Sticking to basics of family, faith leads to company’s success
The product that has fueled Timnath-based Walker Manufacturing’s success started as a hobby.
“In the mid-’70s my brother, Bob, and Dad bought a couple of riding lawnmowers. They were very disappointed in them,´ said Dean Walker, vice president of Walker Manufacturing. “We started more or less on a hobby basis.
We thought maybe we could build something better than what was out there.”
Apparently, they could. Since 1980, when the three Walkers – Dean, Bob and Max – sold the first 25 riding lawnmowers built from a prototype, Walker Manufacturing has made and sold more than 50,000 of the machines. Over the past 10 years the business has averaged growth of 10 percent per year.
All that success adds up to an impressive resume and an impressive list of reasons why the Walkers were named Bravo! 2000 entrepreneurs for outlying areas.
The ingredients for the company’s success include a good idea and the people to turn that idea into a viable product, said Bob Walker, president of the company.
Walker Manufacturing employs 145. In addition, the company works with a network of about 50 distributors and 1,000 dealers located worldwide. Sales revenues in 1998 approached $33 million.
“We started with an idea,” Bob Walker said. “Back 20 years ago there were lots of riding mowers available but the ones typically used on a private residence were not maneuverable or compact enough.”
The design came first, before plans to market the machine, Bob Walker said.
“We kind of backed our way into the market. We didn’t do a market study first,” he said. “We designed a machine to do a job.”
The Walker Manufacturing story actually began in the 1950s when Max Walker launched a career manufacturing gasoline-powered golf carts in his home state of Kansas. Manufacturing looked like a way out of the cattle business.
The tool chest, back then, consisted of a hacksaw, a cutting torch, a welder and a little grinder, Max Walker said. “Those were our tools. It was all hand-built in the beginning.”
Those were humble beginnings, he said. “We had no education, but we were fascinated by the manufacturing business and wanted to get out of the cattle business, so this was a way of starting.”
He later sold the golf-cart business, developed a small truck and moved to Casper, Wyo., in 1962 to manufacture it there. That business ran out of money and sent the Walker family’s fortunes plummeting.
“We had no money when we started,” Max Walker said. “When you’re on the farm, raising cattle you don’t have any money.”
In Casper, Max Walker said, “We went down the tube. My wife and I, we lost everything but our faith in God. We lost our home, we lost everything.”
An idea for an evaporative cooler for tractor and combine cabs eventually put the Walkers back in business.
“We were able to pay our debts, pay the bank off. What a feeling it was to drive past the bank and think we didn’t owe those guys a dime anymore,” Max Walker said.
At the time the lawnmower idea came along, Max Walker’s company was doing contract-manufacturing work. “We were, quite frankly, looking for a product,” Dean Walker said.
Ask any one of the Walkers about their business and its progress and the company’s emphasis on caring for people quickly comes up.
“We try to be a friendly, people-oriented company,” Dean Walker said.
For example, he said, Walker Manufacturing does not schedule shift work. “We feel that goes contrary to the best interests of our employees’ family lives and personal lives.”
“We believe this,” Bob Walker said, “that strong companies are made up of strong employees and strong employees come from strong families.”
Bob Walker describes a ripple effect emanating from his business. Manufacturing a product not only creates a livelihood for his family and his employees, but for the people involved in sales and service of the product and in many cases customers, as well. Commercial-landscape contractors use about 70 percent of the machines Walker makes.
“Many of our people who buy these things are involved in small businesses or family businesses,” Bob Walker said. “We look at all the livelihood and opportunity being created not just for ourselves, but for other people; to us you can get pretty excited about that.”
In August, the Walkers held a family reunion to celebrate the sale of Walker Manufacturing’s 50,000th mower. About 1,700 people came from all over the world to celebrate.
For the Walkers, that event provided evidence “that this opportunity has exceeded what we dreamed it would be,” Bob Walker said.
Today, Max Walker’s children are majority stockholders in Walker Manufacturing. He and his wife have minority positions. Bob Walker serves as president, handling the marketing and financial end. Dean Walker is vice president and looks after engineering and product development. Max Walker, who still comes to work daily, has an advisory role.
Looking ahead, the Walkers say they plan to continue to pursue the opportunities they’ve been presented with at Walker Manufacturing. “Our overall goal is we want to go as far as we can,” Bob Walker said.
The family pursues that goal with their faith in God ever in mind, Max Walker said.
“What you see has been given to us and we’re trying to use it the right way to serve God and to be a help to people.”
A physical expansion is in the works that will add 100,000 square feet to the plant’s existing 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 16,000 square feet of administrative space.
A new product may be in the offing as well, Dean Walker said. A commercial walk-behind mower is in development stages. “There are always things to build,” he said.