite lived up to their expectations. Such was never the case with Bill Wright.
As a teenager growing up in Chappaqua, New York, Wright gravitated to anything mechanical. He loved to tinker with cars. “I fixed everybody’s cars and lawn mowers; I just couldn’t get my hands away from tinkering with things,” he said, “but I also liked the art of negotiating and the idea of being in business.” He was tinkering with bicycles; he made go-carts from lawn mower and washing machine parts, all the time wheeling and dealing with folk who wanted to buy them.
While in high school he thought he wanted to be an engineer, so upon graduation in 1973, he enrolled at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, New York.
He stayed there for just one year and switched to Shelton College in Florida to study the Bible because he thought he wanted to become a minister. After a few months he realized that being a minister wasn’t his calling. However, he didn’t want to keep switching colleges so he finished his remaining three years and graduated in 1977.
During his college years, Wright would get a job for the summer at a resort in Cape May, New Jersey. He was on the grounds maintenance staff and handled all equipment repairs. There he met his future wife, Margie.
Following his graduation, Wright moved to the Baltimore, Maryland area where his parents were living and immediately got a job as an auto mechanic. He did this for five years, the last three-and-a-half, working for a Volvo dealer. As a sideline, he also repaired his friends’ lawn mowers and cars.
At the tender age of just 23, Wright married 20-year-old Margie. He told her right after they married that he did not want to be a mechanic all his life. He wanted to start a business.
In 1981, while working for the Volvo dealership, Wright started a lawn maintenance business. He organized the business, did the selling and hired others to mow the lawns. After all, he still had his day job. When the lawn mowers broke he would fix them and on Saturdays, if needed, he would go out and mow some lawns as well. In two years he had seven employees and had to quit his job to manage his lawn business. Within about eight to 10 years, Wright had 45 employees and nearly 500 accounts.
Although the mowing business was fun and profitable, Wright says, “I just couldn’t resist souping up the lawn mowers. I kept modifying brand new ones, cutting them up, putting them back together again, making them go faster and cut better.” There he was, back to the mechanical stuff again. His dream was to build his own lawn mowers.
There had to be something in Wright’s DNA. Although he always felt there was someone or something guiding him, he didn’t know where he was going, or how his life would end up. Wright felt he was following a road map that had already been charted for him.
By 1983, Wright started a sideline business. He began manufacturing grass-catchers for commercial mowers. Before too long, he was getting lots of orders. He taught his lawn guys how to weld, so they could work through the winter months making grass catchers.
While still in the mowing business, Wright would observe that his crews were getting beat up walking behind the lawn mowers. Fatigue was limiting the quality and quantity of the jobs. With his mind always working, he started looking for a better way. In the mid ’80s he came up with the idea of the operator standing up behind a mower, which gave him the concept of a stand-on sulky. By 1993, Wright had a team of 45 people manufacturing sulkies and grass catchers.
He kept dreaming of making his own lawn mowers, and in 1989, he began moving in that direction. As the manufacturing operation began to surpass the mowing business, he and Marge decided to sell the lawn business. One day, while Wright was in the shower he got a bright idea. Why stand on a sulky, why not stand on the lawn mower itself? “As soon as it hit me, I realized that’s what we had to do,” said Wright. That’s when he applied for patents. However, by 1994, four years after his initial thought, Wright still had not produced a mower for sale.
It took a while, but by 1997, Wright began to manufacture and sell stand-on mowers. “It took a few years to work our way up to actually doing it. It’s far more complicated than making sulkies and catchers, so we had to get a lot of things right,” said Wright. “I think I would’ve been afraid to do it if it wasn’t so gradual. Each thing was a little step past what I was doing, so it didn’t seem like a wild leap. Nothing seemed huge while I was doing it, but looking back on it now, it was huge.”
“Now you know, I didn’t or couldn’t do this all by myself,” said Wright. “A key person was Jim Velke, who worked for us for 18 years. In the beginning he was our mechanic, but he became involved in a lot of the product designing, as a helper at first.”
“In 1993, when I thought of the stand-on mower, I went to him and said ‘Jim, I finally thought of a way to make the sulky obsolete, I want you to think of a way too. I’m not going to tell you what I came up with.’ We agreed to meet two weeks hence for lunch with sketches of our ideas, and we would flip them up at the same time. When we flipped them over, each of our drawings had the identical concept.”
“So when we went for the patents, we both went in together as co-inventors. He’s continued as a minor shareholder in the company. I can’t take the credit for everything. It’s always been a team effort.”
While keeping busy at the office, Wright was also busy at home. He and Margie were having children, 10 in all, 6 boys and 4 girls. Now grown, the Wrights spend a lot of time with their children and grandchildren.
Bill Wright is many times blessed. He is doing exactly what he wanted to do. He enjoys a great family and a wonderful business—he’s got the entire package.
You could say that Bill Wright has a very fertile imagination, and with an imagination like that, who knows what else lies ahead in his future.