On a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, Burke’s Outdoor Equipment (Burke’s) celebrated one of the strongest business runs the company had seen since launching out of a garage in 1963. Over a thousand local Hoosiers came out to experience the grand reopening of Burke’s, getting a first glimpse of the company’s brand-new building in Valparaiso, Indiana.
It was a milestone moment for Dave and Nadine Brown, who purchased the company in January 2020 and set it on a path for three years of unabated growth. Thanks to new digital advertising strategies, workforce development and business modernization efforts, Burke’s was able to capitalize on surging population demographics in its region and dramatically increase its revenue.
The new Burke’s facility signals that the company has a proven history of success and is well-posed for future growth. Its revenue is approaching $4 million and is expected to continue on an upward trajectory.
“Since re-opening Burke’s doors, the amount of business has skyrocketed,” said Dave Brown, president of Burke’s. “Our relaunch was covered by multiple local news channels and a radio station. There were in-store equipment sales, and we even gave away a brand-new Ariens mower to one lucky customer. Since that day in April, we tend to roughly 100 customers every day, ready to either purchase their first piece of equipment from Burke’s or continue their business with us.”
Burke’s serves a diverse customer base around Valparaiso, which in some ways is a suburb of Chicago. It includes homeowners, churches, municipalities and professional landscaping companies. The dealership exclusively sells Ariens and Gravely zero-turn mowers (as of 2019) and offers a wide variety of other products, including handheld equipment, snow equipment and lawn care machines.
“Burke’s made the switch to selling solely AriensCo equipment from a service perspective because it’s easier for mechanics to focus on a single brand of high-quality equipment,” Brown said. “The heart and soul of our business today is Ariens and Gravely products, and we don’t see that changing.”
Brown comes from a background in commercial real estate, an industry that thrives on working with small business owners. In fact, Brown and his wife were looking for real estate opportunities when they came across Burke’s. The company had already been in business for nearly 60 years when Brown took the helm, and it was well known for its focus on excellent customer service.
“We were searching for market opportunities from a real estate perspective and opportunities to invest in businesses that were well established, and that’s when we came across Burke’s,” Brown said. “We did our due diligence on the company from a financial, product and operational perspective, and we were impressed to learn that it was a solidly built business.”
Brown’s real estate experience also taught him one of the golden rules for a brick-and-mortar business — location, location, location. He viewed Burke’s as a strategic investment in a rapidly growing region of northwest Indiana.
“The market was beginning to explode, as dozens of people in their early 20s and 30s were relocating to the area. Each day, nearly 80,000 cars pass the highway that is located only 40 yards from the facility’s front door. It has been our best investment to date,” he said.
The timing was great. Brown acquired the company just before the pandemic began, and in April 2020, sales began to skyrocket. The business grew 35% in 2020 and rose another 35% in 2021. But this scenario wouldn’t last forever. Brown knew the business needed to be strategic to continue to grow.
Brown says achieving the “next big thing” in a marketplace requires careful, strategic thinking.
“If you want to expand, begin by evaluating your facilities and reimagining your business. That is critical for future success,” he explained.
Building on its core foundation — renowned products and excellent customer service — Brown sought to modernize Burke’s. The company first focused on staff development and new hiring strategies to ensure it had a team that could position the company to grow.
“Burke’s added five new team members to ensure the facility was adequately staffed,” Brown said. “We wanted to bring in new talent. We placed a hiring ad banner outside the facility while it was under construction, and word quickly spread about the new facility throughout our region, bringing in new mechanical expertise.”
The new Burke’s now has roughly 10 employees and adds up to five more during the busy season.
He added that maintaining a well-equipped and climate-controlled service shop is key to attracting top-tier talent. Burke’s ensures its team members are well-trained, understanding the ins and outs of the company’s product lines and how to sell against competing brands.
Employees are also required to complete online training through Ariens Academy, which furthers their sales knowledge and enables mechanics to be proficient in repairing Burke’s equipment.
With a solid team in place, Burke’s focused on its next step to streamline the company: digitalization. The business was still operating old-school in 2020, issuing handwritten tickets to customers and focusing advertising efforts on the Yellow Pages. Brown immediately digitized the business — in terms of advertising and company operations.
Brown was able to more effectively communicate and reach a wider range of people who consistently utilized popular, varied social media platforms, in turn, growing its customer base. Burke’s turned away from handwritten customer tickets and implemented a POS (point of sale) system that enabled the business to accept customer payments and track sales digitally.
For advertising, the company launched a new website, added social media channels that included Facebook and Instagram, started radio advertising and began strategically sending text blasts to customers. The text blasts are primarily used to promote equipment and sales but are also used for service specials and dealership events, like the grand re-opening of Burke’s.
Through these combined efforts, the company succeeded in welcoming a new, younger generation of customers, all while carefully tending to its original, loyal customers, ensuring they remain satisfied, too. “Burke’s continues to develop and grow, and a large part of that begins and ends with our customer base. It’s exciting working with such a diverse crowd and meeting so many different types of people who are interested in equipment that our facility has to offer,” Brown said.
Brown realized there were other opportunities to grow and improve. He and his wife wanted to build something grand, and he had a vision.
“We wanted to consolidate our operations into an eye-catching new facility that would draw attention. We envisioned the building to be open and airy, with a beautiful glass storefront that stood out to everyone that drove by. We used a primary red color that turns heads without being tacky,” Brown explained.
A state-of-the-art 22,000+ square-foot building was constructed, equipped with a full in-store parts and service center. Ariens and Gravely mowers, as well as Ariens SnoThro models, are on display in its large showroom.
Burke’s also added products that it didn’t traditionally carry but would augment its offerings in new and appealing ways. This included well-known ranges of coolers and grills. Brown said that adding the products is very important to the success of the business. By strategically enhancing successful equipment lines and introducing new products that fit the evolving customer base, brand awareness and product demand increase.
“We aren’t looking to compete with big box retailers by implementing new product lines. Rather, we want to reaffirm our customers’ high opinions of our products, offering innovative and upscale products that match the quality of what you see with the rest of the AriensCo products. The goal is to keep up to date with the current wants and needs of our marketplace and provide an overall better experience at Burke’s.”
Brown has strong reason to believe that by operating out of a new and improved building and expanding the company’s product offerings, the customer base will continue to grow, particularly with younger generations.
All of these changes at Burke’s are helping the company reach new levels of success. Brown is happy to report that the support of AriensCo has been a contributing factor, too. The Burke and Ariens families worked together for decades before the Browns took over. He said a positive relationship has also developed with his family.
“The people at AriensCo are very down to earth but have a competitive drive. It is a company that wants to win,” he explained. “Make no mistake, we’ve invested in Burke’s in the same way. We strive to be winners in our market, too.”