Sales: $130 million (2001)
NAIC: 333112 Lawn and Garden Tractor and Home Lawn and Garden Equipment Manufacturing
Ariens Company is a leading manufacturer of lawn mowers, garden tractors and tillers, and snow blowers. The company manufacturers lawn mowers and snow blowers under its Ariens brand. It also manufactures a line of lawn care equipment geared for a commercial market under the Gravely brand. Ariens operates a subsidiary company, Stens Corporation, which produces a full line of small engine and outdoor equipment replacement parts. Stens is headquartered in Jasper, Indiana. It maintains distribution centers in eight states and sells to customers in 50 countries. Gravely and Ariens products are made at the company’s extensive plant in Brillion, Wisconsin, and sold through a dealership network extending throughout North America and more than 35 other countries. The company began as an iron works, made farm equipment in the 1930s, and began serving a consumer market in the 1950s. Ariens is still owned and managed by members of the Ariens family.
The company that became today’s Ariens began as a family business. Henry and Christine Ariens came to the small town of Brillion, Wisconsin, in 1893. There, they began operating an iron foundry from the garage behind their house. The home business evidently went well, and by 1897 they had built a factory, the first heavy industry to open in Brillion. The foundry was called Brillion Iron Works. The company flourished for 30 years, but it was hard hit at the very beginning of the Great Depression. Brillion Iron Works declared bankruptcy in 1929. Though the foundry was insolvent, it did not cease operating completely. In the same year as the bankruptcy, the company invented the first viable rotary tiller in the United States. The rotary tiller was a powerful farm implement that used rotating metal blades to lift and turn soil to prepare it for planting. Other inventors had come up with similar machines, but it had always been difficult to harness an adequate power source. The company put out various models in the early 1930s, and then in 1933 brought out the Ariens Rotary Tiller, powered by a four-cylinder, 14-horsepower engine.
At this juncture, the company that Henry and Christine Ariens had founded split into two separate entities. The Brillion Iron Works continued, now run by the oldest of the Ariens’ sons, Steve. Steve Ariens also headed an ancillary company, established in 1933 as the Ariens Company. The Iron Works became a leader in ductile iron casting and remained a privately held corporation until the 1970s, when it was sold to Beatrice Foods. The Ariens Company concentrated on tillers and other farm implements. Two other brothers, Leon and Francis, also managed the new firm. The company put out a range of tillers in the 1930s and 1940s.
Producing Consumer Goods in the 1950s–60s
During World War II, the Ariens factory was converted to production of tools and materials for the benefit of the military. After the war, the company went back to producing tillers. The company had a line of tillers of different sizes and motor strengths for farm use. However, new technology led to the development of better and smaller horsepower motors, and in 1950 Ariens began producing small machines for the backyard gardener. Its first products of this type were the Jet Tiller and the Imperial Riding Mower. Ariens was able to tap the growing legions of suburbanites for its new line. Its high-end equipment appealed to wealthier property owners. The riding mower was an attractive alternative to the back-straining work of the old-fashioned push mower, especially for those with extensive grounds.
Ariens was still producing agricultural equipment. In 1954, the company revamped its entire line of tillers and also brought out a new and improved tiller called the Trans-A-Matic. However, the company increasingly leaned toward the consumer end of the market. Beginning in 1955, Ariens dedicated a team of engineers to develop new products. It hoped to reduce the lag time, then one to two years, between an initial design and when a product came on the market. In 1960, the company brought out one of its best known products, the Ariens Sno-Thro, a self-propelled snow thrower. As the riding mower was a welcome alternative for some to the laborious push mower, the snow thrower offered consumers a cure for the dreaded snow shovel. Ariens was able to put a powerful motor in a relatively small machine, and it believed it had a market that would stretch from New England to Montana. That year the company also produced the first rear-tine tiller designed for consumers.
The firm did well, and expanded both its plant and its offices in Brillion. In 1963, the company built a new factory of 23,000 square feet. Ariens began to sell its products in Canada and in several other foreign countries. It had a thriving domestic market and soon became the leading snow thrower manufacturer in the United States.
Acquisitions in the 1970s–80s
In 1969, a new generation of the family led the company, as Michael Ariens became president and Steve Ariens moved up to chairman of the board. Ariens entered an era of acquisition and expansion around this time. By the mid-1970s, the company employed over 400 people, and it sold its goods through as many as 6,000 dealers across the country. Ariens had built a national reputation with its riding mowers and snow throwers, as well as its line of rotary tillers. The firm’s first big acquisition occurred in 1974, when Ariens bought up the New Holland division of the Sperry Rand corporation. New Holland, of Belleville, Pennsylvania, made a line of lawn and garden tractors, sold through a network of some 1,000 dealers. Ariens discontinued its own small selection of lawn tractors and moved the New Holland plant into expanded quarters in Brillion. The purchase of New Holland gave Ariens a more complete offering for the backyard gardener. Two years after the New Holland acquisition, the company announced plans to expand its manufacturing facilities yet again. It had added some 100,000 square feet when it bought New Holland. In 1976, the company began work on a new plant on 57 acres of land. When completed, Ariens’ buildings occupied about 485,000 square feet, which the company proudly compared to the cramped garage in which Henry and Christine Ariens had started their business. The expansion cost an estimated $1.5 million.
