By Jamie Shafer
“We are a family business, but we like to think of ourselves as a big family,” shared Bob Walker, President of Walker, a mower company based in Fort Collins, Colorado (www.walkermowers.com). “We accomplish more by working together as a group. Each person brings his or her own gifts and abilities.”
Now a third-generation family business, the Walkers know the company is not to be taken for granted. Their roots are solid, running back to the 1950s when Bob’s father began to emerge on the scene as a farmer who had both a heart for business and an incredible eye for mechanical engineering, especially as it related to mowers.
Bob and his brother Dean, who serves as Vice President of Manufacturing and Engineering, have modeled the business philosophy on lessons learned from their father while growing up.
“In my early years, Dad and I shared an office,” said Bob. “I overheard a lot of phone conversations. Those are the times you find out if a person is really who they say they are. I never heard my dad tell a lie. Even with some really good people, there is sometimes a pressure to not tell it straight.”
Bob reflected on integrity in business, saying it requires that leaders be both truth tellers and promise keepers. They should be people who tell the truth and follow through on commitments they have made. “My brother and I have tried to imitate this and live that way.”
He shared a verse that has been influential in the shaping of their business as well: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, English Standard Version).
“The idea is that you would do your best to keep the commitments, to stand behind the investments. We look at all the people who have a stakeholder share in the company—suppliers, dealers, marketers, customers, and the employees who invest in it.”
Caring for Employees
The Walkers focus intentionally on caring for their family of employees in a number of ways. One of the principles they learned from their father was to “always love people and use money”—not the other way around.
One way Walker demonstrates this as a company is through level manufacturing, even though the sale of their mowers is primarily a seasonal business. “Textbooks would tell you [to] make [your product] right ahead of when it’s needed. This means we would make our mowers and send everyone home. But that’s not optimum for people. People have a full-time life. No one has a part-time life. We organized to provide a steady, reliable job for them and their families.”
Even though they have more than 170 employees, Bob has made a deliberate effort to personally hand out paychecks and learn faces and names. Walker also holds a monthly plant meeting where employees can gather a half hour before closing and hear a current update on how the company is doing.
The average length of an employee’s service at Walker is about 11 years. Longevity with the company is encouraged and appreciated through generous gifts and cash rewards. Every employee’s five-year anniversary includes a lunch with Bob. The company also offers extras like profit sharing, a summer family picnic with families, and an annual Christmas party where the Christmas story is shared.
Another unique company perk is access to an onsite chaplain. “We know that on any given day there is someone who is having problems of some kind, maybe outside of work. Our chaplain is the kind of person who is a good listener.”
Marriage retreat scholarships and a limited number of counseling sessions are available for those who are struggling in their marriage. Walker also offers a family resource area with help on marriage and raising families. An optional monthly chapel service is offered during lunchtime with about 25 employees taking advantage of it on a regular basis. To help employees get their finances under control, Walker sponsors Financial Peace University sessions, with video teaching led by Dave Ramsey.
“Loving people,” noted Bob, “is lived out in the daily choices of your business. It’s about using money to create opportunity to bless people. We believe in operating by principles that are optimum for employees and their families.”
What does the future hold for Walker? “We hope to stay an independent, family-owned, family-managed company,” says Bob. “We feel like this is needed in order to carry out our principles and keep our promises.”
Jamie Shafer is a communications strategist for Fishhook Communications in Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her husband, Eric, have two children.