Robert Foster laid out a T-shirt on June 7, preparing to work the assembly line at the Intimidator Inc. factory in Batesville.
Nothing unusual about that, until you consider that Foster is the owner and president of Intimidator, a 300-employee operation that builds utility vehicles and zero-turn riding mowers.
“Yeah, I still work on the line sometimes, and I had to put on a button-up shirt after I was reminded that y’all were coming today,” Foster told a reporter and photographer. Moments later, he was striding across the manufacturing floor, stooping every few seconds to pick up a stray piece of trash.
The impromptu cleanup seemed wholly fitting by a man who designed not only the company’s mowers, branded as Spartan, but also the manufacturing facility that builds them. An inventor who started taking apart mowers and putting them back together at age 8, Foster grew up clipping out pictures of equipment from catalogs the way other kids collect images of pop stars and ballplayers.
“This is our life, and we don’t mind doing any job here, rolling up our sleeves and helping the team in any way,” said Becky Foster, Robert’s wife of 35 years and vice president of the company, though her business card says owner. “We both sweep, and we’re willing to take out the trash,” she said.
It’s a team philosophy that has helped Intimidator thrive since its inception in 2013, setting the stage for a three-phase expansion expected to bring the company’s headquarters to some 450,000 SF from its current 187,000.
Spartan’s 15,000th mower came off the line early this month, just 28 months into production, giving the Fosters a milestone for reflecting on a resilient success story in Arkansas manufacturing.
It’s an up-by-the-bootstraps saga that helped turn the Independence County Industrial Park into a commercial mower hotbed, but also a tale of rivalry, strife and acceptance as Foster built his new company literally yards away from the even bigger mower maker that Foster helped found in 2002, Bad Boy Inc.
Foster’s split with Bad Boy CEO Phil Pulley in 2013 after they built Bad Boy into a roaring success is near-legendary in north Arkansas manufacturing, and the topic is still painful for Foster.
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But a lawsuit over a patent for a vibration-damping system Foster devised for riding mowers was settled to the satisfaction of all parties in May, with Bad Boy listed as the “patent holder” in documents filed in federal court. Foster had been granted the original patent, but Bad Boy argued that he had assigned all rights to Bad Boy during his time there.
Foster said he was basically forced out at Bad Boy, Independence County’s second-largest employer with about 750 workers and estimated annual revenue of $190 million. The company, which built its first mower in 2002 and swiftly won product-of-the-year acclaim at the Garden Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, was selling about 30,000 of its sleek orange machines a year by 2014, General Counsel Scott Lancaster told Talk Business & Politics that year.
While the company does not publicize current sales figures, sales remain high, and Bad Boy’s campus occupies some 1 million SF on 105 acres after a 16.5-acre acquisition last year.
Still, Foster’s anguish over the Bad Boy exit “is still there,” he said. “You don’t do something for 17 years, 45,000 hours, without feeling something. I’ve moved on, and I’m extremely thankful that God gave me the opportunity to do something that I love so much, but can I say it’s all over? No, it’s not.”
Quality and Pricing
Foster, who sold all his stock in Bad Boy in 2013 and took 38 employees with him to launch Intimidator as a separate enterprise, is overwhelmed by his new company’s growth. “We’re the youngest business in the mower industry ever to reach 10,000 units manufactured in such a short amount of time,” Foster said. His quip that “if Batman had a mower, it would be a Spartan” was one of Arkansas Business’ quotations of the year for 2016, but his mower’s market appeal isn’t just a result of its being “the coolest product on the planet,” Foster said.
Pricing has also been key to growth, Intimidator COO Roger Wright said, describing a trade show where customers sat on the machines and estimated retail prices. “Nobody estimated the cost at less than $10,000,” Wright said. “They were all amazed when they heard retail on the machine was $6,499.” Mowers by both Spartan and Bad Boy are, in a sense, luxury items. Bad Boy’s products range in price from $1,099 for a basic push mower to $15,299 for a top-of-the-line 1,500-cc diesel model, according to the company’s website. Spartan’s heavy-duty Cat diesel sells for close to $13,000, though it has many more economical models.
