Fort Wayne designer making reel progress
June 2, 2003
by Sherry Slater
The Journal Gazette
Pro Mow Reel Mower System's products address
a trifecta of consumer concerns - time, money and the environment
- by saving all three, the Fort Wayne-based company claims. Not
only that, boasts Chief Executive Officer Douglas Short, they leave
a lush and level lawn.
"This is actually a revolution in the lawn mowing industry," he
Some satisfied customers agree.
"I never believed a mower could make that big a difference
in the look of a yard," said Jeb Bartley, father of two sons who play soccer
in Leo-Cedarville's soccer league.
Short holds three patents - and has two more pending - on
technology that harkens back to the type of reel mower your granddad probably
stored in the corner of his garage.
That non-motorized mower was heavy, because it needed to hug
the ground. Short came up with a lightweight frame that uses leverage to keep
the blades from bouncing and allows the mowers to cut a much wider swath but
remain light enough to pull easily with a small riding mower or even a golf cart.
"The basic design has been around for 100 years," he said. "What
we invented was the creation of down force. You don't sit around and think about
down force. It's something you've got to find."
Down force is not another term for gravity but a way of magnifying
gravity, Short said.
His patented frame staggers three to seven 2-foot-wide cylindrical reel blade
mowers in two overlapping rows - creating what's called a gang mower. The flexible
format allows each reel to rise and fall with an uneven terrain. The outer rear
mowers can even hang down and cut a steep incline, such as the bank surrounding
No other company can legally structure reel mowers in the
same way. Pro Mow - and a battery of lawyers - successfully defended the design
in court in a case that solidified the company's patent, Short said.
Reel mowers, in general, require less energy and provide a
superior cut to rotary mowers because they use the scissor-like action of two
blades coming together rather than the hacking, machete-like action of a horizontally
spinning rotary blade, Short said.
Pro Mow's wider cutting deck allows its 136-inch model to
cut a five-acre lawn in one hour, compared to the six hours it typically takes
with a garden tractor, which generally has a 48-inch to 60-inch cutting deck,
"People buy this for time," he said. "I mow my grass - just
about half an acre - with this. It takes 10 minutes."
But green counts, too - in the form of dollars and environmental
Pro Mow mowers use 75 percent less energy than rotary mowers
to cut the same size area, Short said. That translates to less gasoline bought
and burned, creating fewer emissions.
That last point is especially important in states such as
California, where smog often reaches dangerous levels.
Thick, thriving grass also leaves little room for weeds to
take root, lessening the need for herbicides, Short said.
The company ships its mowers to residential and professional
customers - such as schools, prisons and golf courses - in 17 countries, including
Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, France and Honduras.
Stateside, Texas and other places where grass is cut nearly
year-round are big Pro Mow markets, Short said.
Closer to home, Snider High School and Bethel College use
"I've been doing research and development for them for three
years, and I beat their stuff into the ground," said Chris Kaehr, groundskeeper
at Bethel College. "I probably mow in a year what a homeowner would mow in 20
For the past seven years, Kaehr has been cutting 24 acres
a week on the Mishawaka campus with five reels. He hones the edge of the blades
once a year by rubbing them with a compound and running them backward against
the bed knife, a stationary blade that's part of each mowing unit.
"For the money, you can't go wrong buying (a Pro Mow)," he
said. "If you have an acre or bigger yard and it's smooth, you should buy one."
Bartley joined parents and coaches in Leo-Cedarville to buy
a seven-reel mower that is owned by the soccer league. They'll use it to mow
three fields, including those at Leo High School and Leo Middle School.
"We did a lot of research on it" before ordering the system
two weeks ago, he said. "It's amazing how different it makes your yard look -
especially (athletic) fields."
Short is looking to build the business into an attractive
acquisition for a competitor such as The Toro Co., the leading lawn mower maker.
"Anything but the wife and kids is for sale," he said, smiling.
With that someday in mind, he won't release sales or revenue
figures. He thinks it might hamper negotiations. But Short did say that the seven-year-old
company grew its sales about 100 percent in 2002 and sold more than 100 mowers
in a recent two-week period.
"I remember the day when if we sold just a couple a week,
we thought we were hot stuff," he said.
While Toro has yet to come calling, national media have taken
notice. Pro Mow's Model 501 is reviewed in the June issue of Popular Mechanics
"If you have a lot of relatively flat property and it's covered
primarily with grass and you like the grass mowed low, then this mower is worth
considering," Steve Willson wrote.
Pro Mow's products range in price from about $800 for a 49-inchwide
model to about $3,600 for a 136-inch gang mower.
"We've actually got a mower and a price for about any lawn," said
Merle Short, Pro Mow president and Douglas' uncle.
Merle conceded Popular Mechanics' point, however, that Pro
Mow's best performance is on lawns that are cut close and often. Tall weeds tend
to be bent by the blades rather than cut, he said.
Bethel College's Kaehr has experienced the problem.
"If the dandelion gets really, really tall, then the bed knife
just lays the dandelion down, and it misses it all together," he said. "When
I'm coming up on the dandelions that are tall, I just slow down a bit and it
usually cuts them."
Douglas Short, who developed his mower after years of trial
and error, has two patents pending for unique technology he plans to roll out
in stages over the next few years. As he awaits final approval, he's keeping
the details under wraps.
"This is not a cheap process, by any means, or for the faint
of heart," he said of pursuing a patent.
While Short is the designer, his Uncle Merle is the one who
has translated the concepts into reality.
"Having an idea and making it work are two very different
things," Doug Short said. "Merle is very mechanical. After 40 years as a farmer,
he knows how to get something to tilt or lever."
No matter how revolutionary the design, sales don't happen
unless potential customers learn about the product, however.
To date, Pro Mow's advertising budget has been nearly non-existent.
The company has reached out to consumers primarily by attracting the curiosity
of their customers' neighbors, who tend to wander over and ask about the mowers.
Pro Mow pays $50 for referrals.
"People who have a need immediately know what it is and what
it does. It's very visual," Doug Short said. "If they have a need, they spend
six hours a week thinking there must be a better way."
The company does some targeted marketing, however. It dispatches
representatives to annual international soccer conferences to demonstrate its
reel mower system, which can be shipped directly to customers' homes or businesses
and doesn't require a mechanic to assemble.
Pro Mow has flirted with more traditional advertising. The
company taped a commercial that's been run on some California cable stations,
but it's shown only by those cable companies willing to air the spots in exchange
for a percentage of the sales.
"I don't think we've ever paid for a TV ad," Short said.