OPEI President Kris Kiser discusses the changes coming to the lawn and garden industry.
The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) is an international trade association that acts as a voice for the industry, representing power equipment, engine and utility vehicle manufacturers and suppliers. Since 2007, OPEI President and CEO Kris Kiser has led the organization that focuses on a wide range of activities, including the development of safety standards, industry advocacy, and most recently, teaching.
Kiser has helped grow OPEI's influence in the industry and often acts as its bellwether, keeping an eye on the trends that will come to define the industry, helping it prepare for changing socio-economic landscapes.
Out Working sat down with Mr. Kiser to talk about the current state of the outdoor power equipment industry, some of the challenges it faces and where it's heading. The wide-ranging interview hit on such subjects as battery and electric technologies and diversifying power sources, the changing face of environmentalism, generational shifts in the market and a cartoon superhero dog named TurfMutt.
Out Working: What are some of the driving forces behind the OPEI?
KRIS KISER: We're a trade organization that has been around in some capacity for more than 70 years, representing the interests of power equipment manufacturers and suppliers. We advocate for the industry in front of legislative and regulatory bodies, both in Washington D.C., the states and with our affiliate in Canada. We also develop national safety standards for a wide range of equipment.
A big part of what we do is collect data as part of our market statistics program. We collect monthly shipment data from members and report that back out. We work with an economist who uses that data, as well as other information, to report regularly on the state of the industry and the trends that are shaping it. This is one of the key benefits for our members.
We also are active in the education space. Our TurfMutt education platform is partnered with Scholastic, the world's largest education curriculum developer, to provide education materials to teachers across the country. Furthermore, TurfMutt is an education partner in the Global Learning Lab of the U.S. Green Building Council. And for four years, TurfMutt has sponsored Saturday morning education and information programming on network television to highlight the importance of the managed living landscape to pets and families—three seasons on CBS’s "Lucky Dog," and this year on "Ready, Set, Pet" on the CW.
OPEI also is the managing partner of the GIE+EXPO, which is the largest industry trade show in North America. We bring about 24,000 people to Louisville, Kentucky, every October to see the latest innovations in outdoor living and equipment.
OW: GIE+Expo has drastically changed over the years. What has that been like and what's in store for the show?
KK: When the show first started more than 30 years ago, it was mainly a selling show. Buyers and dealers would come to see what equipment they wanted in their stores. However, big box stores and the internet changed how homeowners and contractors buy equipment. Now, thanks to our partnership with Hardscape North America, the show focuses on outdoor living and equipment.
GIE+EXPO showcases product evolutions and product offerings. For example, we've seen the evolution of the zero-turn mower and its myriad iterations debuting and being showcased at the trade show. We're also seeing a vast array of battery and electric products, as well as robotic and remote-controlled equipment. Walking the show floor, you can see the latest developments in all segments of equipment across a range of areas, including safety, ergonomics and power sources.
OW: How will alternative fuel sources shape the industry?
KK: Increasing emissions regulations are driving a shift toward new energy sources and technologies. We’re also seeing challenges to reduce noise, especially around hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. To that end, manufacturers are responding to produce the quietest machines possible.
California is a market disruptor in this space because the state's ongoing regulatory restrictions are putting significant pressure on the use of internal combustion engines. This will likely result in diverse power source product offerings in the state. Like the auto industry, California’s regulations in the space are likely to affect regulations in the national marketplace.
As with any power supply, there will be challenges with battery technology and use. They can be limited in their lifecycle, and variable situations, such as steep slopes, thick grass, wet conditions and extreme temperatures can influence performance. Lithium battery technology has seen broad acceptance in the marketplace and is now used across a wide range of products and applications. These will include new battery product offerings, and we’ll likely see battery technology evolve, including solid state, and other future products to address regulatory concerns and market conditions. Our members are innovators, and they produce equipment that lets consumers pick their power, giving them options across the board.
OW: What is one challenge that the industry is facing that it can't control?
KK: Ongoing urbanization. In just three decades, some 70 percent of people will live in cities. Millennials will help drive this change. Many of them want to live in the city and have the flexibility of renting and being able to move more frequently. It's not as important for a lot of them to have a yard. So we continue to promote the managed, living landscape as a useful, safe place for families and pets. We're seeing increased attention paid to the benefits of the living landscape from the medical community. Doctors are now encouraging their patients to spend time in nature to help address problems with anxiety, blood pressure and other ailments.
OW: Another trend is that people have started replacing their lawns with AstroTurf to reduce upkeep and maintain an appealing aesthetic. What effect does this have on the environment?
KK: This is a real problem, and as far as an environmental solution, it's baloney. This issue was significant in California as a drought response. The government and a lot of homeowners spent a good deal of money ripping out natural lawns and replacing them with plastic ones. First, it gets dirty and people want to clean it, so they ended up using water anyway. Second, it likely isn't permeable. This can lead to bacterial growth and turn the plastic grass into a Petri dish. And when the rains came, as they always do, there were significant problems with runoff that wound up causing mudslides and further destruction to the landscape. The living landscape slows and reduces runoff. And finally, these micro-plastic pellets wash away and into the drainage system. When the water goes through a filtration system some of these microscopic pieces of plastic get through. So now we have people drinking bits of plastic.
OW: The OPEI has been in the industry a long time and so has AriensCo. What has AriensCo meant to the OPEI and the industry as a whole?
KK: The two organizations go way back, and AriensCo has been involved with the OPEI almost since its inception. Only one company has had three different board chairmen with the same last name: AriensCo, with Steve, Mike and Dan Ariens.
Dan is the only person to serve three terms as board chairman and has overseen significant milestones for OPEI during his tenure: our membership has grown significantly, we purchased a new headquarters building, initiated the TurfMutt education platform, established OPEI Canada, and created GIE+EXPO by merging two existing shows.
For a long time OPEI and AriensCo have been connected and working together, and the company has long been a strong supporter of OPEI and the industry.
OW: Dan Ariens was one of the leaders who was willing to test out the TV program. What is the purpose of Turf Mutt and what value does it provide kids?
KK: Dan was instrumental in the creation of the TurfMutt education program, which began in 2009 as a pilot program in Sacramento schools to teach kids about the role the living landscape plays in their lives. It soon grew into a nationwide platform through partnerships with Weekly Reader, Discovery Education and now, Scholastic.
For the past decade, TurfMutt has been educating people about how the living landscape provides habitat for pollinators and wildlife, cools the air, produces oxygen, captures runoff and sequesters carbon. Through our work with Scholastic, TurfMutt has reached more than 68 million students, teachers and families.
Today, TurfMutt is a partner in the U.S. Green Building Council, and the program's curriculum is featured in the USGBC Global Learning Lab. TurfMutt is also featured on the websites of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and the Center for Green Schools.
The TurfMutt platform has taught people the idea that the living landscape, and especially a yard, is a valuable asset for them, their pets and their families. It's a defense against those who would seek to convince homeowners that a yard full of stone or mulch is preferable to one with grass, trees and flowering plants. And as anyone in the green industry knows—just like a dog—your yard is a great place to play.