Posted 2/20/2012 12:00 am
Updated 3 years ago
Robert Foster didn't want to build a better mousetrap; he wanted to build a better lawn mower. So in 1998 he headed to the garage at his home in Diaz (Jackson County) and started tinkering. By the end of a couple of months, he had built his first mower.
Fast-forward 14 years and Foster is co-owner with longtime business partner Phil Pulley of Bad Boy Mowers of Batesville, manufacturer of the Bad Boy brand of zero-turn commercial lawn mowers. What once took two months now takes about three minutes, Foster said. And from manufacturing four or five mowers in 1999, when Foster built his first manufacturing facility, a 1,200-SF shop by his house, Bad Boy now makes 160 mowers and other vehicles a day.
Foster believes in listening to his customers, particularly professional lawn care workers, "people who mow every day," he said. To that end, the company conducts annual surveys, using a third-party firm "because we don't want a biased opinion."
"We'll bring people in and they'll call like 2,500 people who have Bad Boys and ask them, would they buy another Bad Boy product?," Foster said. "Let's say that Bad Boy came out with a utility vehicle, would you purchase a Bad Boy utility vehicle? Would you tell your friend to buy a Bad Boy? Have you had any problems with your Bad Boy?"
Bad Boy heeds the responses to these surveys of lawn care pros. "They basically give us a blueprint and we build off that," said Foster, who was interviewed while he was traveling to an industry trade show. "No matter what anybody thinks at Bad Boy, we try to listen to what the people want."
The company, which now employs about 330 people, makes zero-turn mowers with either gasoline or diesel engines. (Zero-turn lawn mowers' ability to pivot in their tracks makes them highly maneuverable. They can cut right up against obstacles such as trees, eliminating the need to trim around such yard features.) The mowers range in price from about $3,000 for the MZ Series, which features either Briggs or Kawasaki engines, to $13,000 for the Cat Daddy, a four-cylinder diesel model with a Caterpillar engine.
Bad Boy's strategy of listening to customers has led it into manufacturing products other than zero-turn mowers. Bad Boy started making four-wheel-drive utility, or multi-terrain, vehicles about four years ago, Foster said. The market is hunters, farmers and others who use these vehicles to venture into rough, sometimes forested terrain.
The company's utility vehicles feature either gasoline or electric motors. This product line includes the two- and four-passenger LSV Series - LSV stands for low-speed vehicle - an electric model legal to drive on roads posted 35 mph or less. Bad Boy, on its website, calls the LSV model a "popular alternative to getting around your neighborhood or just running errands."
Next up, Foster said, are "ultra-terrain" vehicles. This three-quarter-ton vehicle will accommodate three adults; a planned "double-cab" will accommodate six. It will be "the most popular thing that I think we've ever built at Bad Boy," Foster said.
The market for ultra-terrain vehicles includes hunters, trail riders and farmers who will use them in place of their pickups, he said. "It's a really, really cool machine," an enthusiastic Foster said. "It will have blinkers, turn signals, flashers, backup lights. It will be a real advanced vehicle."
Estimated launch of the vehicle is September or October, he said.
"We come out with several new models every year," Foster said. "And I think this new big rig that we're coming out with, the new three-quarter-ton utility vehicle, I think it's got the opportunity to double Bad Boy."
Throughout this expansion of products, Bad Boy's footprint has grown to include three facilities with a total of about 650,000 SF under roof. The facilities are the Batesville plant, where the mowers are manufactured; a Melbourne (Izard County) plant, where the multi-terrain vehicles are built; and a distribution center, also in Batesville.
Bad Boy has about 450 to 500 dealers in 47 states. In addition, it has distributors in Canada, Denmark, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
The company declined to release annual revenue figures, but Foster said Bad Boy was "still growing tremendously. We've had a record year every single year."
"We're growing about 3,500 to 4,000 machines per year," he said. "We did double every year for a long time, but once you get doing so much volume you're not going to be able to double it anymore. I think we'll be up about 5,000 machines this year. When I say ‘up,' this is not up from a bad year; this is up from a record year."
Fireworks, Tires, Mowers
Foster and Pulley have been business partners for about 26 years. They started in the fireworks business. Their Fireworks World Inc., based in Batesville, operates retail fireworks locations in several states, including Arkansas.
Together they opened tire stores in Batesville and, later, in Searcy. They sold the tire stores after Big Boy Mowers took off, which didn't take long.
In 2000, Foster built a 5,000-SF facility in Tuckerman, moving from his 1,200-SF shop in Diaz. Big Boy relocated to Batesville in late 2001, building a 26,000-SF plant in the city's industrial park. "We just got through adding on our 17th time since 2002," Foster said.
Batesville was a natural choice because it has a wealth of skilled craftsmen, people with experience in metalworking and fabrication, Foster said.
The city is home to a handful of race car makers, including Larry Shaw Race Cars and Danny Nelson Race Craft Chassis. "And there's so many kids who when they get out of [high] school there, they go to welding school," he said. "And so we were able to get a lot of really, really good talent."
Foster, the garage tinkerer out to build a better mower, loves the manufacturing, technological side of the business. "My hobby is equipment. I love equipment, so we have the best equipment in the world," he said.
Bad Boy Mowers makes use of high technology to build its products, including lasers and robots. "We have lots and lots of robots," Foster said. Among other tasks, the robots weld the multi-terrain vehicle frames. "While an employee is loading one side of the welder, the robot is welding on the other side. These robots, it's unbelievable how fast they are."
As for the recession, Foster said he saw no effects, adding that the downturn may even have benefited the company.
"In a down economy people look for a product that's the best value, so I almost think that the recession has helped us because it made people be more price-conscious. And we feel like we're hands down the best for the money that you can buy."