40 up:
Now for the next 40 years…

Power Equipment Australasia celebrates its 40th birthday this year. As we commemorate this publishing milestone, we also turn our eyes to the future… What will the outdoor power equipment industry look like in the next 40 years? How will dealers’ activities change? John Power speaks to numerous industry leaders about the past, the future, and opportunities in waiting.

In March 1979 Power Equipment Australia was born. The title adopted the more encompassing term Australasia in July 1985.

The front cover of the first issue of Power Equipment Australia, as it was then titled.

In his first editor’s column, ‘Ramblings’, inaugural editor Keith Agar wrote, ‘If you are a manufacturer of engine-powered equipment, this magazine gives you the opportunity of displaying your wares, technical information and advice to those within the industry, end users in governmental departments, and contractors.’

The magazine’s function has not changed since Keith uttered those words 40 years ago; nevertheless, the industry has changed fundamentally over the same period. When the magazine first appeared, no one could have predicted the invention of the Internet, the emergence of battery power, the rise of Chinese manufacturing, or the prospect of automated, robotic devices. 

What were the prevailing economic and social conditions in 1979? Our exchange rate with the US dollar was above $1.10, making imports incredibly affordable, but fuel was in short supply and prices were on the rise. Alex Jesaulenko captained Carlton to a memorable VFL football premiership, and Sony released its Walkman portable cassette-radio player for $200 – an incredible sum considering a new Toyota Corolla cost about $3,600 at the time. Pink Floyd was imploring humanity to tear down its symbolic and physical walls.

From the outset the magazine has been an independent mouthpiece for industry policy discussion and technological innovation, and a remarkably consistent information platform in an otherwise volatile world – there have only been four editors in the magazine’s history, the most prominent of whom was Stephen Symmons, who shaped the magazine with 30 years of service and helped define the outdoor power equipment (OPE) sector’s identity. 

Over the magazine’s history, multiple businesses have come and gone, brands like Echo and Shindaiwa have merged, and others have been consolidated into large corporations (for example Bolens and Cub Cadet within MTD Products, or McCulloch within Husqvarna).

The magazine has always shown great professionalism, if not great taste! Front cover of our Jan-Feb 1983 issue.

Throughout all this activity, the magazine has remained topical, if not always tasteful! Our front cover in Jan-Feb 1983, showing a bikini-clad model alongside a Quik Kleen parts washer, might be described as either ‘Classic’ or ‘Jurassic’ depending on your point of view. Similarly, our March 1986 cover (see image 3) depicting a man and woman in black tie evening dress, complete with an Oleo-Mac chainsaw, might leave some archivists wondering what kind of formal event was envisaged… and why they didn’t get an invitation!

Advertising has also been an exciting source of enlightenment, and, on occasion, amusement. Personal favourites include the Makita ad (Aug 1994 issue, page 7) with the tagline, ‘The Preferred Choice of More Grannies’, incorporating a happy photo of a grandmother wielding a large chainsaw (see image 4); and the extraordinary ‘Slope Tractor’ ad (Sep-Oct 1980, page 16), featuring a photo of a tilted tractor crossing a 30-degree slope with the aid of an automatically leveling cockpit (see image 5). Indeed, some ideas are a slippery slope to nowhere.

If we look back at the main events relating to the OPE sector over the last 40 years, the most noteworthy has been – and continues to be – the rise of electrically powered machinery, according to a number of today’s industry leaders. Electrical power has undergone a long and simmering evolution; for example, our August 1980 issue carried the following item in Company News:

Petrol Mowers on Down Hill Slide?

“Another five years and electricity will be challenging petrol as the main source of power for lawnmowers in Australia.”
That’s the confident forecast by VOLTA National Sales Manager, Bill Gomme, recently back in Melbourne after heading a two-man Australian delegation to the 1980 International FLYMO conference in Venice.
“One reason was a factor that no one paid a moment’s thought to even a few months ago – the actual cost of lawn cutting.”
(Power Equipment Australia, August 1980, page 14.)

Our March 1983 front cover showed the ‘black tie’ glamour of chainsaws.

While Mr Gomme’s aspirations for electric mowers might have been overenthusiastic 40-odd years ago, his forecast is finally close to reality. 

Larry Blamer, Managing Director for STIHL Australia, says he “wouldn’t be surprised to see battery outsell petrol in the next five years in the urban market.”

Steve Hughes, General Manager Masport, estimates parity of electric and petrol sales across the industry “within a decade”. 

