April 19 2012 06:35 AM
There's an old adage, “Keep your shoulder to the wheel and your nose to the grindstone,” and you’ll get someplace. That, in a nutshell, is Rick Olson. A tireless worker, he has developed some core values that won’t be compromised.

Olson, 48, was born into a farming family in Forest City, Iowa. Although life on the farm required hard work and perseverance, Olson recalls his childhood fondly and appreciates the lessons and values learned there.

Forest City’s claim to fame is Winnebago Industries. In a town with a population of 4,000, several thousand were employed at Winnebago.

Olson’s father was one of those who had a full-time job with the company.

In his formative years and throughout his years in school, Olson would come home from school and do his chores. He often worked into the early evenings and full time during the summers. Upon graduation from high school, he enrolled at Iowa State University.

During holiday breaks and the summer break, Olson would go home to help out on the farm. In his junior and senior years, in addition to helping on the farm, he also worked at Winnebago Industries as an engineering intern to help pay for his tuition.

Each spring, companies large and small send their representatives to various colleges and universities, seeking what they hope will be the next generation of leaders.

It’s a great time for graduating students to spend time talking to representatives of various companies. Not only do they see a wide variety of corporations, they get an idea of what the job market is for their skills.

Olson attended one of these events when he was a senior. He was about to graduate with a BS degree in Industrial Technology, and had started thinking about finding a job postgraduation. He recalls talking with a representative from The Toro Company. Although he really didn’t know much about Toro, he was familiar with the brand. In 1986, after graduating, he was invited to join The Toro Company. “To land a job was great, but to join a quality company was beyond my wildest dreams,” said Olson.

He joined The Toro Company and moved to Windom, Minnesota, where —as a process engineer—he provided engineering support for product assembly. After a two-year stint, he moved to Mound, Minnesota, as a manufacturing engineer, providing engineering and project management with the plant.

Moving from one facility to another and being assigned different positions are part of the process many companies use to help round out the experience of their future management people. By 1991, Olson became manager of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, based in Bloomington, Minnesota, Toro’s corporate offices.

In 1995, while still the manager of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, Olson led a 15-member team to help launch new enterprise software (SAP) company-wide. The process took multiple years, and says Olson, “It turned out to be one of the best learning experiences of my career. It gave me a whole new prospective. I began to understand how all the pieces of a business fit together.”

“I’ve known Rick for the past 20 years,” said Mike Hoffman, chairman, president and CEO of The Toro Company. “Whatever he has engaged in, he did successfully and in keeping with the Toro values. His role as a leader showed up when he was put in a general management position, and he took to it like a duck takes to water.”

“I remember when Rick and I sat down, about four or five years ago,” said Hoffman, “and we spoke about the need to keep learning. I suggested that he might consider an MBA program. Although it was intense, in 2008, he did go back to school. In some ways, it helped prepare him for his current role. He is genuine, he lives his values and his values are very much in line with Toro. There is no limit for him.”

Olson received his MBA from Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, in 2010. That same year, he was asked if he would like to lead the Exmark operation and move to Nebraska. Olson says, “This was an incredible opportunity, but I needed to discuss it with my wife, Kate, and my son, Anders. Uprooting him from school and his friends was a major change; I wanted to make sure they were on board with me.”

“We found all we needed in Lincoln, Nebraska—a good church and a good school. The only things we couldn’t duplicate were nearby family and friendships of 20+ years,” Olson says. However, they are settled in and have developed relationships that will be long lasting. “I’m now spending more time with my family.”

“Nebraska is a great place to raise a family,” he continues. “What I’m especially pleased about are the people at Exmark. It is truly and sincerely a privilege to work with them.

I’m blown away.”

“When I joined Exmark, the organization had just been through the recession. Trying to throttle back up, project the future, adding resources that you really can’t justify, were a major challenge. However, the qual ity

of people at Exmark certainly made the transition smoother.”

Olson’s experience with SAP and getting his MBA played an important role. “There were people at Exmark who had roles in areas that I had very limited experience in, and that helped make us a stronger team.”

“I’m excited about the opportunities for the future,” said Olson, who was recently promoted to vice president of The Toro Company. “We place great value on our channel, our distributors and our dealers. They are part of Exmark’s success factor that should not go unrecognized.”

“I have a sense of responsibility for the end user. We had some contractors come through the plant to take a tour. One landscape contractor said to me, ‘You may not realize it, but I count on your products to feed my family.’” “Talk about quality in the abstract, talk about innovation in the abstract, but that made me realize how many thousands of people count on our products to make a living. It becomes a heavy responsibility for us to ensure that we don’t let these people down . . . that’s what drives us here.”

As for a sense of responsibility, the Olson family recently took their vacation and went to Guatemala, where they spent ten days with a group called BridgeBuilders. The family worked on a project to build a house for a family there. Olson commented, “It was a great experience for our family to humbly serve, and opened our eyes to the needs of others around the world.”

Rick Olson is a down-to-earth man. Perhaps Mike Hoffman said it best when describing him, “He is a very thoughtful and genuine young man who puts his values on people.” And isn’t that a good thing.