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Wright said Foster’s love for machines and vision as a designer — he spent months in his garage coming up with the Spartan mower prototype, taping cardboard over the windows and testing it only at night to avoid prying eyes and cameras — propelled Intimidator’s success. “Robert’s modest,” Wright said. “It’s his design, and he worked for six or eight months in that garage pulling together that design. He had a little support from [employees] Gus Munoz, who’s a draftsman, and Adam Branscum, who’s a star welder, but this is Robert’s baby.”
On the other hand, Foster himself emphasizes the “unbelievable group of people here who buy into lean manufacturing,” and he said he holds regular brainstorming sessions to hear employees’ ideas. “When workers have ideas, we want to try them even if at first it seems they won’t work. Sometimes they will end up working well, but the bigger thing is that if you don’t try your people’s ideas, they’re going to quit giving you ideas.”
Intimidator has about 300 employees now, and a 206,500-SF expansion announced in May and expected to be completed by January “will have us set to have another 100 people,” Robert Foster said. “One of my goals when I started all over again was to get up to 400 employees, and we’re getting there a lot quicker than I ever dreamed.”
Phases 2 and 3 of the expansion will include 18,000 SF of offices and conference and training rooms, as well as significant new plant space. “It takes a lot to achieve all this, but Robert has the passion that drives the whole shebang,” Wright said.
And that meticulous passion —Becky says Robert “has the kind of ADD that helps him” — is on display at the factory, which makes utility vehicles for the Houston-based tractor company Mahindra USA as well as its own Intimidator UTVs and Spartan mowers. Between its own UTVs and those it makes for Mahindra USA, the Fosters say business is divided about 50-50 between mowers and UTVs, though the mower unit is growing faster.
“You can see that our hobby is not boats or cars,” Robert Foster said, though he admits loving the muscle cars of his youth and putting that sensibility into his products. “Our hobby is these mowers, and the love we have spills over.” Foster, who is from Thida, an Independence County town so small that it’s often identified as being near the metropolis of Oil Trough, population 250, never finished high school. “But if you love something as much as I love mowers, eventually you’ll learn something.”
One thing he discovered was that efficiency follows good design, both in product and in plant operations. “To design the machine, we took into consideration everything about manufacturing it,” Robert Foster said. “We wanted the most economical and easiest ways to cut it, bend it and assemble it, and we also have the efficiency of robots. All 44 of our SKUs [stock-keeping units, or models] can come down one assembly line with almost everything interchangeable.”
He has an advantage over his first career in mowers, said Becky, who had just turned 16 when she married a 17-year-old Robert in February 1983. “Now he knows how to make every process easier.”
Wright interjected: “He’s also learned he has a valuable resource in Becky. She’s got a fantastic business mind.”
Asked to name something he knows now that he wishes he’d known 20 years ago, Foster laughs. “We can’t put that down on paper!” But he said Becky has strengths he lacks, and vice versa. Now 51 and 53, they have 10 grandchildren.
“We’re building more mowers in a day now than we did in my fifth year at Bad Boy,” Robert said. “And on the Intimidator side, the new GC1K model is looking like a breakout product.”
With a 1,000-cc engine, the highest stock horsepower in its class, it won innovation and product-of-the-year at a Chicago trade show, Robert Foster said. “We were able to enter the market with a premium product.”
City Loves Both
Repeated requests for comment from Bad Boy officials had failed as of press time Thursday.
Batesville Mayor Rick Elumbaugh said the city of 11,000 cheers both sides in the mower wars, calling Bad Boy and Intimidator well-paying employers and good civic citizens. He said their growth had helped offset the loss of about 550 manufacturing jobs following the closing of Batesville’s GDX automotive parts plant in 2007 and the White-Rodgers plant that made components for Emerson Electric Co. of St. Louis in 2009.
“It’s huge having both manufacturing companies here, and they both fill a big void,” Elumbaugh said. “They pay their employees extremely well.”
In announcing a $7.8 million expansion in 2015, Lancaster said that the average wage at Bad Boy topped $19 an hour. Becky Foster said last week that wages at Intimidator average $19.13 an hour.
Both companies have successful subsidiaries, the mayor said, including Bad Dawg Accessories and Gourmet Guru Grill for Intimidator; and Bad Boy Cutters for Pulley’s company.
Elumbaugh pointed to Bad Boy’s national visibility in sports as a sponsor of Nascar and college football’s Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
“Both companies stimulate the economy and give back to the community,” the mayor said. “It’s a win-win, and we hope to see them both continue to grow and prosper for years to come.”