Meantime, Peter Wallace, Director of Sales, Briggs & Stratton Australia, says battery-powered equipment sales are already challenging petrol in specific domestic retail categories like blowers and line trimmers. “For higher power requirement areas, such as lawn mowers, we still think it will probably be three years before we get to 50/50 [battery/petrol] in domestic use.” The uptake of battery-powered commercial-grade equipment, he added, should take longer. 

So, while predicted timeframes vary, the above experts all agree that a shift to battery power is inevitable.

Let us examine likely future directions more closely.

BATTERY TECHNOLOGY IN FUTURE

“In 1978 I sold my first battery-powered ride-on mower; it was made by GE with wet cell batteries, and it cost a fortune,” said Larry, whose parents bought an OPE dealership in the US in 1975 and inspired his lifelong passion for the industry. “I was around when the string trimmer was invented, and it was corded only, and then in 1978 we had the first battery-powered string trimmer. It was only 6v and had a gel cell and looked like a motorcycle battery.

“The way the STIHL family puts it right now is we’re a petrol manufacturer that makes batteries, but we know at some point we’ll be a battery manufacturer that makes petrol – it’s probably a long time before petrol goes away, but what’s really nice for us is we make our own batteries, we design our own battery equipment, we have our own R&D and manufacturing capabilities, so we have a luxury of knowing that whatever the market wants, we’re ready.”

This advertising appeal to grannies was one for the ages. From our Sep-Oct 1980 issue.

The rollout of new battery-based equipment, Larry added, is always predicated on performance. Affordable battery technologies for heavier equipment are not yet competitive with petrol-powered equivalents, he observes, hence the logical time lag between domestic and commercial-grade electric product releases across the broader industry. 

Masport has a similar business philosophy, admittedly following a late entry into the battery-powered market. While Steve estimates that battery products represent only five to 10 per cent of current Masport sales, due primarily to the speed of technological change several years ago, figures will escalate quickly thanks to the recent sale of Masport to cutting-edge German company AL-KO Gardentech, which has a strong R&D division dedicated to new-generation power systems.

“So, if you look at a Masport battery mower now, it actually looks very similar to a Masport petrol mower; we’re just using a different power source,” Steve says.

This emphasis on high-quality performance, he believes, is a vital foundation stone for Masport, and an essential way to differentiate the business from new entrants into the industry who may have expertise in battery functionality, but little pedigree in actual OPE manufacture. “Masport has been making lawn mowers for 90 years, so we know a lot about making them,” Steve said. “In terms of batteries, we’ve had an influx of power tool companies entering our space. They know a lot about batteries but they know very little about cutting grass, so yes we have a proliferation of extra competitors but we still have the edge on them. And we have to continue to make the best lawn cutting device, whether it’s powered by petrol or battery or anything else.”

Briggs & Stratton has an equally down-to earth, strategic approach to the adoption of new power technologies.

“Petrol is a major part of our business but the aim of the business is to be a supplier of ‘power’… now that power can be battery, it can be petrol, it can be hybrid, it can be a number of things,” Peter said.

Briggs & Stratton’s acquisition of Victa 10 years ago, he continued, helped cement a foothold in the mass market, which is now represented most prominently by its 18v and 82v ranges of power equipment. That domestic market is growing nicely, so R&D developers are rightly turning their attention to the commercial scene.

“One of the challenges in the battery market is that people are calling their products commercial, but they’re not – they’re really high-end domestic products that are being used commercially.” According to Peter, truly commercial battery-powered equipment has to be reliable and operational all day on a single charge. Briggs & Stratton, he explained, is meeting this challenge by using its top-of-the-range Vanguard petrol range as a template for new commercial-grade battery-powered equipment, starting with a 5kW (and subsequently 10kW and 20kW) 48v battery system that will be usable  across all commercial machines in the Briggs & Stratton range. The first prototype, demonstrated at the recent GIE+EXPO trade show in Louisville, is a Stander commercial mower. “From a commercial operator’s point of view, machines in this range can charge overnight and run during the day, which gives operators much greater flexibility from a noise point of view, and obviously from an emissions point of view,” Peter said. Ultimately, this commercial range will include vacuums, blowers, mowers, and a comprehensive range of other commercial products, and should be available in Australia in the next 12–18 months.

Most importantly, he added, the Vanguard battery range will be available as ‘original equipment’ to many high-quality manufacturing partners. Therefore, as a common battery power system, it will have applications across different brands and product segments, with clear relevance to trade and hire companies stocking complex and mixed inventories of equipment.