Next, Ariens made another purchase, adding another brand name to its line of products. In 1982, the firm bought North Carolina-based Gravely Co. from its parent McGraw-Edison. Gravely was known primarily on the East Coast as a maker of lawn and garden power equipment. It had a long history, putting out its first tractor in 1916. The firm had gone through several owners, and by the 1980s was known as a high-end maker of home lawn and garden equipment, as well as equipment for commercial landscapers. Gravely continued to manufacture its line out of its Clemmons, North Carolina, plant for ten years after the merger. In 1985, subsidiary Gravely itself made an acquisition. It picked up a manufacturer of commercial chippers and vacuums called Promark.
New Products in the 1990s and After
The company went through several changes of management in the 1990s. In 1992, Michael Ariens, grandson of founder Henry Ariens, took the position of chairman of the board, and for the first time a non-family member led the company. David Vander Zander took over as president of Ariens, though he held the post only briefly. In 1995, Henry and Christine Ariens’ great-grandson Dan Ariens took over the presidency of a new subsidiary company. After three years in that post, Dan came back to head Ariens. Entering the 21st century, the company was still controlled by the founding family, now in the fourth generation.
Ariens expanded its line of lawn mowers and snow throwers in the 1990s. It made walk-behind mowers, riding mowers, and machines sold as “zero-turn” mowers for their low turning radius. Most mowers were gas-powered, but the company also developed battery-powered mowers in the mid-1990s. Battery-powered mowers were considered more convenient to use and environmentally sound than those powered by gas, and consumer interest in the machines was rising. Ariens teamed up with an Ohio firm, Lucerne Products Inc., to come up with a reliable and compact power source for the new model. By 1996, the company had developed a competitively priced battery-powered machine with all electronic controls. Ariens also made snow throwers in a variety of sizes and types. Some were small machines geared to consumers, while others were heavy-duty professional models.
Ariens’ Vision Statement is “Passionate People! Astounded Customers!” That vision, in conjunction with the company’s Core Values, encapsulates the way Ariens does business. Core Values: Be honest. Be fair. Keep commitments. Respect the individual. Encourage intellectual curiosity.
Ariens continued to upgrade its plant and equipment in the 1990s. In 1992, the company decided to shut the North Carolina plant where the Gravely line was manufactured. Gravely products were then made out of Brillion. The brand had been principally marketed on the east coast, and sales and marketing operations for Gravely remained in North Carolina for another five years. In 1997, the company consolidated all the Gravely offices into its Brillion facilities. Soon after, Ariens invested some $1.5 million to renovate its powder-coating operations. Powder coating is a metal finishing process that is critical to the look and durability of the finished machine. Ariens needed a high quality coating system, even more rugged than that used in the automotive industry, because its products were subjected to constant stress from salty snow, muddy grass, lawn chemicals, and the like. Ariens replaced its outdated coating system, which had been originally designed to handle only two colors, adding four powder-coating booths as well as new equipment such as conveyors and curing ovens which finished off the coating process. The new equipment gave the company increased flexibility in its manufacturing process, allowing for quick color changes and more refined quality control.
Ariens made another significant acquisition in the mid-1990s. The company bought Jasper, Indiana-based Stens Corporation in 1995. Stens made replacement parts for a variety of outdoor power tools. It had dealers and distributors across the United States and in over 50 countries abroad. Stens continued to make and market its products under its own name, but management of the company passed to Dan Ariens. When he became president of Ariens Co. in 1998, presidency of Stens Corp. passed to his brother Peter.
The company embraced the Internet in the late 1990s, selling a few of its top models on-line beginning in 1999. By the late 1990s, Ariens was manufacturing not only its own line, but putting out mowers under the brand names Scotts and Husquvarna. It also manufactured snowblowers for Lesco.
Ariens brought out new models in all its lines for 2001. A new Ariens mower model ZOOM 2050 was touted as cutting mowing time in half; the Gravely line offered models with enhanced features; and the Stens line of replacement parts included new and improved products. Ariens continued to work on building dealership loyalty to its brands, aiming for them to handle all three lines.
Deere & Co.; The Toro Co.; Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
- Henry and Christine Ariens settle in Brillion and begin operating a foundry in a garage.
- Brillion Iron Works is founded.
- Ariens Co. is founded to market roto-tillers.
- The company debuts its riding mower.
- Ariens first markets a snow thrower.
- The company acquires Gravely.
- Stens Corp. is acquired.
“Ariens Co. Adds Work in Brillion,” Wisconsin State Journal, July 25, 1992.
“Ariens Co. Recalls 40,000 Lawn Mowers,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), March 15, 2001.
“Ariens Co. to Expand at Brillion,” Milwaukee Journal, August 13, 1976.
Babyak, Richard J., “Rewarding Renewal,” Appliance Manufacturer, April 2000, pp. 51–2.
“Gravely to Move Unit to Wisconsin,” Wisconsin State Journal, January 22, 1997.
Remich, Norman C., Jr., “With Solid-State Relay, the Grass Is Greener,” Appliance Manufacturer, October 1996, p. 60.
“Sears, Ariens Pursue Online Appliance Sales,” Appliance Manufacturer, April 1999, p. 17.
“Tractor Line Added by Ariens Acquisition,” Milwaukee Journal, July 6, 1973.