You see it all the time in the world of professional sports. The NFL player who decides to retire after winning the Super Bowl ring, or the golfer that needs to win the Masters before he’ll stop competing on the PGA tour. It’s true of successful people in all arenas of life; they all want to go out on a high note.
One individual in our industry will be retiring soon, and he’s definitely going out on top. He won’t be disappearing entirely or turning in his red company-branded gear, but its time for him to focus on his other priorities.
Phil Burkart, vice president of The Toro Company’s lighting and irrigation division, will be stepping down this month after 33 years. That’s a lot of time with one company, and Burkart’s certainly made the most out of every minute.
His friends in the industry will tell you how dedicated he is, not only to his company, but also to the industries his company serves. Burkart has been all over the world representing Toro’s commercial, residential, golf and irrigation businesses and has been involved in industry associations, too.
At 56, you might be thinking, “He’s too young to retire.” But he has some good reasons behind his decision.
“Part of my desire to retire has been built around my family. I have a son who is 16, a couple of years away from graduating. My wife and I have been fortunate, so instead of waiting for our son to go away to school, I thought it would be best to be around a couple of years before he leaves for college.”
Retirement will be a big change for Burkart; the man’s been working since he was 15. After graduating from Indiana University, he began his career at Wheel Horse Products, a garden tractor manufacturer right in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. He and his wife Amy were both born and raised in that city.
Burkart knew Amy’s brother from a bowling league he was in, and he set the two of them up on a date. They started dating in 1989 and were married in Minneapolis in 2000. Their son, whom they named Severin, after Burkart’s father, was born in 2002. It was not long after that the three of them moved to Riverside, California, so Burkart could lead Toro’s irrigation division.
Burkart doesn’t think he’ll have a difficult time finding things to do with his newly found free time. The family owns a condominium in Marco Island, Florida, and he sits on the board of its association. Four of his six siblings also own property nearby.
“I really took inventory and decided, ‘Why am I going to wait? I’m very proud of my son who is an honors student and has been flying planes since he was 12-yearsold, and I’d like to be around the family more. There are lots of things we like doing together.’”
Burkart’s career at Toro spans more than three decades, starting back in 1986 when Toro acquired Wheel Horse Products.
“About 45 people ended up relocating from southern Indiana to the Twin Cities as part of that acquisition,” he says, including him. Burkart was part of the international division at Wheel Horse. At Toro, he became international marketing manager.
Toro is a diverse company that has its hand in a variety of businesses including residential, commercial and golf course ground maintenance equipment, irrigation, siteworks and lighting. Burkart has overseen all of those divisions at one time or another for markets outside the U.S.
Through a series of promotions, he worked his way up to managing director. In that role, Burkart says he was more or less managing the business and was officially named vice president of international in 2000. Two years later, he was asked to move to California to run the irrigation business.
“It was supposed to be a three-year deal,” Burkart recalls. But during that time, Toro’s then-CEO, Ken Melrose, retired. Though Burkart wanted to move back to Minnesota, he decided to stay in California to promote a more stable atmosphere for Toro there, as its other divisions enjoyed.
“I ended up not going back,” he says. “We stayed out here and have been here for a little over 15 years.”
At Toro Irrigation’s Riverside office, Burkart was responsible for all aspects of the irrigation business for the Americas, including global product development, sales, marketing and engineering.
“Everything revolves out of the Bloomington headquarters except irrigation,” says Burkart. “That’s because California, in addition to being a year-round irrigation environment, is one of the largest markets in the world for irrigation.”
What it’s all about
During Burkart’s time as vice president of irrigation, several acquisitions were made, including Rain Master and R&D Sensing, a pioneer in wireless rain sensors. The company also expanded into another arena.
“We’ve made several acquisitions along the way of companies that support our water management line. Most recently, seven years ago, we acquired Unique Lighting Systems, a leader in the low-voltage lighting industry. That was our entrance into the landscape lighting business. As innovators and educators, Unique has been a great fit for our company, channel partners and customers.”
Burkart’s leadership helped put Toro on the map as a leader in golf course irrigation and water management. Toro has won many accolades for its products from such prestigious groups that recognize innovation like the Irrigation Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Of course he couldn’t do it all alone. If you ask him what the key to his rise at Toro was, Burkart would unhesitatingly say, “relationships.” Not only have they been an integral part of his success, they’re the reason he stuck around for so long. These friendships and alliances extend well beyond Toro into the greater turf and irrigation industries.
Some of those alliances were forged during his time on the IA executive board. He served as president of the association in 2012. Many folks remember how he leveraged his connections that year to get Major League Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to speak at the Irrigation Show in Austin, Texas. It was the show’s highest attended keynote ever.
Though Burkart’s career accomplishments are many, when asked what he’s most proud of, he goes back to all the relationships he’s forged with people all over the world. He still remembers how good it felt when Toro won the business of “the home of golf,” the famous St. Andrew’s course in Scotland. “That day we had bagpipes playing up and down the hallways at Toro locations,” he says.
Other golf courses, their superintendents and general managers are also near and dear to him, as are the consultants, distributors and contractors he’s met since he’s been in Riverside. You can read some of what they have to say on p. 23. His time serving on the Irrigation Association’s board deepened his friendships within the industry. “We still all call each other on a regular basis,” he says.
