I pull the rip cord, suddenly exposing an inch-thick steel bar to the blades of a big red mower. Boom! This time, the bar is cut clear through and the top is caught by a mowing deck. Another successful test, this one triggered by an amateur during a tour of The Toro Company headquarters outside Minneapolis.

Toro plans ahead, gives back now

The company, which posted nearly $2 billion in sales last year, hosted media May 6 for “Innovations at its Roots” to highlight its operational strengths. CEO Mike Hoffman made an important point up front during his opening presentation: “Turfgrass is a net carbon positive even factoring in its mowing.”

Toro has spent $60 million dollars in research and development over the past 6 years, much of it to develop “green” products that manage water better, run on alternative fuels, etc. The company also spends money on environmental research support, and has made operational improvements such as removing waste from manufacturing operations, recycling plastics, steel and cardboard, as well as introducing a program converting used drip tape into reusable products like garbage bags, plastic lumber and highway barriers.

Hoffman said Toro has leveraged technology while redirecting their business more toward the professional side. In 1990, residential products like snow blowers and lawn mowers were 59% of Toro’s sales, 41% to professionals. Last year, those numbers were reversed: professional sales now account for 69% vs. 31% for residential.

While saying Toro is number one in the golf equipment and golf irrigation market, Hoffman stressed that he is looking to drive market growth in the Sports Fields & Grounds segment.

Hoffman detailed Toro’s focus on looking ahead to gauge customers’ needs 5 and 10 years from now, citing three factors that make the company successful enough to plow millions into R&D. “We want our employees to trust and value our organization, we want to exceed customers’ expectations, and we want to take care of shareholders.” The company’s commitment to customers is attributed to founder J.S. Clapper, whose motto was “You can replace anything but the good will of your customers.”

“Change is accelerating and we have an organization that is prepared,” Hoffman said. “We are truly way out there (planning for the future).”

One example is making sure Toro’s irrigation equipment will work with the variety of water now being used on golf courses and other areas. That equipment went across the desk of Dana Lonn, director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology. His job is to figure out what Toro should be building in 5 to 10 years. “Everyone always wants something better, faster, and cheaper,” he said, smiling.

Water management is only going to grow in importance. Lonn said the company’s water management strategy focuses on water availability, quality, cost, and water’s effect on turfgrass, while taking into consideration labor, productivity, and environmental concerns.

Lonn cited his work in soil moisture measurement to enhance site assessment technology. Using this, Lonn said he can enter 850 data points and in 45 minutes have a map of where sprinkler heads should be installed. “It can show where specific areas of the field should be watered, more or less,” he said.

Lonn, who’s been with Toro for 35 years, is convinced that electric power can do all that an engine can do. He said electric means better control, fewer wear parts, low noise, no leaks, lower or no emissions, higher efficiency, and easier maintenance, including via remote diagnosis. But obstacles remain, he said, including the time to “refuel” and the 800x more weight of the equipment.

Lonn also said he’s working with fuel cells, to the tune of $500K, which is what the hybrid prototype he’s working with cost to build.