Four Decades Strong

AriensCo is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Chairman and CEO Dan Ariens is also celebrating two anniversaries — 40 years as an employee, and 25 of them as CEO.

Dan Ariens.
For this issue of Out Working, I interviewed my father about this journey. We spoke in a special place, an exhibit at the AriensCo Museum that recreates the garage where Henry Ariens founded the company in 1933.

OW: You have held many roles in your career at AriensCo, how did this prepare you for your current role as CEO?

I believe my diverse work experience, from the assembly line to marketing and sales, has shaped who I am as a leader today. For instance, my time on the assembly line gave me a deep appreciation for the hard work and challenges that come with that kind of job. It’s important to understand this kind of day-after-day commitment if you want to effectively lead people. I learned that there are many different leadership styles, but at the core of all of them is the ability to connect with people. As a leader, you need to be humble and empathetic, but also determined and confident. Ultimately, it’s about understanding what motivates people and then finding ways to work together to achieve shared goals.

OW: What lessons were passed on to you from the previous AriensCo’s generation of leaders and how have those lessons resonated over the past four decades?

My father Mike Ariens was a very empathetic and humble leader. His father, Steve “Mando” Ariens, was a tough and stubborn engineer who was an innovator and inventor. Henry Ariens, who founded AriensCo with his three sons Steve, Leon, and Francis in 1933, deserves a lot of credit. He was in his 60s when he lost his company, Brillion Iron Works, during the Great Depression. Despite this huge setback, he continued to be an entrepreneur. He started AriensCo, and today, we’re sitting in a museum exhibition dedicated to the garage where it all began.

When I think about Henry’s and Mando’s unwavering determination, I am grateful that they didn’t have any safety nets to fall back on. They had to rely on their innovation, creativity and determination to succeed, instead of seeking subsidies or help. These are valuable lessons that have inspired me to never give up. They motivate me to keep pushing forward.

Nicholas Ariens interviews his father, Dan.
OW: How has the company changed since you started working at AriensCo?

We have brands that really matter today. When I started working 40 years ago, we were a tiller manufacturer. We were a rear-engine rider manufacturer. We made garden and yard tractors. We made a snowblower that was really the dominant part of our business — as much as 50% of our total revenue — and that was really risky. We had to make significant changes without letting the snow brand slip.

One of the critical decisions we made was to quit manufacturing tillers, rear-engine riders and tractors, and focus on zero-turn mowers. The zero turn really changed everything. Then we changed our distribution strategy. We went dealer-direct, using the Gravely sales force to take Ariens’ business directly to dealers. This was a huge and risky change at the time. By focusing on zero turn and dealer direct, we were able to focus our engineering resources and manufacturing facilities on fewer things and get good at them. This was one of the most important decisions we have made in 40 years.

OW: Was becoming AriensCo’s CEO a dream goal for you?
Dan, former AriensCo Chairman and CEO Michael S. Ariens, and Peter Ariens.
I didn’t always think of it as a dream goal, but I had a burning passion for this business from a young age. The building we’re currently in used to be our R&D center when I was a kid. I remember trying to persuade my dad to build me a go-kart when I was around eight or ten years old. I eventually convinced some of the guys to build me one on the side, and we would race it around, powered by a little Tecumseh 5-horsepower engine. This experience was incredibly enjoyable and got me hooked on the idea of working in this industry. My grandfather was also a big influence on me. He was always tinkering around with things, and I loved spending time with him. This business may seem trivial to some people, but we serve a purpose. It holds a special place in my heart.

OW: What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen over the 25 years you have been CEO?

Throughout my journey as AriensCo’s leader, I've realized the importance of having talented individuals around me. Upgrading talent has always been a consistent theme for me, and as a result, our company today is much better and smarter than it was 25 years ago. Over this time, we have also made significant changes to our manufacturing processes, moving towards lean production and getting our employees more engaged in designing their own workstations. We also changed our pay system to a merit-based model, which encouraged employees to learn new skills and grow within the company. We’ve come a long way since those early days, and we’re now in a much better position to face the future. Our dealers also have been a huge part of our story, and they have become much smarter and better over the years.

OW: How has the landscaping industry evolved over the last few decades?

The landscaping industry didn’t really exist when AriensCo bought Gravely. Initially, it was a part-time job for firemen, policemen or teachers. But as houses and yards got bigger and two-income families grew, people no longer had time to cut their own grass. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, you had professional gardeners that turned into lawn care services — less gardening, more yard work. That really took off in the 1980s and it continues to grow today. We have two separate billion-dollar landscaping companies in this industry now! It has now become a professional industry with its own growth curve, and I don't see it slowing down anytime soon.

OW: AriensCo’s conservation efforts seem especially close to your heart. Why did you start conservation initiatives at the company’s headquarters and where do you see them going?

We had a lot of underutilized property and we wanted to turn it into something meaningful. One of our employees suggested we name something after my father, who was a runner, and we decided to build the Mike Ariens “Run for Life” Trail. We also wanted to dedicate the land to wildlife habitat and build a prairie with wildflowers and pollinators. This led to a Gold Certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council for the work we have done at Stone Prairie and beyond.

It's been thrilling to see a resurgence of wildlife on the grounds, including an endangered species of bumblebee, families of foxes and coyotes, deer and various bird species. We’ve planted over 20,000 trees and built an oak savanna, an ecosystem also considered endangered. Our employees have been instrumental in the success of this project, and we are expanding it in the near future, building new waterways, planting more trees and cultivating more wildlife. It’s a long-term commitment and will continue for generations to come.

OW: What does this all mean for Brillion?

Henry Ariens started a foundry in Brillion, which made him one of the most important founding fathers of the town. When he lost the foundry, he started AriensCo. The Ariens family grew up in Brillion, and the company grew with the town. AriensCo needs a strong Brillion to thrive, so we're expanding with the Mike Ariens Trail, the Nordic Center, Round Lake Farms, Stone Prairie and other event spaces that bring people into the community. We plan to build apartments, a hotel and other amenities, too. We want to grow the community to 5,000 people and make it run as smartly as our business runs. Housing is our biggest growth challenge and we’re working on it.

OW: What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

DA: My dad Mike was a manufacturing guy. He was an engineer who really gave us a great foundation of manufacturing excellence, and we’ve been able to take it further. I want to leave behind a legacy of exceptional branding. To improve our brand, we need to be more confident in our products and tell our customers how great they are. We've taken the Ariens snow thrower, and the Gravely and Ariens mowers to new heights, and I want to continue to build these brands.

OW: Do you have any favorite memories of the 40 years?

Yes, I have a lot of them. Some of my fondest memories are of dealer summits and being with our customers. Those are learning weekends for our dealers, but they are also a big celebration. We have a lot of fun with our friends, colleagues and our customers. I have been a member of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) board for over 40 years, and during this time, I have many cherished memories of contributing to changes in the industry for the better. One of my proudest achievements was merging two trade shows into one, which resulted in the show becoming one of the top eight in the country. I believe that this has helped to fund the industry's efforts to develop regulatory and safety standards.

Apart from those, I have numerous great memories of attending trade shows and dealer summits with my family and kids. These experiences span over 60 years, from my childhood, accompanying my father and grandfather on their business trips, to my children joining me at trade shows. It has been a tremendous journey. 

By Nicholas Ariens

12/01/2023 | Four Decades Strong

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