Burkart would like to be remembered as a customer-focused individual. He’s enjoyed working with the individuals he’s met in every business segment he’s been in at Toro. “They’re all salt-of-theearth type people,” he says. “I get great enjoyment out of working with them and being able to bring about solutions and introduce innovations.”
He credits Mike Hoffman, former chairman and CEO, for his drive and need to lead in innovation.
The purpose of the innovation has always been to help the customer. “What has been most gratifying is customers putting our products into play as a solution to their need or problem.” Burkart says. “We’re trying to make our customers’ jobs even easier. With the labor issues our industry is having, finding better, more productive ways for our customers to do things is part of the challenge Toro is up for.”
Leading by example Burkart is a firm believer in hiring people who can someday replace you, or, as he refers to it, are “twice promotable.” He explains it as “the desire to want to grow people who have the potential to become better than you and to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”
Passion is an important attribute, which clearly Burkart has. “Passion and smarts can trump pure intelligence. You take a passionate person that gets behind the company and its mission and great things happen,” he says.
Burkart surrounded himself with those types, and believes mentoring is the key to developing employees. He remembers Melrose preaching about “servant leadership,” which Burkart describes as, “You demonstrate your work ethic, understanding their
needs with the same passion you expect out of them.”
With each division Burkart has led at Toro, he’s immersed himself in it. “You have to learn what they are facing and need to be able to support and help direct them,” he says.
Burkart will leave his position satisfied with all he’s been able to accomplish. “I’ve had a great run here,” he says. “We have an excellent team; we’ve solidified our product line and our product portfolios with a great roadmap. We’ve made great inroads in the residential and commercial businesses with our innovation.”
The next person in line for the position will be announced soon. Burkart is confident he is leaving that person in a strong place. “I think we’re in a good position for the next leader to come in and be able to take the business to the next level.”
Indeed, Burkart has had a good run and a storied career. But like many greats in sports or in business, we may not have seen the last of him just yet. He’ll continue to serve our industry as a consultant with Toro and others.
It’ll be exciting to see what the future holds for both Burkart and the company on which he’s made an indelible impression.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at email@example.com.
Leaving a lasting impression
“He brought many innovative products to market during his tenure as he was consistently and intensely focused on delivering real value to contractor customers and end users. Phil will be missed, but his impact on the industry will remain for many years to come.”
— Doug Black, CEO, SiteOne
“Phil has an uncanny ability to simultaneously support and care for his team while holding them accountable, challenging and motivating them to achieve personal, team and corporate objectives. Phil has an understanding of and insight into the turf and landscape irrigation industry that is second to none.”
— Mike Baron, Toro Water Management
“I consider him a mentor and to be a guy who bleeds red for Toro. In my opinion, Phil is still quite young, and I really don’t think he’ll simply ride into the sunset. Rather, Phil will be instrumental in helping the industry and will be around for years to come.”
— Warren Thoma, Warren Thoma & Associates LLC
"Toro’s corporate vision and mission talk of being the most trusted and of delivering superior customer care. Phil delivers on both and more and always does so in a thoroughly professional manner. Most importantly of all, doing business with Phil is a real pleasure as he is, put simply, a great guy.”
— Alan McGregor, CEO, St.
Andrews Links Trust 1998 – 2011
“Toro water businesses have grown under Phil’s leadership. He has driven customer-valued innovation that advanced the state of the art. Phil will be missed at Toro. We wish him all the best!”
— Rick Olson, CEO, The Toro Company
The Toro way
“Toro is where it is because our products are built around innovation, high quality and customer relationships,” says Burkart, who’ll be retiring this month from his position as vice president, irrigation and lighting division. “Those are the three things that make it a great company.”
And when Burkart cites ”innovation,” it’s not innovation purely for its own sake, but toward solutions, particularly with regard to responsible water management. “That is something we are very much engaged in as a company, trying to find solutions for our customers, both in developing smarter products for the future as well as a smart portfolio of products for today.”
As for the customer relationships Burkart refers to, they encompass the entire supply chain, from wholesalers and consultants to contractors. “We’ve been around for 104 years, and I think part of the reason for that is because we really do forge relationships with our family of customers that go well beyond the last time they made our cash registers ring. We do that because we want to be around for the next 100 years.”
Judging from its strong stock performance, its strong brand recognition and continued investments, Toro is on track to do just that.
Leaving a lasting impression
Some industry colleagues share their well wishes and reflection on Phil Burkarts’ contributions.
“Phil has been a tremendous advocate for not only Toro but for the broader irrigation community. He brought many innovative products to market during his tenure as he was consistently and intensely focused on delivering real value to contractor customers and end users. Phil’s leadership in the industry through various Boards and as President of the Irrigation Association helped move our industry forward, and he was always just a phone call away to help address some of the industry’s biggest challenges. Phil will be missed, but his impact on the industry will remain for many years to come.”
— Doug Black, CEO, SiteOne
“Phil has an uncanny ability to simultaneously support and care for his team while holding them rigorously accountable; challenging and motivating them to achieve personal, team and corporate objectives. Combined with the many industry relationships he has developed over the years, his penchant for traveling and meeting customers on the front lines, Phil has an understanding of and insight into the turf and landscape irrigation industry that is second to none. His tangible results and contributions over the years have made for an amazing career.”
— Mike Baron, Toro Water Management