Feb. 1 2007 12:00 AM


YOUR BUDDY IN THE NEXT TOWN JUST bought his company a great new mower. According to him, it's a true marvel of speed and efficiency. In fact, he's going to buy two more.

Your company desperately needs new mowing equipment also and you really don't have time to shop. So you run over to your friend's company, take a look at what he bought, and give it a test run. It looks solid, it's fast, and has a great warranty. Why not just go with this tried-and-true performer?

Hold everything! As tempting as it may be, this is no way to make a wise purchase. It's not that your friend's new wonder-machine isn't perfect. It probably is perfect -- for him. But a mower that's perfect for one company could spell disaster for yours.

Choosing the right mowers for your business involves careful research. And the most important research you can do at this time is on your own company. It's not about finding the best mowers available. There are many great options. Instead it's about which equipment provides the best fit for the way your company does business.

"Basically, what it boils down to is productivity and efficiency," says Matt Land, national sales manager for Dixie Chopper, based in Greencastle, Indiana. "Can you do the job in ten steps or can you do it in five?"

But the factors that go into efficiency vary dramatically from company to company. They involve a lot more than the performance of the equipment itself. "Your efficiency comes not only from the speed of the machine," says Land, "but from things like maneuverability, travel time and where you're putting your grass."

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. To understand which machines provide the best fit for your company, you need to look at your decision from every angle and ask yourself a lot of questions. Where will you be using your new equipment? What do you need it to do for you, both now and in the near future? Who will be operating and maintaining it? How will you transport it? All of these factors impact the payback you'll get from the investment you make.

A good place to start is by taking a long look at the properties you're servicing right now. Their demands and limitations will help determine everything, from the size and maneuverability you'll need, to safety issues, to transportation considerations.

How big are the properties you mow? What kind of obstacles do you encounter? Are there gates to get through or tight spaces to angle around? "A mower that's too small will lose money because the job takes too long," says Roy Dust, product specialist for Ferris Commercial Mowers. "But a mower that's too big will create excessive amounts of trim work because it can't get into all areas." It's essential to factor in not just mower time but all labor on the property that will result from your new purchase.

For large landscaped areas with numerous curves and obstacles, zero-turn radius ride-on mowers are hard to beat. Their turn-in-place agility allows the operator to speed through the curves and angles of the most intricately sculpted landscape. Where the deck is mounted also impacts a mower's agility. Front-mount mowers can provide the extra reach necessary to access the area under trees.

But keep in mind that the overall efficiency of any given job involves more than just performance on the property. Contractors sometimes fail to think about how they're going to transport their new equipment. For example, a contractor may opt for the extra reach of a front-mount mower without considering that it might require more space in the truck. Be sure the mower fits in with your current transportation plans or be ready to modify those plans.

Safety considerations also come into play when assessing the kinds of properties you service. "Key things to consider are the kind of terrain you're going to be operating on and the environment around it," says Bob Walker, president of Walker Mowers. "Will you be frequently operating around people. If so, discharge direction will be important. How will your new machine handle hills? Some are better than others and often this is not apparent until you go and handle a machine on different terrains. Before purchasing equipment, you need to see it on some of the most challenging areas."

Stand-on mowers may be able to handle some slopes that are off limits for ride-ons because operators have more control of the machine and can shift their weight to compensate for the tilt. But all machines have their limitations, and it's important to make equipment purchases with those limitations in mind. "At some point," says Walker, "you are going to encounter areas that are too steep, where it's simply wrong to operate that machine."

"Not having the right equipment for the job is a common mistake that can lead to an accident," agrees Carol Kelly, corporate product integrity specialist for The Toro Company. "It is imperative that the right piece of equipment be used on the job. For example, walk-behind mowers and trimmers are necessary for those areas in which a riding mower should not be used. And employees need to be trained to understand the capabilities and risks of the equipment they're using."

7_3.jpgWhat will your equipment do for you?

Aside from making tall grass shorter, what exactly do you need your equipment to do for you? Sometimes contractors fail to address this most basic question. Is it a high quality of cut that you're striving for? Are you looking for a flexible system? Are you looking for a machine to help your company grow into new markets? Identifying your equipment goals up front will narrow your choices.

For Greenpoint Landscaping in Edmonds, Washington, dependability is priority one. "Longevity and reliability are our biggest concerns when choosing mowers," says Jason Jakobsen, director of sales for Greenpoint. "Our customers expect the same quality of cut every time, so we look for a mower that can give us that. Initial price is always a concern but you have to look beyond that."

