Get walking

December 23, 2015 -  By

LM1215_Honda-Photo-1RFor John Erbert, walk-behind mowers are the driving force behind the success of his company, Erbert Lawns. The $3 million firm in Littleton, Colo., exclusively uses 21-inch walk-behind mowers to serve its all-residential clients.

This strategy is part of an effort to take “the extra time and effort to do it right the first time.” “The 21-inch gives a beautiful cut,” Erbert says. “Just about the best cut you can get.” Like Erbert, many landscape contractors are seeing the benefits of using walk-behind mowers. Particularly on residential properties, they provide a level of craftsmanship that homeowners appreciate, these companies say, sending the message the client’s property is worth the extra work. As manufacturers improve, these machines become more efficient and user friendly.

Erbert Lawns started as a full-service company with residential and commercial clients. But about 15 years ago, Erbert found his niche. The company now offers only mowing and fertilization services to residential clients. He targets dense neighborhoods with homes that have small lot sizes and “dominates them, if you will,” using only 21-inch walk-behinds.

“The residential people didn’t like the big mowers on their lawn,” Erbert says, citing complaints about ruts, matted grass and messed up landscapes from the larger mowers. “We saw it as a unique selling proposition for us.”

After switching to walk-behinds, productivity has increased though the mower’s deck sizes decreased. His crews mow faster with the maneuverable machines, and they are easier to get on and off the trailer. With only one mower on the truck, his crews no longer debate which machine to use for each job. The larger mowers also left behind clippings and debris, a mess eliminated by using the smaller mulching mowers. Training has also become more streamlined. Erbert says it took 30 to 45 days for employees to get comfortable on the larger mowers,but they master the 21-inch in a day.

“We can bring people in, train them fast and get them to do a professional job fast,” he says.

Commonwealth Irrigation & Landscape in Fredericksburg, Va., also uses walk-behind mowers on its residential properties, which make up about half of its business. The $2 million company offers 40 percent mowing/maintenance, 30 percent irrigation, 20 percent landscape/hardscape installation and 10 percent snow removal services.

LM1215_Kubota-2R“The walk-behinds are more forgiving in tight spaces, gates and fences,” says Mike Garrett, grounds maintenance division manager for Commonwealth. The company uses 36- and 48-inch walk-behinds and 21-inch self-propelled push mowers.

“They give the customers on the residential side a level of workmanship that you can’t get from the zero-turns,” he says.

Using walk-behind mowers streamlined transportation, Garrett says, because the company can fit more mowers on each truck. Plus, many of the company’s clients have lawns with hilly terrain, and the walk-behind mowers help prevent sliding.

Some customers, particularly those in retirement communities who are often home during the day, appreciate seeing Commonwealth’s crews on their properties for an average of 40 minutes on each property, compared to five to 10 minutes with a zero-turn mower.

Garrett also notes the health benefits of operating a walk-behind each season.

“We have had some employees come to management by midseason telling us how they have lost weight, have more stamina and feel much better,” he says.

Erbert and Garrett agree their exclusive use of walk-behind mowers is a selling point for their residential customers and say they’ve gained clients who didn’t like the larger mowers on their properties because they damaged the turf and the landscape. Both companies market their use of walk-behinds on their websites and other company collateral and view it as a differentiating factor that sets them apart from the competition.

“It’s part of our sales estimating tool when doing residential sales,” Garrett says, adding that the company boasts a 99-percent
annual customer retention rate. “People call us because they’ve heard that we use small mowers. It differentiates us from everyone else. We taught our clients to want a small mower.”

Buying walk-behind mowers

When it comes to purchasing his walk-behind mowers, Erbert says he first looks for a manufacturer that supports the contractor. Next, he looks for a trustworthy dealer. Erbert, who opts for Toro mowers, replaces his machines yearly, so he relies heavily on first-year warranties and requires a dealer who quickly fulfills his needs. At the end of each season, he sells his mowers back to the dealer, receiving credit for his next purchase, or to contractors looking for used equipment.

“Your dealer is an integral piece of your business: It’s almost like an employee that works for you,” Erbert says. “I would pay more and drive farther for a better dealer.”

Commonwealth uses each of its John Deere walk-behind mowers for an average of three years, so Garrett considers a mower’s expected lifespan before purchasing. With an in-house maintenance department, he looks for mowers that are user-friendly and easy to maintain. Garrett also looks for lightweight mowers with even weight distribution.

“Many of our customers have irrigation systems and often have wet lawns,” he says. “You want a lighter walk-behind so you don’t cause as much turf damage. Weight distribution was a big problem for us, but most mower companies have fixed that issue.”

Mower manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve their products and make life easier for the landscape contractor, experts say. For example, Erbert observes mowers today have fewer parts that are easier to access and maintain, which keeps them out of the shop and in the field.

“Knowing that time is definitely money for these business owners, Honda places durability, reliability and low cost of ownership at the top of the list for new design attributes,” says Alex Torre, Honda Power Equipment manager of marketing and market research.

Kubota Tractor Corp. recently introduced three commercial walk-behind mowers with fabricated welded steel decks, an electric PTO clutch and maintenance-free spindles. These features are a response to contractor requests for products that are durable and reliable, says Tom Vachal, Kubota senior product manager for turf equipment.

“If our new walk-behinds are versatile enough to professionally cut different grasses in various terrains and exceed the quality standards that the turf professional expects, then we’re doing our job as a manufacturer,” Vachal says.

Additionally, restrictions on disposing lawn debris have increased the demand for mowers that can mulch and shred.

“More disposal restrictions have led to more demand for mulching mowers,” says Torre. “Commercial operators expect these restrictions to become even more stringent during the coming years, so demand should continue to increase.”

Erbert agrees. “Technology has come a long way in getting grass to mulch,” he says. “It just blows my mind how some of these mowers handle the volume.”

Photos:Honda Power Equipment & Kubota Tractor Corp.

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