Peter said technological advances have been so swift that “we’re now producing blade motors and wheel motors that will outlast the chassis,” which raises fascinating questions about servicing and parts replacement processes of the future.

DEALERS: THE NEXT 40 YEARS

Of course, the above innovations all have impacts on dealerships, many of which have substantial servicing divisions catering to internal combustion engines. How will these dealerships cope with a shift to more battery-powered devices, which have less elaborate servicing requirements than their petrol predecessors?

“Even if we stopped making petrol tomorrow, there would still be a service industry for 15-20 years, minimum,” Larry said, asserting STIHL’s allegiance to professional dealerships as a primary sales channel. “We are certainly not looking for a revolution with our dealer base.”

“Yes, we continue to go through independent channels, but the big thing is to stay current with new technologies.”

Furthermore, he suggested, dealers will have to embrace increasingly sophisticated retailing methodologies to retain STIHL’s unrivalled reputation in the marketplace – recent customer satisfaction surveys, he noted, were the highest ever recorded by the survey company across all industry sectors.

As for new opportunities, Larry says STIHL’s ranges of robotic mowers are already exceedingly popular in Europe and the US, and will undoubtedly penetrate more deeply into Australian markets in the near future. These devices will need to be installed and serviced – activities that will offer major new business opportunities for dealers. In addition, robotic mower controllers, hopefully linked to shared open source management platforms like Google and Alexa, will ultimately allow users to control devices of different brands via a single management hub, further enhancing the appeal of the sector.

Steve from Masport agrees.

“The dealers that survive will be those that accept the challenge of not only battery-powered equipment, but also robotic mowers,” he said. “Robotic mowers, as a product class, are going to continue to grow in demand, but they need installation. Dealers are well placed to deliver that if they take up the challenge.” Steve also believes open source systems like Alexa will become mainstream throughout the OPE sector, removing a major obstacle from multi-brand automation.

This ad, which appeared in our Sep-Oct 1980 issue, featured a tilting tractor that didn’t quite survive OH&S scrutiny!

Of course, successful dealerships of the future will need to be astute in the way they identify and adopt profitable market opportunities.

As Peter from Briggs & Stratton reminds us, “Opportunities for our dealer base are numerous, but it will take suppliers and dealers working together to identify and commercialize these opportunities. Onsite service and installation will play a big part as product offerings change.”

Throughout the magazine’s history there have been regular features about the importance of setting appropriate pricing schedules for work, winning repeat business, and creating marketing strategies to appeal to both rural and urban customers. No doubt, these kinds of editorials will only become more regular and significant as dealerships embrace higher levels of customer interaction. Dealership business software systems, moreover, will play an increasingly important role in the running of outlets – the magazine has emphasised the offerings of software companies like Biscount for years, with the recent participation of Infusion Business Software, and their value proposition is self-evident.

Skeptics might question the uptake of battery equipment, particularly in the commercial space, due to perceived deficiencies in the performance of battery-based technologies at the heavy-duty end of the power spectrum.

However, as discussed in our Feb-Mar 2019 issue recently, the adoption of battery technology will have more to do with the decline of petrol than the ascendancy of electricity. Automotive manufacturers are already switching to electric power sources – Volvo, for example, no longer makes traditional petrol or diesel engines – and every electric car entering the market represents a nail in the petroleum industry’s coffin. Even with current economies of scale, petrol costs the same as milk; when petrol reaches champagne prices, all OPE markets will turn inexorably to batteries… and performance will be secondary to cost savings. Electricity should not come as a shock!

IN SUMMARY…

To sum up, the next 40 years will involve specialisation, rationalisation and consolidation. Boutique manufacturing companies will no longer have the R&D capabilities to match the advances made by large multinationals, so the absorption of smaller enterprises into larger ones will continue. The pace of technological change globally means intellectual property will become more important than ever, which means state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities will continue to thrive in the R&D hubs of Europe and the US.

Local dealers will become more customer-focused in their operations, embracing new business opportunities in the areas of device installation, customized settings and programming, controller installation and setup, as well as equipment care. 

Furthermore, the division between domestic and commercial customers will widen, as (1) residential landlords and tenants seek out budget electric equipment (in-store and online) for small-area applications; while (2) commercial/rural owners forge tighter relationships with local dealers for larger, more complex acquisitions and installation activities.

What will the magazine’s front covers look like in the next 40 years? There will be more battery-based machinery, of course, and more products relating to management systems for automated equipment. Charging and energy systems, no doubt, will be an emerging product class.

As for bikini-clad models standing proudly alongside these new products… perhaps not!