When Stephen Foster Briggs and Harold Mead Stratton partnered to mass produce their first product, a two-cycle six cylinder auto engine in 1908, they launched a journey that took this American icon through generations of manufacturing in the heartland, heartbreak and hope, big technology, and workforce challenges, until, over one hundred years and several transformations later, a new company emerged.
Along the way Briggs & Stratton Corp. (IW 500/401) transitioned to make ordnance fuse caps and ignition switches that helped fight World War II, and followed up wartime production with lawn and garden products to satisfy America’s move to suburbia. Starting in the 70s the company woke up to foreign competition as it struggled to maintain low-cost leadership amidst union wage pressures.
This is the story of how the company's leadership attacked the challenges of a changing economic landscape.
A Glance Back to a Frightening and Uncertain Future
In 1983, as a Rath and Strong consultant in the Planning and Inventory Control Systems division under Romey Everdell, I was called to the Briggs & Stratton Milwaukee operations to take a look at the systems that ran purchasing and production. Milwaukee itself was a sprawling, dark, noisy manufacturing complex that demonstrated the power of heartland production driven by massive machines, complex assembly, and parts –- thousands upon thousands of parts deposited on lines, in warehouses, crates, bins, and rusty piles. This was high-volume, repetitive manufacturing at its best -- and worst -- a thrill and a puzzle to observe; an incredible opportunity whose time had not yet come.
This was high-volume, repetitive manufacturing at its best -- and worst -- a thrill and a puzzle to observe...
I wanted to get a handle on production rates, and a carburetor assembly line was a good place to start. From there I swung back to green ledger sheets that tallied total engine builds, and then dove into the MRP system from which there was no return. Along the way I spoke with piece workers and expeditors; eventually some engineers noticed our presence, and that’s when "IT" happened.
A guy in a white shirt sidled over to me one afternoon just after lunch break. “I’ve got something to show you,” he whispered, as he hustled me along toward a small room.
The windows were papered over, and I wondered what was so secret. Inside two other engineers waited, one in a white shirt, the other in a dark polo. And resting on a low platform in the center of the room was a competitor’s engine, cracked open to expose its guts, the machining and the shiny aluminum curves.
The white shirt guy stood back and motioned me closer. His eyes were wide with what I recognized as outright fear, but he wanted me to see and understand what this new mystery meant, what we were all seeing laid open in front of us -- a frightening and uncertain, terrible future.
"Look at it,” he whispered. “Look at it. We can’t make this. It’s light but it’s got these incredible turns.”
Polo-shirt guy turned the pieces over, and then carefully repositioned the sections back together, and in silence we all filed out, simple as that.
his and still more challenges called for hard decisions. Also in 1983, the company was stalled by an AIW strike lasting from spring until October. Fred Stratton, according to The Legend of Briggs & Stratton by Jeffrey L. Rodengen (Write Stuff Syndicate, 1995), vowed that never again would he allow the company to be paralyzed by such a strike.
“I decided during that strike that it was ridiculous to have all our manufacturing operations shut down by a strike," Stratton is quoted as saying. "I decided somewhere in the middle of that strike that it would be the last time it would happen.” (page 146)
With that statement began two decades’ of plant relocations, acquisitions and global growth. The company now boasts a workforce of 6,300 employees in many countries producing a new, enlarged portfolio of energy products, including generators, power washers and zero-turn radius commercial mowers, in addition to its iconic engines.
Fast-Forward to the Present
ome thirty years after consulting with Briggs and Stratton on their purchasing and planning systems, I returned to speak with company leaders -- Chairman, President & CEO Todd Teske; SVP and President of the Engines Group Joe Wright; VP of Innovation Jeffrey Zeiler; VP of Supply Management Ed Bednar; and Milwaukee Plant Manager Pete Steinke. I also took the opportunity to tour the Milwaukee plant and to speak with current employees, one of whom joined Briggs just as the big offshore challenges arose.
Touring the Briggs’ site in Milwaukee was a shocking experience -– the parking lot (where I discovered it was not safe to be standing still when first shift let out) is much smaller, the land now partially taken up by a Lowe’s and an Office Max.
The place has a more “corporate look” –- there’s a Briggs & Stratton museum, a renovated cafeteria with a variety of fresh choices, and an elegant lobby that is plush and quiet.
Still, out on the remaining production floor a visitor hears the same thump-thump of the massive press. The brick floors have been painted black with yellow lines and the air is easier to breathe. The incredible rusted piles of crankshafts and the carburetor assembly lines that I wrote about -- the piecework -- are gone.
“We’re still well over 1 million square feet," Teske says. "We sold off other existing foundries in 1997 and 2000, and we opened new engine plants in the South.”
“The big plant where we made all of the engines has changed. Now we make engine components and generators there, but we reconfigured the building, knocked part of it down, and sold off some of the land.”
Now, despite a comfortable cash position, a stock buy-back and completion of inventory and plant and equipment restructuring, the company, like Noah, remains “seasonally challenged.” When droughts or floods disrupt the growing season, the business impact is immediate and requires a high level of responsiveness from this mature giant.
We used to be an engine business, but now we’re a power equipment business.
-- Todd Teske, CEO, Briggs & Stratton
Cranking out high volumes of its iconic engines –- 11 million in total, of which 9 million are produced in the U.S. –- Briggs has added new products and new plants to its portfolio.
Last year’s new product offerings included quieter mowers, new push button starters and new suspension technology on its Simplicity branded riding lawn mowers. It’s all part of the innovation strategy that has transformed this Milwaukee company from a dominant high-volume producer of engines to a global enterprise with operations in multiple countries.
"Briggs and Stratton is a dramatically different company compared with the operations you saw in 1983,” said Teske, who has been with the company 18 years, having also come, like his predecessor John Shiely, from Arthur Andersen. “We re-made the business." In fact, the company has been infused with Arthur Andersen veterans whose financial expertise has served them well.
Teske declares: “We used to be an engine business, but now we’re a power equipment business. It’s a diversification and a bit of transformation along the way. We’re thinking about the entire piece of equipment now.”