STANDING TALL

Stand-on mowers have been on the market for less than 10 years, yet they already hold a significant niche in the commercial mower industry. Bill Wright, whose company holds more than a dozen stand-on mower patents, says stand-on mowers probably account for around 3 percent of the commercial mower market, but the figures increase every year. Wright experienced 31 percent growth in the past year.

Other manufacturers relate similarly positive news. Dan Schmidt, product and marketing manager for John Deere Turf Care, believes stand-on mowers could eventually account for up to 10 percent of the zero-turn market. “The stand-on mower business has shown exponential growth the past three years,” says Schmidt. He previously managed sales territories in Florida and says the stand-on mowers have really caught on there.

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Bill Wright received the first stand-on mower patent in 1995 after several years of development and field tests. Great Dane's first stand-on mower was introduced in 1996 and the company brought out it's current Super Surfer in 2000. Deere's new line of stand-on mowers began shipping to dealers this spring. Currently, these three manufacturers largely comprise the standing rider market.

Stand-on choices

Wright Manufacturing offers its Wright Stander mower in five cutting widths — 36, 42, 48, 52 and 61 inches. Deere offers three QuikTrak stand-on mowers: The 647 (48-inch deck), 657 (54-inch deck) and 667 (60-inch deck). Great Dane's Super Surfer is available with 36-, 48-, 52- and 61-inch cutting decks. All three makers offer several engine choices. In addition, Wright brought out its new Wright Sentar mower in 2000, a stand-on unit with a fold-up seat that gives the operator the option of sitting down to mow under low-hanging tree branches or when legs get tired of standing.

Overcoming operator fatigue was the impetus for early development of stand-on mowers. In fact, Wright Manufacturing was the first company to build stand-on sulkies for walk-behind mowers. Wright and his chief engineer, Jim Velke, brought out their first sulky in 1989 and introduced their two-wheel sulky in 1996. “Velkes” have become a common name for the attachments, even though more than a dozen other companies make sulkies today.

“From there, the idea of building the platform integral with the mower frame itself just kind of evolved,” says Wright. “Although we received notice of our first patent approval in 1995, the Wright Stander didn't actually come to the market until 1997.”

Commercial users love 'em

While the sulkies were a big change for operators who were used to keeping up with a commercial walk-behind mower all day long, the little platforms really weren't all that comfortable. “Your feet and legs were real close together and, unless they were just the right height, most operators had to hunch over a little bit, which was hard on backs,” says John Joensen, director of sales and marketing for Great Dane.

“Even with stand-on mowers, skeptics question the fatigue factor involved in standing up for hours of mowing,” Joensen says. “But, when you realize that leg muscles are much stronger than back muscles, standing versus sitting on a riding mower all day makes more sense.”

Bill Wright says their experience shows that an operator on a stand-on cutter will be 25 percent to 35 percent more productive than an operator using a walk-behind hydro mower with a sulky. “An operator on the stand-on mower will probably be 50 percent more productive than an operator using a gear-drive walk behind without a sulky.”

Comparing stand-on mowers to mid-mount riding mowers is pretty much a wash, according to Wright. “Mowing large, open areas of relatively smooth terrain, a stand-on mower probably will be about 90 percent as efficient as the rider, mainly because the riding mowers often cut at 9 to 10 mph or faster. Most stand-on mowers don't go much over 8 to 8 ½ mph.”

However, when it comes to more hilly terrain and areas with lots of trees or flower beds, the stand-on units will out-perform mid-mount riders with comparable deck widths by 10 to 20 percent, Wright says. “Stand-on mowers are even more maneuverable than the mid-mounts, and the operator has better visibility because he's riding nearly right on top of the cutting deck.”

Great Dane initiated a “Time Study Program” through its dealers in 2000, in which dealers were encouraged to select several of their best customers to participate. Commercial lawn maintenance firms got time sheets to keep for one week, using their usual equipment to mow their regular properties. Then, the dealers supplied the same customers a Super Surfer stand-on mower to use on the same properties the next week, comparing the time it took to finish the same jobs.

“Nearly every user expressed amazement at the difference in mowing time,” says John Joensen. “Some cutters said they gained nearly an extra day's time with the stand-on mower. Mowing conditions (dry, wet, etc.) were noted on the time study forms, so comparisons were as similar as possible.”

