In 1979, Art Evans busted his knuckles repairing one too many lawn mowers. As a distributor for a nationally known manufacturer, Evans also rebuilt mowers. And refined transmissions and steering units. And spent countless hours on tedious tasks, like adding washers and tightening bolts.
Working a few weeks ago in an old milk barn adjacent to his parents' Putnam County home, Evans was a long way from the 1973 Indiana State Fair, where he first saw a zero-turning-radius lawn mower. With the front and rear wheels operating independently, the mower could spin in place. Two independent hand controls replaced the steering wheel. It stopped Evans in his tracks.
"I saw that and it was like someone hit me in the head with a 2-by-4," Evans said. "I'd been driving farm equipment since I was 10 years old. I didn't need anyone to tell me what a revolution that was. I knew right then, you could make a million dollars with that."
As it turns out, the 63-year-old Evans has made a lot more than that. The founder of Dixie Chopper is celebrating his company's 25th anniversary while watching annual revenue hit $80 million.
The company is celebrating its silver anniversary by launching four new models, including the company's first walk-behind and a propane-powered unit expected out within 30 days.
Dixie Chopper recently bought the 100,000-square-foot former Mallory Capacitor Corp. plant in Greencastle to supplement its 125,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the house Evans grew up in a mile northeast of Fillmore. The company has grown from 84 employees to 200 in two years, and will make 13,000 mowers this year.
Dixie Choppers don't come cheap. They range in price from $5,000 to $15,000 and are delivered fully assembled to 500 dealers across North America.
"But it will be around long after you've paid it off," Evans said. "Farmers understand this principle."
No steering wheels or
While sales growth in traditional riding mowers with steering wheels have flagged recently, sales of zero-turning-radius mowers are growing, said Steve Schaefer, owner of Fort Wayne-based Schaefer Sales and Service, which sells a variety of equipment, including Dixie Choppers.
"This company came from humble beginnings to become a pioneer in this movement," Schaefer said. "They're known as being No. 1 in performance quality and speed of cut. But they retain a small-company feel with no middlemen. There's no better company to work with."
Combining an awe-shucks attitude with light profanity, Evans, who often mills around the factory floor in a ball cap and work pants, remains the persona of the company.
Evans said the company's success is due to simple common sense. On a commercial crew, one of Evans' mowers can "replace six guys with trim mowers."
While 80 percent of Dixie Chopper's early sales were to commercial cutters, residential customers now account for 70 percent of sales.
"The reason this company has been so successful is because we don't have any engineers," said Rick Judy, Dixie Chopper's marketing manager. "Art has used his farm boy mentality. And he designs no shortcuts for cost cutting."
Evans explains in his Indiana drawl how he used his farm-learned skills to streamline his company's 2,800-foot assembly operation last year to 2,000 feet while adding three new assembly lines. Those efficiencies offset steel price increases, and no consultants were needed.
"We have the know-how we need inhouse," he said.
Evans gives his workers, most cut from the same piece of the Heartland he is, much of the credit. His employees, he said, are a prime reason he's not tempted to move production out of state or overseas.
Initially, forging the path to prosperity was like whacking through an Amazon thicket.
"It took us 10 years to sell 1,000 mowers [annually]," Evans said.
With revenue growth near 40 percent each of the last three years, Dixie Chopper is growing as fast as Evans' high-speed mowers plow through lush lawns. Touted as the "world's fastest lawn mower," it takes a mower just nine minutes to cut an entire football field.
"I've talked to hundreds of people in this industry, and no one's ever disputed their speed," said David G. Cassidy, executive editor of Turf Magazine, an industry trade publication based in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
The Dixie Chopper may be the only mower ever to pace an auto race. One of Evans' handmade mowers was clocked at 50 mph while it paced a World of Outlaws event April 9 at Virginia Motor Speedway.
It wasn't the first time a Dixie Chopper burned rubber. Evans once fitted one of his choppers with a Chinook helicopter engine to prove the mower could hold up. And Tim Allen-playing Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor-used the mower to race Bob Villa on his hit TV series, "Home Improvement."
The self-proclaimed farm boy has proved to be quite a marketer. He steered Dixie Chopper to a two-part feature on "American Choppers," the popular cable television show about hand-built motorcycles.
The Dixie Chopper Bike is the world's first lawn-mower-inspired motorcycle and even incorporated some of the features of the mower. The creation debuted before 350,000 people at Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., last year before being seen by millions on the Discovery Channel show.
Dixie Chopper lawn mowers aren't quicker than their motorcycle counterparts, but at top speeds of 10-15 mph, they're still faster than your father's riding mower.
"It's amazing they can get the blade turning fast and smooth enough to cut like a fine manicure at those speeds," Cassidy said.
"They are so responsive and fast, it's like mowing in a sports car," said Bill Parrish, owner of locally based Fine Line Lawns. "They're four to seven miles an hour faster than the competition. I own eight Dixie Choppers and I can handle twice the work load with half the workers."
Dixie Chopper is outpacing industry growth averages. Mower sales, according to the Professional Lawncare Association of America, have grown about 5 percent each of the last two years. With all the biggest manufacturers entering the "ZTR" market, the next couple of years could be Dixie Chopper's biggest challenge, Cassidy said.
Evans made a name for himself with speed, but his desire for durability was the driving factor in Dixie Chopper's launch.
He became one of the nation's biggest sellers of Dixon mowers, one of two early manufacturers of zero-turning-radius mowers. He also sold for Grasshopper, the other zero-turning-radius pioneer.
"I sold 175 mowers between the State Fair and Christmas in 1974," Evans said. "That's more money than I'd ever seen before." Back then, the mowers sold for about $1,000 each.
But Evans' frustration began to outstrip profitability.
"It was a good concept, but it was built like a tinker toy," said Evans, who studied diesel mechanics in Nashville, Tenn., after graduating from high school. "I got sick and tired of fixing their crap."
Evans spent so much time repairing his customers' mowers, he began lending them a hand-built mower he made for himself.
"People would tell me, 'That's what I want, a mower just like that,'" Evans said.
But Evans wasn't ready to jump into fullfledged manufacturing.
He pedaled more than 750 factory-built mowers annually in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, he built special tooling to work on the units and developed an assembly and repair manual.
In response to service issues, industry leaders developed a mower with a heavier, wider deck, Evans said.
"Now you had a real piece of crap," he said, swinging his arms slowly across his body to demonstrate the labored turning. "It was hard to handle and you had a real rough ride."
Evans said when he showed the industry's leading manufacturers a prototype he'd developed with reinforced deck, yet easier-to-handle steering, he was rebuffed.
"All these companies have engineers, and it wasn't their idea, so they weren't going to accept it," Evans said.
In 1979, he hit his breaking point.
"I figured I didn't know anything about making mowers, but I could do better than this," Evans said. "I figured if I didn't do it, the Japanese would."
Replicating the much-loved prototype proved challenging.
"I could weld and I could build a prototype, but I had no idea how to make two alike," Evans said.
He sought the help of Thorntown entrepreneur Stan Morton to help with drawings on a mower with a larger transmission and engine on a smaller mower and a reinforced deck. Evans discovered by lengthening the wheel base 1 inch, he could accommodate a deck that cut a 50-inch path, instead of the industry standard 44 inches. Dixie Chopper now has a model with a 72-inch cut path.
"I designed these to last like the old Farmall tractors," Evans said. "A lot of those are still going."
And so is the original Dixie Chopper, which is still used to cut Evans' parents' lawn, next to the now-sprawling manufacturing facility.