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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 17, 2015 6 years ago

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Sarlo Power Mowers manufactures rugged mowers that have helped drive the company's success for 80 years. It also adheres to some basic business principles.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

At an anniversary party Sarlo Power Mowers hosted in May in its Fort Myers headquarters, it embarked on a mission to find out who owned the oldest Sarlo mower.
A North Fort Myers couple came in with a mower that's more than 50 years old and still runs perfectly.
That shouldn't be a surprise: After 80 years in business, the company is the oldest lawn mower manufacturer in the country under single ownership. Sarlo mowers are renowned for their durability and craftsmanship, which is a big reason why customers like the Florida Department of Corrections uses hundreds of the machines for prisoner work on roadways. Sarlo is engine maker Briggs and Stratton's oldest continuous customer.

“Our mowers fall into the definition of a niche,” says Tony Sarlo, the company president and the third generation of Sarlos to run the company.

That niche, says Sarlo, has put the company in good shape since the end of the recession. He says the manufacturing side of the business has rebounded, and the last two months have been the best in the company's history. Sarlo declines to share financial information or employee counts for competitive reasons.

The keys to the recent success are to follow some bedrock business principles, such as diversified product lines, keep down debt and a hyper-focus on quality.

In addition to a manufacturing plant in Fort Myers, for example, Sarlo operates three retail outlets in Southwest Florida that service and sell mowers and other lawn equipment and tools. The company diversified into retail locations in Bonita Springs and Naples during the downturn in 2008 and 2009, acquiring the locations of other lawn-equipment dealers that were going out of business. “We were contrary,” Sarlo acknowledges.

Sarlo also paid off debt before going into the downturn, a decision the family made a decade earlier. “It kept the company alive,” says Sarlo, who remembers the exact date he took the last check to the bank: Feb. 13, 2009.

On quality, Sarlo went on an exploratory mission to China in 2003 to source parts. But he decided against it because of the quality, control and high costs to ship and carry the inventory for 90 days while in transit. “Boy, I'm really glad we didn't go in that direction,” he says, noting he wouldn't have been able to fill a recent state corrections contract for 500 mowers in 45 days if production took place overseas.

In addition, the mower's made-in-the-U.S.A. label is attractive for many customers. It separates Sarlo from overseas competition, which has already copied the Sarlo big-wheel mowers with inferior parts that can't be replaced.

Sarlo mowers cost from $499 to $1,700. Besides its own brand, Sarlo also sells SnapperPro and Ferris brands of commercial mowers. Customers include individuals, commercial landscapers and government agencies. “They don't want to purchase a throw-away mower,” Sarlo says.

Sarlo plans to introduce a new prototype hydraulic-powered mower at the annual industry expo in Louisville, Ky. later this year. The company is a true manufacturer. “We start with a raw piece of steel,” Sarlo says.

There are other Sarlos in the business. They include Tony's wife Eloise Sarlo, who handles accounting, his brother Joe Sarlo, who manages retail sales in Bonita Springs, and Tony's two children, Michael, 27, and Mark, 32, who work in the Naples and Fort Myers stores. “All of us can fill in,” Sarlo says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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