Joensen says dealers who participated in the program had tremendous follow-up sales. “One landscape firm wanted to buy the demo unit half-way through the time study week. They bought two Super Surfers immediately, then five more. Now they have more than 35 of the mowers in their fleet.”

Deere's Dan Schmidt says one of the big attractions of stand-on mowers is their short learning curve for operators. “Anyone with a little zero-turn mower experience can be proficient with a stand-on mower in a short time. The mowers are designed to be operator friendly, so even a new operator can learn how to mow in his or her first day on the job.”

Schmidt says commercial lawn care operators have seen 30 percent increases in mowing efficiency with stand-on mowers, even over zero-turn riding mowers. “The increased efficiency comes mainly from the enhanced maneuverability of the stand-on mowers,” he adds.

Another feature that makes stand-on mowers popular is their smaller footprint, says Schmidt. “We did a time study in North Carolina that showed commercial cutters load and unload their mowers 18 times in a typical work day. Stand-on mowers can be loaded and unloaded quickly, and they each take up less space in the user's truck or trailer, so transport efficiency goes up, as well.”

Safety not a big issue

Wright says stand-on mowers have a unique “BOA” (bailout ability) that riding mowers don't have. “Basically, if the operator gets in trouble on a steep hillside, for example, he just steps off and the mower shuts down.” In contrast, the operator of a riding mower is confined by a seatback, sometimes arm rests, and the operating levers, all of which make it more difficult to exit the mower in an emergency situation.

“Stand-on mowers actually handle hillside cutting better. The operator becomes a part of the weight distribution factor, because he or she can lean into the hillside for sideways mowing and lean forward or back when mowing up or down the hill.” The operator platform between the wheels and the deck-mounted engine actually lower the center of gravity, making stand-on mowers relatively stable. “We like to say the operator is ‘plugged in’ at the feet, not the seat,” says Wright.

All current stand-on mowers have a stationary bar above the dash for operators to hold onto, which also makes fingertip control of forward/reverse and speed levers more steady.

“Today's stand-on mowers typically come with a spring-loaded platform as well, which serves to absorb a lot of the bumps and bounces when cutting over uneven terrain,” says John Joensen. “Plus, platforms now are designed with enough room so operators can shift their feet from time to time.”

How stand-on mowers stack up cost-wise

Wright and Great Dane mowers are sold via two-step distribution, each through a nationwide network of distributors and dealers, including some distribution in Canada. Deere QuikTrak mowers are sold through the company's nationwide dealer network.

Generally, new mower prices fall somewhere between the costs of a hydro walk-behind and a mid-mount zero-turn radius rider. “Mid-mounts mostly fall somewhere within a $6,000 to $9,000 range,” Joensen says. “Commercial buyers can expect stand-on mowers to cost from $5,500 to $6,500. It all depends on the variables involved, such as quantity, trade-ins, timing, size of units being purchased, etc.”

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer specializing in grounds equipment, based in Lincoln, Neb.

IT ALL STARTED WITH SULKIES

Bill Wright and Jim Velke introduced their first sulky in 1989, and named it “Velke” after Jim. Both men had been mechanics and innovators. Wright started out in the lawn maintenance business in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1981. Two years later, he designed and built a grass catcher for walk-behind mowers, which he called the Grass Gobbler. Velke joined his firm a couple years later and, today, the two men hold some 24 patents together.

The first Velke was a one-wheel model that the company still offers under their patented design. Wright introduced a two-wheel sulky in 1996. The Grass Gobbler is still manufactured for 20 different makes of commercial mowers, and an extension for leaf pickup, called the Leaf Gobbler, is available as well.

Wright sold his lawn maintenance operation in 1993 to concentrate on developing the Wright Stander mower, a further evolution in the quest to make mowing less fatiguing for commercial operators.

A good market for sulkies still exists. Deere's Dan Schmidt says the walk-behind market still takes some 40,000 units every year. Many of those are candidates for sulkies. Some are switching to stand-on mowers. “Stand-on mowers won't be right for every property or every commercial firm,” says Schmidt. “There will still be plenty of market needs for walk-behind mowers. But, for the operator wanting to upgrade his efficiency and productivity, stand-on mowers offer some great opportunities.”

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