March 22 2011 12:00 AM

UPON THE URGING OF HIS FATHER to have a job after school, Bill Hughes’ dad took his 13-year-old son by the hand and introduced him to the neighbors. Suddenly, young Bill was in the lawn mowing business, an area in which he would spend his entire career—more properly, the lawn mower and power equipment business. A quiet, unassuming man, Bill Hughes personifies professionalism.

Hughes spent most of his childhood and young adulthood in Cleveland, Ohio. During his high school years, he mowed lawns in the afternoons. Upon graduation, he attended Kent State University. Hughes realized that in order to pay for his college education, he needed to get a job, so he worked part-time in a steel mill. “A supervisor took a liking to me, and used me as a test case to join the UAW Steelworkers Union as a part-time steel maker,” said Hughes. “I was a member of the union and worked there for three years.” To be able to work and attend college, Hughes transferred to Cleveland State University.

While still attending college, he got a fulltime job with Black & Decker. He worked in sales in the New York City, northern New Jersey area and transferred to Rutgers University.

Hughes graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and continued to work for Black & Decker, taking on special marketing assignments. In 1975, he received a call from a head hunter who was doing research for a firm. “I really wasn’t looking to move,” said Hughes, “but I asked him who the company was. When he started to describe the company and the industry, and that it was located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and that it was The Toro Company, I said, ‘I’ve got some experience with their products; I would like to go and talk to them.” Thirty-five years later, Bill Hughes is still a “Toro guy.”

He accepted a field sales position in March 1975. Less than a year later, he was promoted to marketing manager in consumer products, and later became director of marketing for the outdoor appliance division. Following that stint, he went to work for Ken Melrose, then a vice president of Toro. Hughes became director of new business development.

The year 1981 was not a good one for The Toro Company. They were up to their ears in snow blowers and snow throwing equipment, in a year that saw little snow, and everything soon came to a standstill. A major reorganization took place, and Ken Melrose was named president. Down-sizing and consolidation became the norm. Hughes was moved back to consumer products as senior marketing manager for walk power mowers.

In those days, if you worked for The Toro Company and you had an interest in being an entrepreneur, you could put your name on a list to purchase a distributorship. “As a kid, I remember mowing lawns and really felt the entrepreneurial spirit, so I put my name down,” explained Hughes. “As it turned out, a group out of Virginia had a Toro distributorship that was established in 1979. They got into some serious financial problems and had to put the Maryland operation up for sale.”

“I had been working with Lynn Matson, an account executive at Campbell Mithuin, the advertising agency for Toro. We had worked well together and became good friends. We discussed the possibility of forming a partnership and going into business for ourselves,” remembers Hughes. “We put together a business plan and submitted it, and were given the opportunity to purchase Turf Equipment by Toro’s senior management. We sold our homes, made our capital contribution into the business and realized we were starting out with a negative $640,000. Talk about determination. This made us even more motivated.”

Hughes left corporate Toro, and both he and Matson moved to Maryland as owners of Turf Equipment & Supply. They had used all of their money and were in debt. So, with shoulder to the wheel and lots of hard work and determination, by 1985 the company was in the black for the first time. Along the way they bought a few other distributorships.

Following the untimely death of a good friend of both Hughes and Melrose, they were together on their way to the funeral, and as fate would have it, they reminisced about old times. Melrose wasn’t very happy with the results of the person heading up the consumer products division (CP). He told Hughes he needed to make a change, and was wondering if Hughes would take on the position for a short time, giving Melrose the time to find the right person to lead the division.

After discussing it with his wife, Hughes felt that his business was running smoothly and Matson agreed to the arrangement. So, in 1998 Hughes moved back to Minneapolis for what he thought was a 15 to 18 month stint. Within the year, Hughes was able to get the CP division back into the black.

Changes were also being made at the irrigation division in Riverside, California, and Melrose was looking for someone to take the top position there. He thought he would look outside the company for the right person. Hughes was concerned; not only was he invested in the company, he had his own distributorship that he worried about. Although irrigation was only a small percent of his distributorship’s sales, he wanted to protect his position.

Hughes moaned and groaned to his wife that weekend, and finally she said, “If you think you can make it better, we’ll go to Riverside.” The following Monday he spoke with Melrose, and they agreed he would take over the irrigation division for a period of three years.

An assignment that was supposed to be 15 or 18 months turned out to be 59 months. “But in the end it was worth it,” said Hughes. “I was able to work in corporate America for 14 years, have an opportunity to own my own business, then go back into corporate America for five years, and back into private enterprise. As I look back, what a rare and wonderful experience it was.”

In 2010, Lynn Matson retired and Hughes has taken in two talented people as junior partners, so they won’t skip a beat when he’s ready to retire. “It is extremely critical that we perpetrate this great culture. Lynn and I are proud of the organization we’ve built over the past 28 years.”

“Knowing what I know now helped grow our irrigation business; more importantly, it has allowed our distributorship to move into landscape lighting, water features and ponds, and rain water harvesting.”

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but more importantly, I feel that I’ve learned so much, not only to help me in our business, but to put to good use and be able to help many contractors. If I can pass on what I’ve learned to help just one other person, I will be fulfilled,” said Hughes.

Billl Hughes, your contribution is greater than you think.