For Greenpoint, reliability means a machine that can tough it out in Washington's wet climate. "Our service has to be consistent and reliable no matter what the weather," says Jakobsen. The important thing is that Greenpoint has identified the factors in equipment that are most important to them and they use that as a guide with each decision. Every company has its own unique headaches. Before purchasing, it's important to identify these and choose equipment that addresses them.

One consideration that's getting the attention of contractors everywhere is fuel economy. On the most basic level, balancing your power needs with a conservative fuel budget makes sense. "For some, there's been a big surge toward more horsepower," says Dust. "More power is great -- if you need it. But at the end of the year, when you add it all up, fuel expenses are huge. If you buy more horsepower than you need, you're not doing yourself any favors."

Fuel isn't a concern for economic reasons only. "In this day and age, you also have to think about the environment," says Jakobsen. Greenpoint's interest in environmental issues stems not only from customer demand, but from the company's own attention to issues such as global warming. "We're very interested in more environmentally-friendly options and we're watching research and development on this issue," says Jakobsen.

These are the kinds of considerations that led Dixie Chopper to develop their propane commercial mowers. "We weren't responding to fuel costs as much as to environmental concerns and trends we were seeing in legislation," says Land. "But now, with soaring gas prices, we've also added in fuel savings."

Versatility is another driving force for many contractors, especially smaller ones who offer a variety of services. An attractive option for the multi-service, multi-season professional is a mower that offers interchangeable mowing decks and optional implements for other services like snow removal, aeration, leaf removal, and bed shaping.

"The most versatile machine is the best choice for a contractor who has a variety of properties to mow and services to provide," says Patsy Penner of Grasshopper Mower. "To mow a variety of jobsites, they'll want a durable mowing deck that converts from side discharge to optional mulching or vacuum collection quickly and easily. They may even want to consider having multiple deck sizes, so they can interchange sizes for different size properties without having to invest in more than one power unit."

While versatility can be extremely important to some, it's also important to remember that there is no machine that can do it all.

This is especially important to keep in mind when you're thinking about moving your company in a new direction. "If you're a smaller contractor, don't try to tackle every job," says Walker. "The guy who thinks he can do that huge wide open area with the same machine he's using for that small, highly landscaped property, and do them both profitably, is not being realistic. Identify a niche. Find an area of work that you can do well. That way you're not trying to find that one-size-fits-all machine."

Sometimes new opportunities tempt contractors into poor decisions, adds Dust. "Smaller contractors who are doing really well in one area may jump into other areas without thinking about it." Contractors who are well equipped for residential lots may get into trouble if they decide to take on large commercial accounts without adding new equipment.

But, as both Walker and Dust point out, good decision making and careful equipment purchases can help businesses evolve successfully into new markets. "?Have a target," says Dust. "Survey the market and know the jobs you're going to go after. Find a niche you know you can get into and then buy equipment to fit that niche."

Two other factors to keep in mind when you are making purchasing decisions are the skills and limitations of your own labor force. The best, fastest equipment available provides no gain in efficiency if it requires more extensive training than you can realistically provide. For contractors who frequently rely on seasonal or inexperienced employees, ease of operation can mean the difference between a machine that gets them ahead, or one that slows them down.

A factor that is sometimes overlooked in the purchasing decision is maintenance and serviceability. Any amount of downtime in a mower can quickly eat up any savings accrued from lower up-front costs. For this reason, it's essential to understand how the service and maintenance requirements of the brand you're considering will fit into your day-to-day operations.

Maintenance routines that are difficult or overly complicated are often the first to get skipped during a busy season, and this can spell big trouble down the road. "The amount of maintenance required and the time it takes to do that maintenance varies considerably from one brand of mower to the next," says Penner. "Choosing a mower that is accessible and easy to maintain is a good way to facilitate routine maintenance. The less time spent on daily and weekly service, the more time can be devoted to production."

"A good practice to employ when trying to control costs is to assign an operator to a machine so he'll take a personal interest in that machine," continues Penner. "Operator and serviceman can work together to eliminate downtime and extend the life of the machine. Equipment that is easy to operate will allow the operator to take pride in his work. Some of these intangibles are what make a difference in customer appreciation. Customers don't always opt for the cheapest bid when they know they can count on a company they trust. Work hard, and depend on good equipment to make your job easier and create the finished look desired."