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For AriensCo, Building Great Yard Machines Is About Values, Community And Family

Engineers in front of first manufacturing building (early 1960s) Image courtesy AriensCo

Even in the chilly north, where it seemed for a good while that spring never wanted to arrive, snowblowing season has finally morphed into lawn-mowing time. But for either task, AriensCo of Brillion, Wisconsin, is there to help.

Ariens is private and family-owned, and doesn’t publish financial data. But with an estimated annual revenue of more than $500 million, a sterling reputation here in the U.S., and an international presence in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, they must be doing a few things right.

Key among those things for Chairman and CEO Dan Ariens is the company’s culture. He made a point of putting the firm’s core values in writing when he took the helm in 1998: Be Honest, Be Fair, Keep Our Commitments, Respect the Individual, and Encourage Intellectual Curiosity. “We wrote those right after I read Built to Last, which stressed the need for strong values you live,” Ariens said. “Underlying our core values are basic philosophies: build trust in the company, work as a team, and treat employees as family.”

Dan Ariens in the plant. Image courtesy AriensCo

A central element of those strong values is keeping the company private. “We captured all the values we’d had over time, but just hadn’t put on paper – all the things about how we deal with customers, how we deal with suppliers, and how we treat each other,” said Ariens. “We believe strongly in having the ability to set those for ourselves. But when you’re a public company, you have other, outside entities telling you what your values should be. That’s something we prefer to avoid.”

They have a long and proud history of doing just that. Ariens is the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ariens. “He lost his first business in the Great Depression, then came back and founded this one,” Dan Ariens said. The company’s first product offering was a roto-tiller (Henry and his three sons built the prototype for it in his garage). “He was president into the 1950s,” Ariens recounted. “But it was his son, my grandfather Steve Ariens, who really built the business and started growing it.” He took the helm in 1956. The company introduced their first riding lawnmower in 1958, and their first two-stage snow thrower in 1960. Dan’s father Michael Ariens then served as president from 1969 to 1998, when Dan took over.

Henry Ariens (second from right), great-grandfather of Dan Ariens, standing on a clod crusher produced by Brillion Iron Works. This was the company that preceded AriensCo that the family lost in the Great Depression. Image courtesy AriensCo

In addition to his leadership in documenting and reinforcing the company’s values, Dan Ariens was also instrumental in the firm’s exemplary efforts at building its own workforce, by launching the company’s partnership with the local Brillion schools. “I could see ten or fifteen years ago that kids coming out of high school were primarily being aimed at going to college,” he explained. “We decided to get involved not just because we’re super-nice guys, but because we had a need – we knew we’d continue to need skilled technicians. So we started to talk to the folks at the high school, to get our company and these jobs in front of students. We knew there were some students well suited for tech schools, rather than college, and we wanted to help steer at least some of the college-bound kids into engineering.”

A few years into those efforts, local high school teachers approached the company about whether they’d help with getting a building constructed to house a STEM program. “We couldn’t directly fund the building, so instead we guaranteed a 20-year bond for its construction.” It worked out so well that a dozen years later they took the same idea to the other schools in the system. “Brillion now offers STEM curriculum all the way through, K to 12,” Ariens said. “This stuff is flourishing in northern Wisconsin now – robotics is huge in bigger communities like Green Bay, and Brillion is right there with them.”

Sales literature for first Sno-Thro machine (1960). Image courtesy AriensCo

The company isn’t without its challenges. The current political climate is one of them. “The trade wars and tariffs are tough,” Ariens said. “I understand negotiation and that some of this we just need to do, but the longer it drags on the more it hurts. It forces us to drive to get cost savings and productivity in other ways, and the uncertainty it creates in the markets is a problem too.”

Competitors and regulators are also always a challenge. “We’re in an industry with really tough competition,” Ariens explained. “Costs are much lower than twenty years ago. Plus, emissions regulations are getting tougher.”

There are great opportunities as well. “Commercial mowing is a growth area,” Ariens said. “There are acute labor issues there, and that’ll drive challenges back to manufacturers – it’ll drive changes to the industry.”

Sales literature for the Ariens Tillivator (1940s). Image courtesy AriensCo

Regulations will do the same. “Non-carbon-emitting mowers are an opportunity. Go to Home Depot or Lowes and you’ll see lots of battery-powered walk-behind mowers. In Europe, robotic battery mowers are taking over. There’s a bright future there for those who keep up.”

But those things won’t change what the company is all about. “We’re in a small Midwestern community. We started as immigrants who came over from the Netherlands in the middle to late 1800s, and we’ve been in manufacturing ever since,” Ariens said. “We always found a way to survive. It’s really the story of Wisconsin – we have what folks call ‘Wisconsin nice.’ Call our customer support line and you’ll see what I mean. It sets us apart.

“It’s all about those customer relations,” he added. “We’re just trying to help get the grass cut, and get the snow out of the driveway. We have customers and dealers that are in their third generation with us – looking back 50, 60 years at how we’ve taken care of them and they’ve taken care of us. And I’ve got my sons – Nick, Daniel II, and Stephen – in the business with me. We’re on our fifth generation now, and that feels pretty good.

“I still remember my Dad telling me to remember how important family is.”

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