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The 'reel' thing.


When Bob Kersey talks about the real thing, he's not promoting a soft drink. For Kersey, the real thing is the reel lawn mower, the old-fashioned kind of hand or push mower that was first used to cut lawns back in the early 1900s. Kersey, president of American Lawn Mower Company/Great States Corporation in Shelbyville, owns one of the few - and the largest - U.S. companies that still manufactures the push mower.

With no self-propelled engine and nothing to ride on, why would anyone buy such a contraption? Surprisingly enough, sales for push mowers have risen dramatically during the last few years and seem to herald a trend of the '90s.

It all started back in the early 1890s when American Lawn Mower Company was formed by Kersey's grandfather and his in-laws. The business grew, and by 1902, the company had moved from Richmond to Muncie, a location where it was to remain for the next 80 years.

But expansion was in the wind. In 1936, American Lawn Mower purchased the Great States Corporation in Shelbyville, a competing lawn mower company that had gotten into trouble during the Depression. The two companies operated as separate entities until the early '80s. Then the Muncie plant closed, and all manufacturing was consolidated in Shelbyville.

Kersey came into the business in 1959 at the insistence of his father, who had bought the company in 1946 from other family members. Kersey's background includes an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several years of working in the aircraft industry. By 1965, when his father died, Kersey was already running the company, which the elder Kersey left to him and his sisters.

Kersey readily admits to some lean years in business from the `50s through the '80s, when power mowers were in vogue. What kept him in business? Tenacity, he says. "In the '50s, there were probably 60 people making hand lawn mowers in the United States. By the end of the `50s, it was down to three or four. Now there are two in the U.S.," comments Kersey.

"I think we're a survivor because we kept a longer line and a variety of different mowers," he continues. "Every one of our competitors who dropped out started out by reducing the number of lines they had to sell." Each of Kersey's lines now includes 11 different types of mowers.

The small manufacturing business that employs 65 people still handbuilds each mower. "By that, I mean we put parts together like automobiles," explains Kersey. "Nobody coming through the plant would call it automated, but we have some reasonably automatic systems. We've combined a lot of jobs into multipurpose machinery, but no robotics yet. We still adjust each lawn mower to cut paper with all of its blades before it goes into a box."

If business increases, Kersey says automation would be likely, although not immediately necessary. "In 1939, we produced a couple of hundred thousand units, so we have the capacity to do more now. We could double production, if we need to," he maintains. The company sells principally to mass merchandisers such as Target Stores, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Coast to Coast, True Value, Central Hardware and Ace hardware stores.

According to Kersey, the mass marketers see his product as an item they can make a dollar on. "Our product doesn't come back - there's no service problems. It's not a big product as far as volume, but it competes with the $100 mower. Generally, a power mower which is that cheap is a loss leader and the company will lose money on it," says Kersey.

During the early 1970s the company reached its all-time low when it only sold 60,000 mowers. By 1987, however, sales had climbed to 100,000, which represents a 47 percent increase over 1986. To Kersey, the comeback is no mystery. There are many advantages to the push mower that dovetail with the current fitness craze and concern for the environment. Recently, interest in the reel mower has brought the media spotlights of publications such as Time magazine, USA Today and Mother Earth News to Shelbyville.

"The push mower is actually easier to use," says Kersey. It's a lot lighter than a power mower, he says, yet takes the same effort or less to push. But the main advantage is that it gives a better cut. "The push mower uses a scissor cut, which doesn't damage the grass - unlike the power mower, which pulls and splits the grass," he adds.

Cost and safety can also be factors in making a sale, continues Kersey. Generally, the average price for a reel mower is less than $100 compared with $250 for motorized models. The push mower is cheaper to run and maintain. It usually can go two or three years before the blades need sharpening, provided the blades are sprayed every week or so with an application of WD 40. Compare this with $25 to winterize a rotary mower.

Barry Troutman, director of education for the Professional Lawn Care Association, agrees about the simplicity of care for reel mowers. "Reel mowers snip the grass like a pair of scissors, cleanly and evenly. Rotary mower blades can do the same thing, if people keep them sharpened. The problem is - they don't." When a dulled rotary blade strikes a blade of grass, it creates a wound that sets the stage for disease in the lawn, says Troutman. Rotary blades should be sharpened once a month, while reel blades can go through an entire cutting season before they need sharpening.

Lawn experts can tell the difference in the cut of a lawn, insists Kersey. "There is a slight color differential. The rotary cut lawn will have more yellowing because of the split ends of grass. It will discolor a little on top," he says.

Perhaps the most important factor in increased sales, though, is the public's changing life-style. Lawn sizes are shrinking as people head for condominiums and smaller lots. In smaller garages, the reel lawn mower can be hung on the wall or set in a corner, taking up less storage than the motorized version.

Kersey believes that environmental concerns are also affecting sales. More people are worried about the environment and the effects of gas-powered motors on air quality. In California recently, there were discussions in the legislature about introducing a bill to control the emissions from power mowers or even to ban them. Yet another benefit of the reel mower is the fitness aspect of pushing a lawn mower for exercise.

Keeping in mind that this is a seasonal business, Kersey says that much of his business is a gamble. "We start selling in March and by May, the season is over, for the most part. It's a short season, which can be even shorter if there is bad weather. We start building mowers again in July for the coming year and try to keep the business level."

Kersey's work load may spread throughout the year, as reel mowers gain popularity. "Once someone uses a hand mower, he'll never go back to the other," he says. "It's too easy to use."

PHOTO : Reel mowers are lighter, easier to use and give a scissor cut.
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Title Annotation:Profile; American Lawn Mower Co.
Author:Partington, Marta
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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