But fate doesn’t always deal you the hand you want. By the time he graduated from high school and was ready to work on the farm, he had another obstacle to hurdle. Unfortunately, it was getting tougher and tougher to survive in dairy farming in upstate New York. His parents decided to get out of the business, and that left Shea seeking another career path.
He then apprenticed at a machine shop as a tool-and-die maker. After his apprenticeship was completed, he took a job with Ferris Industries, Inc. That was in 1975. Back then, Ferris Industries was a small manufacturing company, specializing in products like milking machines and ventilation units for the dairy farm industry. Their products were sold to dairy farms in the Northeast.
“Working in a small company, everybody did everything,” said Shea. “I worked on the assembly line, drove trucks, set up for shows, and everything in between.” During those early years at Ferris, he and co-worker Phil Wenzel formed a close bond. “I felt we were like partners,” said Shea.
Then in 1982, when a United States senator led a campaign to eliminate farming subsidies, “We became a much smaller company overnight,” Shea recalled. He moved over to the customer service department, because the company lost a lot of people due to attrition.
Much like when his parents sold the family farm, Shea again found himself facing an uncertain future. “We weren’t quite sure where we were going,” he explained.
It was a man applying for a sales job who caused Ferris Industries to change directions. The applicant had a three-wheel Scag lawn mower with him. Shea, company owner Dave Ferris and Phil Wenzel looked over the mower. An idea popped into their heads that the commercial lawn mower business might be a logical next step for the company.
Dave Ferris reached out to Dane Scag, who owned Scag Mowers, and asked if Ferris could be a distributor or a manufacturer for his company. Scag shot both of those offers down. Then, he made Ferris a counteroffer. “You seem like a pretty smart guy,” Scag said. “It’s a pretty big market. Why don’t you build your own product, if you’re as good as you say you are?” Shea recalls that Scag had one more piece of advice: “If you’re really good, you’ll be successful. And if you copy any of my patents, I’ll determine your success.”
In time, Ferris created its own mowers and filed its own patents. The company’s first three-wheel riders hit the market in 1986. “We thought we were in the lawn mower business, until we went to a trade show down near New York City,” Shea recalled. At the trade show, they saw that larger companies were selling commercial walk-behind mowers.
They knew they’d have to make their own walk-behind mowers to stay competitive. The following year, Ferris released its first hydrostatic walk-behind mower. “Since then, we’ve just expanded the lines and continued to grow them,” Shea said.
Shea’s role in the company continued to grow as well. As the lawn mowers took off, he shifted over to the sales department. Eventually, he was made national sales manager for the company. Then, in 1994, he was named a vice president, along with Phil Wenzel.
Ferris was running out of space at its manufacturing facility, and also needed to upgrade its equipment. “If it was humid, the paint wouldn’t dry real well and there’d be fingerprints on the equipment the next day when they were being assembled,” Shea said. It was clear they needed to move.
There was just one catch. “It’s hard to get a new facility when you don’t have any money,” quipped Shea. “We were out of cash.” The company was successful, but its money was tied up in production costs. The more business it did, the more money it needed.
But, again proving he can adapt to any situation, Shea came up with a new plan. He had a meeting set up with the local school superintendent to discuss his son’s absences. After that discussion, the superintendent mentioned that they were building a new high school and were unsure of what to do with the current building.
Driving back from that meeting, it hit him that Ferris could convert the high school into a manufacturing facility. The school was only eight miles from Ferris’ current location. To save taxpayers the cost of tearing it down, the city was willing to sell the location to Ferris for just the cost of transferring the deed.
Coming up with unorthodox solutions like converting a school into a manufacturing facility is but one indication of how Shea has thrived at Ferris. It’s his ability to adapt and to learn on the job that has served him so well.
Even so, for a while, the company seemed to be in jeopardy. “There were several years where the future was bleak,” he recalled. “We didn’t know if we were going to make it from one year to the next.” But Shea said they were ultimately able to persevere. “I guess we did it for the love of the business and the love of the employees here,” he said.
In 1999, Ferris was bought by Simplicity Manufacturing Inc. And eventually, Simplicity was bought by Briggs & Stratton Corporation. Being aligned with these larger corporations has made Shea’s day-to-day work a lot more streamlined and efficient. Although the product mix has changed over time, Ferris is still the family he joined and loves and where he’s spent the last 41 years.
Shea, at 61, sees a bright future. “I think Ferris is going to be a commercial brand to be reckoned with,” he says. “Briggs is a great company and has been very supportive of us. As a public company, they’ve added structure and organization to our division.”
On the personal side, car racing has been a passion of Shea’s for some time. He has owned several race cars, which he says “raced at a pretty high level.” He eventually sold them. But when a NASCAR dirt track close to where he grew up went on the market, Shea and his wife Kim bought it.
“She runs the show; I just help on the weekends,” he says. So while he’d like to spend more time with his wife and family, he won’t be spending quiet evenings at home with them. Instead, he’ll be with them at the race track.
Bill Shea has shown that he has the perseverance and personality to thrive in whatever situation he’s put in.
He may have never gone to college, but he’s most certainly earned a Ph.D from the University of Hard Knocks.