June 1 2007 12:00 AM

When Roy Mullet moved his family to Hesston, Kansas, in 1958, his thought was to live in an area with warmer winters than the cold climate of Montana. In order to support his family, he took a job with Hesston Industries. Hesston was a metal fabricator making cabs for agricultural combines and tractors; small metal fabricators were common throughout the Midwest. In 1960, Mullet bought into the company. It had 12 employees at that time.

Unless you made your own product, metal fabricators were basically subcontractors who were contracted to make an item for another manufacturer. In order to win the contracts, they had to learn how to operate with minimum overhead, other wise you couldn't be competitive. Today we call it 'lean management.'

Meanwhile, not too far away, lived a fellow by the name of John Regier. Regier had developed a new front-mount type of lawn mower that he called Hustler, and was selling a few of them to local property owners. In 1964, Regier approached Hesston Industries and asked if they had any interest in acquiring the Hustler product.

Roy Mullet felt that the company should diversify, and this was a good product. So they agreed to the acquisition and changed the name to Excel Industries and, as they say, the rest is history. The Hustler was the original zero-turn mower. Roy became president of Excel Industries, Inc., and continued to market the Hustler mower, in addition to building cabs for other manufacturers. Roy Mullet has two sons, Bob and Paul. When Bob finished school, he got a job doing administrative work in the financial field. Paul graduated from Bethel College in Newton, Kansas in 1972, and went to work at the factory.

Fresh out of college, Paul Mullet began his career as a welder. He worked in every department of the company, from welder to service manager to purchasing agent, and eventually in sales and marketing. What a great training ground it turned out to be. When Roy retired in 1985, Paul took over as director of sales and marketing and, in 1991, he became president. Bob Mullet joined the company in 1994.

By the late 1990s, the product mix at Excel Industries was pretty much split between building cabs and building lawn mowers. The business was growing slowly, and there was concern that, as a metal fabricator, they were at the mercy of the manufacturer they contracted with. As it turns out, that concern became quite real when the manufacturer they sub-contracted for decided to take that part of the business in-house. Poof, in front of their eyes, Excel Industries lost two-thirds of its business.

Paul Mullet decided not to pursue other manufacturers. He chose instead to have the company concentrate its energies and efforts on building the Hustler brand. Already in the commercial market, Paul soon realized that in order to grow the company, they needed more than the 20 dealers they had, and to acquire additional distribution they needed to expand their product line.

In 2000, the expansion of the product line came in the form of the introduction of a mid-mount, zero-turn mower that fit the needs of the landscape maintenance contractor. Walk-behinds were added at a later date, to round out a full product line.

From there they began to innovate with products for the residential market as well. Their passion and dedication paid off. "We needed to give our dealers more than just another 'me-too' product," said Paul. "We wanted them to be as proud of our line as we are."

When they lost the outside business, they lost almost two-thirds of the sales of the company. Today, Excel Industries/Hustler boasts a dealer network of 1,100, and since 2000, the company has grown fivefold.

To keep that growth going, Paul knows that they have to stay ahead of the curve. "Change is inevitable," he says. "We have to be in a position to take advantage of it. New alternative fuels will play an important role in the future. We need to stay on top of it all."

Paul and his wife Teresa have been married for 33 years. They have four children, Jeremy, 31; Chad, 29; Adam, 27; and Melinda (Lindy), 15. Jeremy chose not to enter the family business at this time; he is in the medical field. Chad and Adam have followed in their father's footsteps, like Paul followed in his father's steps.

This third generation will also learn from the ground up about what it takes to run a business. However, these positions have changed since the elder Mullet took the reins. Their expanding business gives Chad the opportunity to learn the export business. He is not only the export manager, he also heads up strategic planning. Adam is learning the marketing end of the business as well as heading up the product development team.

Hands-on is one of the keys to success of their business. Paul Mullet lives on 75 acres out in the country. "Every new product we produce, I test out in the field as well as alongside our competitor's," says Paul. "I have to know that our products can stand up to the beating they take in the real world." He travels at least one week a month attending various meetings, visiting distributors and dealers. "It's important that you keep your finger on the pulse," he says.

Roy Mullet built the foundation of the company; Paul Mullet, with help from brother Bob, brought the company to its present heights. To the third generation of Mullets: your dad has set high standards for the company and a legacy for you to follow. He is confident you'll be up to the challenge.