Sept. 15 2014 03:38 PM
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Growing up in Elgin, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, little did Chris Vernon realize the path his life would take.

After graduating from high school in Elgin, he attended Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering.

With his degree in hand, Vernon got an engineering job as a product designer in the Chicago area. (He actually holds a couple of patents for fiberoptic transceiver modules.) After a few years, he decided that he wanted to work for a larger company. He went back to school (University of Chicago) and received an MBA degree in marketing/operations management. This is where he realized that personal relationships can stand the test of time, and that there is great value in making friends who last a lifetime.

He chose to work with Textron; it was his first job since earning his MBA. Moving around the Textron organization gave Vernon a better view of how companies work. He was with Textron for 15 years. During that time, he gained experience working at Textron’s various divisions, at Tempo as director of sales, at Greenlee as channel manager, and at Rothenberger, a tool company, as general manager.

Vernon was on the fast track. After the stint with Rothenberger, in 2010 he moved Charlotte, North Carolina, and took the position as vice president of marketing and product management at Jacobsen Textron. In early 2014, he moved to vice president of strategy and product management.

In the meantime, David Withers had settled in as president of Jacobsen, and began looking into strategic acquisitions, to help grow the Jacobsen brand.

Dixie Chopper was one of a number of companies that Jacobsen was looking at. Vernon was part of the acquisition team looking into Dixie Chopper. “We looked at three primary things: product, channel and brand,” he said. He had a great opportunity to really dig into the company. “We looked at how the product was made; we looked at their distribution channels, and their brand,” said Vernon. “Dixie Chopper had all three.”

Jacobsen liked what it saw in Dixie Chopper; so did Vernon. What he saw was the chance to take an established brand, and the opportunity to build it much larger. He asked Withers if he could take over the helm of Dixie Chopper if the acquisition was made. In May 2014, Vernon was made general manger.

Meanwhile, a little background on Dixie Chopper: In 1980, in his barn near Greencastle, Indiana, Dixie Chopper founder Art Evans knew there had to be a better way to cut grass. The result of his efforts became the first zero-turn radius lawn mower durable and fast enough for landscape contractors and homeowners alike.

Now on the cutting edge for almost 35 years, Dixie Chopper has achieved many firsts. It introduced propane, then CNG. Ten years ago, it introduced the Silver Eagle, still Dixie Chopper’s best selling mower and the most tried and true zero-turn lawn mower in the industry. The Silver Eagle is used primarily in the commercial sector, boasting 27 horsepower along with three different deck options.

Not one to sit and wait for business to come to them, the folks at Dixie Chopper took their show on the road. Over the years, the company has developed a following of loyal landscape contractors, maintenance service companies and homeowners.

One of its newest additions is the Stryker Stand-On series. Dixie Chopper’s first stand-on mower, the Stryker Stand-On, will join the product line later this year. The Stryker will include a 48- or 58-inch deck option, with a 23 horsepower engine, making it perfect for commercial use. For more versatility, the operation platform can be flipped up to use as a conventional walk-behind mower.

Vernon, taking over at Dixie Chopper, has hit the ground running, wasting no time. He is beefing up all areas of its business. New employees have been added to its sales, marketing, engineering, customer care, purchasing and operations departments.

These new roles are part of Dixie Chopper’s ongoing commitment to developing relationships with dealers, partners and customers.

In addition to its investment in people, the company is making significant investments in its products.

Since the acquisition in early February of 2014, Jacobsen and Dixie Chopper have been working closely together on several joint engineering and marketing projects, to leverage the collective experience, knowledge and technology of both companies.

Part of being a good corporate citizen is giving back to various communities. As a way to give back to our American heroes, Dixie Chopper recently honored service members— both active and retired—of the U.S. military, police, fire, EMT, and paramedics, by offering a $250 mail-in rebate on all Dixie Chopper mowers.

Vernon is enthusiastic about the future of Dixie Chopper. There are great opportunities, but also great challenges. Getting the company’s products into the mainstream will be one of them. “I’m very excited about the direction we are headed in at Dixie Chopper,” he said. “With the support and power of both Jacobsen and Textron behind us, we have the products and people to grow and expand like never before. Look for a lot more great things from Dixie Chopper in the near future.”

It seems that Vernon has come full circle from his time at Valparaiso in 1990. That’s where he met his future wife, Michelle, at a freshman orientation, and they’ve been together since.

“We moved because of a job and now this job has brought us back to Indiana,” he said. They have three children, Rachel, 14, Nathan, 13, and Andrew, 10. They recently bought a house outside of Indianapolis and have settled in.

Chris Vernon is the future. He has all the attributes of a leader in our industry. He is personable, outgoing, has good formal schooling, excellent corporate experience, and a solid background. He will make it to the top.