COVER STORY – No business like snow business – Record sales fuel growth for Ariens Company

Posted on Feb 1, 2012 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Dan Ariens is the first to admit he doesn’t mind watching the snow pile up.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth – sales are up 28 percent year-over-year– and I keep saying it’s because the weather has been good and by that, I mean the weather has been severe,” says the president and CEO of Ariens Co., a Brillion manufacturer of snow removal and lawn-care equipment. “People are replacing their snow throwers or going out and buying one for the first time.”

Continued growth led the company to build a $3.8 million expansion at its Brillion headquarters and announce plans to hire up to 100 seasonal workers, bringing the company’s workforce in Brillion to more than 1,300. In

the past five years, Ariens invested $20 million in upgrades at its Brillion facilities.

Sales growth led the company to operate both manufacturing lines at the same time this fall for the first time ever.

“We went into the fall strong with a high demand for lawn equipment as well as the pre-snow season,” says Ariens, the fourth generation to run the company, which started in a Brillion garage.

Ariens says the company’s success is directly tied to its commitment to quality. “Our value proposition is strong; we are winning customer share. We’ve never wavered on our quality and that has enhanced our brand,” he says.

In the past two years, sales have grown 45 percent. And when its production lines are going full steam – like they are now – 1,600 Ariens Sno-Thro brand snow blowers are made each day.

“Ariens is a performance-driven, locally-owned family business with a global reach that has successfully maintained its heritage and corporate culture of providing significant value to its customers, employees and community,” says Fred Monique, vice president of Advance, the economic development arm of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, which awarded Ariens a 2011 Excellence in Business Award.

Building the company’s success has been decades in the making – and Ariens is poised for even more growth.



Connected to the past

The company known today as Ariens had its start in late 1893 when Dan Ariens’ great-great-grandfather, Henry, arrived in the Calumet County community and founded Brillion Iron Works. The family ran the business until the Great Depression when it was forced into bankruptcy. In 1933, Ariens’ great-grandfather, Henry, started the Ariens Company, a business dedicated to building the first American-made rotary tiller. That original company founded in a Brillion garage now has more than 2,100 employees worldwide (including more than 1,300 in Brillion) and manufacturing facilities not just in Brillion, but around the world.

Since becoming president and CEO in 1998, Dan Ariens has charted the company’s growth. He joined the company in 1983 in the marketing department and later worked in nearly every department, including engineering and manufacturing, before taking over as CEO for his dad. When he became CEO, he admits the company was in rough shape. “We had to do something. The system we had was broken,” he says.

That “something” was creating a new company culture driven by lean principles and continuous improvement. Regular rapid improvement events started in 2000. Today, there’s a lean event going on somewhere in Ariens at least once a week.

“Eleven years in our lean journey, we continue to find ways to grow business and drive out waste,” says Ariens, who was personally recognized in 2007 with the Eli Whitney Productivity Award from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers for his lean initiatives. “We’re continually making and improving our brand proposition.”

Handling the changeover between seasonal products is an ideal example of how the company used lean thinking to improve its bottom line. “We used to lose $2 million annually as our production lines changed over from lawn to snow. We looked at it and created two identical lines that are set up and ready to go so when it’s time to switch over from one seasonal product to the next, we’re ready without losing downtime,” Ariens says.

Ariens’ manufacturing cycle is just a bit ahead of the seasonal changes. In January as snow normally piles up around Wisconsin, the company makes the switch over to lawn equipment. And in late August and September, while the lawns are still green, production ramps up on the snow removal equipment.

The company does have the ability to make both lawn and snow products at the same time and that paid off last fall when the company produced both lines simultaneously for the first time. To make that possible, the company hired 100 temporary workers, but Ariens says the goal is to make them permanent.

As Ariens acquires other companies, Ariens admits bringing in lean processes can sometimes be a challenge. However, he adds, leaders from other sites come to Brillion to see what they’re doing and “they’re really learning from us. You have to show them how it’s done and they become believers. Our goal is to drive lean principles and Ariens’ culture throughout all of our facilities.”

Ariens’ reputation for its lean initiatives has led him to also serve as a guide and mentor for other organizations looking at driving out waste. While having other manufacturers visit and learn, Ariens says one of the more unique relationships has been with ThedaCare, the Appleton health care system. Dr. John Toussaint, the system’s former CEO, visited Ariens in the early 2000s and then used what he learned to deploy lean initiatives throughout the organization.

“Dan was very instrumental

in helping ThedaCare on our lean journey. We had many staff and executives and even some physicians go to Ariens to spend time with his staff and senior team,” says Toussaint, who now leads

the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value. “Dan was

very supportive of applying lean principles to health

care. He continues to support us; he is on the Center’s Board. He continues to be a great leader in helping the health-care industry.”

Ariens, in turn, says he’s “amazed at what ThedaCare has been able to do” by taking what they saw in the plant’s manufacturing process and translating it to a medical setting.

For companies looking at going lean, Ariens offers this advice: “It’s easier to implement lean when you’re growing than when things are going south. Pushing upstream to make changes when business isn’t going well is difficult.”



Planning for the future

As the company continues to grow, Ariens knows its future success lies in its workforce, so the company has taken aggressive actions to help attract and train future workers. To that end, the company looked down Highway 10 to the new Brillion High School. The company’s foundation donated $1.5 million to build a technology and education center.

Ariens’ support for the high school’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum goes beyond those initial dollars provided for the building, says Steve Meyer, a technology and engineer teacher at Brillion High School. He says the company often offers tours, job shadows and internships.

“Engineers, technicians and designers often come over to our school and spend time working with students on activities. The company also includes students on ‘real life’ design activities that they are working on,” Meyer says. “Students have developed prototypes for lawn and snow equipment in which the Ariens Company has used in the design and development of their machines.”

Ariens has hired some Brillion graduates as employees, put them through apprenticeship programs and paid for their continued education, Meyer says.

“The strength of our technology and engineering program would not be possible without the strong commitment from the Ariens Company,” he says. “They truly believe in the continued education of today’s youth. The Ariens Company has created a model of commitment for other industries to follow.”

Dan Ariens says the company gets more out of its partnership with Brillion High School than just future workers. “Engineers who go over there to work with the students come back all charged up. It’s a great relationship and keeps our employees engaged,” he says.

As many manufacturers struggle to find workers, Ariens believes being proactive and forming relationships with high school students is the way to go. “You have to get them excited and I think we’re doing that,” he says.

But Ariens knows growing the workforce won’t be enough.

“Ariens can only continue its growth by growing our market share as well as creating new products,” he says. “We continue to look for strategic acquisitions and becoming a more global company.”