Lawn mower man
Fort Wayne designer making reel progress

June 2, 2003
Section: SCI-TECH

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 said.
    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 a pond.
    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, Short said.
    "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 responsibility.
    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 Pro Mow.
    "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 years."
    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 magazine.
    "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.

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