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Bob Walker / photos Jonathan Castner

Walker Manufacturing

by Bart Taylor on January 4, 2014, 08:33 am MST

Walker Manufacturing

Fort Collins 

www.walkermowers.com

Privately held 

No. of employees: 155 

Product focus and a purposeful culture drive Walker Manufacturing, one of northern Colorado’s enduring companies

“We build machines we’d like to own ourselves”, say Bob Walker, President of Walker Manufacturing. Bob and his brother Dean lead one of northern Colorado’s most successful companies. 

The sentiment dates back to the company’s formative years, on the Walker farm in southwest Kansas near Dodge City.

“Farmers would develop an implement, make one, and the next thing you know they’re making stuff. My dad, Max Walker, saw that. By 1960 he’d quit farming.”

Max Walker’s design and production talents evolved from a fully functional mini-Caterpillar he built for his sons, to a gas-powered golf cart, the first full-production machine of the fledgling Walker manufacturing company. In the ensuing years, the product line changed, as did the Walker family’s locale, following opportunity - and financing.

“The squeeze was on. There was always the challenge of managing seasonal operating lines with the bank, of meeting financing and cash flow demands.” It was a recurring theme in the company’s early years.

The Walkers eventually landed in Colorado to do contract manufacturing for a company in Greeley, with Bob, who in 1975 and six years out of college left Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas to join his dad and brother at the ‘new’ Walker Manufacturing. Based in Ft. Collins, the now full-on family business built tractor cab-coolers, making over 70,000 units until the contract ended in 1983.

By the late 70’s, though, the company already had begun to diversify, landing on an idea for a much-improved riding lawn-mower.

“The notion of ‘contract landscaping’ was just taking hold. We went shopping and bought a couple riding mowers in the spring of ‘77, and after using the mowers knew we could build a better machine. In '77 and ‘78 we built prototype each year, and in ‘79 built another and took that one to the 3i SHOW (an agri-business expo) in Kansas. Based on interest there we built 25 machines on speculation. It took us a year to build and a two years to sell ‘em.”

The company garnered national interest in the early ‘80’s. A product announcement in the landscape trade press generated calls from Florida.

“My dad sold our first big order his first trip there - a contractor maintaining big retirement villages bought 48 units. In 1982 we built 125; in 1984, 450 machines. By then we were out of the cab-cooler business.”

Walker’s dealer network and business also expanded geographically. In 1984 the company entered Australia and New Zealand in 1988. In 1986 Europe. And while the ‘great recession’ hit the company hard in the late 2000’s, Bob Walker forecasts the company will rebound to sell 6000 units in 2014 through its network of 46 worldwide distributors.

Today Walker Manufacturing employs nearly 160 employees in a sprawling, 216,000 square-foot manufacturing facility just east of Ft. Collins. The company builds machines at the “high-end” of the market, resisting over the years the promise of economy mowers or ancillary products to focus instead on its commercial-grade, signature brand. The Walker Mower Model B is the latest in a single, long line of machines, each improved from the last but retaining the mower’s unique visual and functional attributes.

The company is equally focused on corporate culture. “Strong companies are made up of strong people”, Walker says, “and employees benefit from strong families.” The company maintains the Walker Family Resource Center for employees.

Walker also hands me a list of the companies operating principles - labeled ‘What We Believe’ - as we sit down to talk, a list that’s posted on-site and online. The Walkers espouse a purposeful culture.

For how big the company feels when visiting, Walker Manufacturing’s regional presence seems understated. By contrast the Walker legacy, on the community and its customers, will likely be deeply felt.

Challenges: Walker’s concerned about uncertainty surrounding Obamacare. “The net effect of some of the increases we’re looking at could materially impact our business. Operating with relatively small margins, as we do, it creates a challenge for how you price your product.”

Opportunities: “We think there’s room to improve our market share”, Walker says. “Two of our key product differentiators - the steering lever system and front-mount mower deck - have proven their value.” 

Needs: Cost-certainly around employee health-care.




 

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