A Short History of Walker Manufactoring

Walker Manufacturing founder Max Walker has been inventing and designing equipment for more than five decades. He built his first lawn mower, a sickle bar unit, in 1949, and the first Walker was introduced in the late 1970s. Today, the company that literally introduced the compact commercial transmission steer mower to the market and turns out more than 20 riders a day from its new factory in Fort Collins, Colorado.

In Max Walker's own words, his life has been an adventure. But more than that the story of Walker Manufacturing is the story of a man, in prutnership with wife, Margaret, who had a drerun and realized that dream through hard work and an undying faith in God.

Q: Max, your company has been designing and manufacturing mowers for 16 years in Fort Collins, Colorado. But where does the Walker story really begin?

A: I was born and raised on a cattle farm in Fowler, Kansas. Our business was raising Polled Herefords and selling the bulls to ranchers. Like most farmers, we had to improvise to make things work and I especially enjoyed working on and modifying equipment. After marrying Margaret and starting a family, we began to dream about leaving the farm and starting our own manufacturing business. A friend encouraged me to develop a new golf car, one that was powered by a gasoline engine instead of batteries. Back then, batteries didn't have the capacity they have today and cars would run out of power before the golfer could get through the course.

Q: Did you actually design and build golf cars?

A: Yes. I built our first golf car in the late 1950s. We didn't have any capital to speak of and, in terms of equipment, all we had was an electric welder, cutting torch, hack saw and a Mulberry Tree.

Q: A Mulberry Tree?

A: I used a fork in the tree to bend the pipe frame. It was crude, but worked. Everything on that car was hand-made. In the first year, I built about a dozen cars and sold them by running a couple of ads in golf course magazines. Margaret and I operated the company. I did the product development and manufacturing; Margaret learned bookkeeping and handled the books and responded to leads.

Q: Was that first business a success?

A: Well yes it was. It was tough finding the necessary capital, but we managed. We even grew the business to include the development and manufacture of a utility truck (we called it the Walker Power Truck), a floor scrubber and a large deck scrubber for the Navy. I even had the opportunity to visit an aircraft carrier and demonstrate our scrubber.

Q: What ever happened to that first business?

A: We built variations of the four products for six years, but evenally sold out to a group of Casper, Wyoming, businessmen who then retained me to do product development for their company. So we left Kansas for Wyoming. The year was 1968.

Q: The move to Wyoming was only 10 years before the development of the first Walker Mower. How did you get from golf cars to mowers in 10 years?

A: A lot can happen in 10 years. The Wyoming company failed and we lost everything, to the extent our phone service was even shut off. I know what it's like to be without money. But we didn't stop working. I developed a patent for an evaporative cooling system and, using the cash from selling the patent, I was able to buy back most of the tools we had given up in Wyoming. We moved to Loveland, Colorado, and started making coolers. Marketing wasn't one of my strong points, however, and the coolers were manufactured under contract to a marketing company in Greeley, Colorado. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, once a company loses control of the marketing, it loses control of production, as well. The company that marketed our coolers wanted to buy us out. When we said we weren't for sale, they pulled the production of the coolers.

Q: How did you get into the mower business?

A: While we were manufacturing coolers, and we built a lot of them, somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 units, we started to investigate the mower market. In 1977, our family had purchased a new riding mower in Loveland, and we were disappointed in the way it operated. It couldn't maneuver around the trees in our yard, and the grass catching system seemed all too cumbersome. So being machine designers, we designed a mower that met our needs. By now, my two sons Bob and Dean were interested in the business and helped in the design process.

Q: But having little or no mower manufacturing experience, how could you develop a new mower?

A: Well we knew what we wanted. We wanted a mower with a zero-turning radius, we wanted a mower with an internal and not external catching system, and we wanted something very compact. We also needed to have a center discharge mowing deck to accommodate the catching system. With that in mind we built our first prototype. Coming from a farming background, we also appreciated the value of having a machine that was serviceable, so from the beginning we designed a mower that could be easily serviced. In fact, our first golf cars had a body that was raised for easy engine and drive train accessibility.

Q: When did you sell your first Walker Mower?

A: Oh, I don't remember the exact date, but in 1980 we built 25 mowers. In those early years, before actually going to full-scale production, we would run a little ad in trade publications and my son, Bob, would take the leads and prepare an itinerary for me and my wife, Margaret. Bob would arrange the trip and we would load a couple of mowers on a trailer and drive around the country giving demonstrations. On one of those trips, to Florida, a lawn maintenance contractor bought the two mowers on the trailer and the trailer itself, and placed an order for 48 more mowers. That was really how we got started. Margaret and I drove back to Colorado, without the trailer and mowers but with a large order. That year, we decided to build 125 mowers, and we've been building mowers ever since.

Q: Max, to what do you attribute your success?

A: In the early years, our success was dependent on lots of hard work and really coming up with a mower like no other on the market. The machine has a well-defined niche and it has been well received. Later on, as we grew, the credit for our success has to be shared by my sons. Dean is really the architect of the mowers and attachments, and Bob is largely responsible for setting up distribution and marketing the product. We believe in God, too, and feel we have been blessed. To think you can literally start from nothing and develop a business like this makes you believe in miracles.

Q: As you think back on those early years, what were some lessons that really paid off?

A: I think the main lesson we've learned revolves around the word "control." We learned early on the only way to dictate our own destiny was to be in control. That's one more reason why today we build as much of the Walker Mower as we can right in-house. I also realized that if this business were to grow and be a success, I would have to give over control to my sons who would take it to the next level. They have done that, and that one decision has been pivotal to our success, as well.

Q: In terms of quality, the Walker Mower speaks for itself Yet, there is something behind the scenes that ensures this high level of quality is an ongoing occurence. What exactly is that something?

A: That's a tough question. But I think it all goes back to the family concept. We tell the people who work here they're part of the family; so are our distributors and dealers and our end-user customers. In fact, we tell our employees they don't work for us, but work with us to produce a product for which we can all be proud. Our mower's value is neither defined by the metal in its construction nor the quality of its cut. It is truly defined by the role it plays in helping other people make a living. We really believe that. If the Walker Mower can be a fundamental part of someone's livelihood, then we have done something right.

Manage your Walker Talk Subscription

Need to change your address, go paperless, or cancel your subscription?



View the Walker Talk magazine archive


Show Me

see all

Most Recent

Most Popular