It would be excusable to look from the outside at Hayter and think that nothing much has changed, but that view could not be further from the truth.
PETER BRITTON talks to DAVID STURGES about changes at their Bishop's Stortford headquarters
Over the past decade, ownership of Hayter has changed from a US based conglomerate that included firearms manufacturers Smith & Wesson in its portfolio, to a Chinese investment company and, more recently, The Toro Company. During these turbulent years, Hayter lost key staff who were well known and respected in the industry. Filling the gaps left would not have been easy. In true Hayter style though, a new MD was appointed in Derek Boulton and promotions from within ensured a smooth transition of responsibilities.
David Sturges, Sales & Marketing Director explained that it is the latest ownership by Toro that has brought about significant change for Hayter. "Our previous owners saw Hayter purely as a money making exercise. Therefore, our hands were somewhat tied when it came to investing in new models and manufacturing equipment. With Toro this has all changed."
As one of the most respected manufacturers of golf course and landscape maintenance equipment, Toro saw Hayter as the ideal partnership for their range, offering them an immediate share of the Amenity Turf market that their main competitors, John Deere and Ransomes Jacobsen, already had a strong foothold in.
Investment in Hayter has, to date, been impressive. New robotic welding equipment, a laser cutter and a modern paint plant have been installed at the factory in Bishop's Stortford. This has enabled Hayter to streamline their manufacturing processes by improving further their 'just in time' production. Developments to the CAD design systems have also been installed and this is linked to the production line.
"We maintain a staff of around 200," said David. "In the past it was often difficult to find new staff but, with the introduction of more mechanised processes, it has opened up the production line to women employees."
"We operate an annualised hours system for our factory employees. At busy times of the year, like now for instance, our employees will work longer hours to ensure that production targets are met. As production tales off in the summer the employees work less hours benefiting both the company and employees."
David's engineering background means that he is well respected on the factory floor and he keeps himself up-to-date with the latest manufacturing processes. "Even though I am now in Sales & Marketing I still find it fascinating how a collection of components made from raw materials ends up as the final product."
I asked David what the significant changes have been since the Toro purchase. "Toro have a more active involvement in our business than previous owners, as you would expect," said David. "The immediate investment in new products and production equipment has been extremely welcome. We have also converted over to a new SAP computer system to be compatible with the rest of the Toro organisation. We have also started to look at other areas such as joint sourcing of components and future product development opportunities."
"There have already been some product changes since the acquisition. For example, we no longer manufacture the FM524 Fairway Mower. In addition, the products that we supply to continental Europe are now in Toro livery and are supplied through Toro distribution. We will continue to add more Toro manufactured products to the range that are specific to the local authority/contractor market place. These already include a ride-on Zero Turn Rotary and a 21" Pedestrian Rotary."
Did the company's non-appearance at the IOG and BIGGA shows have any significant impact on sales? "I don't believe so," said David. "The case for Hayter and the other major machinery suppliers to exhibit at two major turfcare shows in the UK every year does not stack up. We are working with the two organisations to find a solution that works for all parties. I do find the proposed merger interesting and hope that common sense will prevail."
So how are the figures stacking up? "2006 was a difficult year for every company in the consumer industry as the dry weather virtually put a halt to mower sales. Hayter were no exception. But that's nothing new in a weather-affected industry like garden machinery. Fortunately, to counter balance that, sales of our commercial products were really buoyant. All in all Hayter are in a strong position."
There was one final announcement that David had to make and that was the acquisition by Hayter of the Allen Hover Mower business from APEL Holdings. "This is an exciting addition to the company as it fits extremely well with both our commercial and consumer businesses."
So, as you arrive at Spellbrook on the outskirts of Bishop's Stortford nothing appears to have changed. The old bicycle shed is still standing and the staff canteen still serves up good wholesome food. It is only when you step inside that you see, and feel, a change in this very British of companies.