This grandpappy of zero-turn mowers, shown here with Adam Mullet, is still servicable 50 years later. It was on display at the Hustler booth at the GIE+EXPO.
Photo by Ron Hall.

Kansas figures huge in the development and growth of commercial mowing. Kansas is the birthplace of the development of the first commercial zero-turn mower and it’s home to manufacturing companies pioneering the technology: Excel Industries (Hustler), Grasshopper and Dixon. Kansas is also where the Walker family of Walker Mowers got its start in manufacturing. (That family business, after a sojourn in Wyoming, moved to Ft. Collins, Colo., in 1974.)

The development and the innovations associated with the zero-turn mower initially came from the efforts of (for want of a better phrase) handy committed tinkerers. They drew heavily upon their knowledge of farm machinery, and often adapted agricultural components in a trial-and-error process to build their first units.

That was the process in the beginning. Today, of course, the process is more sophisticated given the advances in engineering, in precision manufacturing and in a supply chain dedicated specifically to the commercial mowing market.

The Mullet family of Excel Industries has been a part of the development of zero-turn mowing from the beginning. Roy Mullet and his brothers founded Excel Industries and soon-thereafter began producing the first commercial zero-turn mowers. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Hustler mowers.

Roy guided the company as president until 1985. His son, Paul, became president in 1991 after coming up through the ranks, starting as a welder. Paul remains president and his son, Adam, is the firm’s director of marketing.

Q: Hesston, Kan., is a farming small community with about 3,700 people. How did one of the world’s biggest commercial mower manufacturers end up there?

Adam Mullett: At the time Roy’s five sons needed to start school, eastern Montana was not ideal. The closest high school was 25 miles away that, combined with the harsh winters, made him look for options. Since he was only into grain farming and not into livestock, it allowed them the flexibility to farm in the summer and live elsewhere in the winter. Hesston was a small attractive Mennonite community. After moving the family for the winters, Roy attended Hesston College. One of his professors there approached him about investing in a local aftermarket cab manufacturing company. Roy became the largest single investor along with several of his brothers. In 1961, just one year after making the investment in the cab company (cabs for agricultural combines and tractors), Excel Industries was formed and Roy became president.

Q: How does John Regier figure into the company’s history and resulting growth?

A: John Regier was the original inventor of the Hustler 36, a 36-inch mower. He was looking for a better and faster way to get his yard mowed. As he couldn’t find anything that he liked, he relied upon some old-fashioned farmer thinking – he made one. His original design was all belt-driven and was relatively small compared to today’s commercial mowers. He had a mower but not a name for it. One day while flipping through the pages of a magazine he saw an article about the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber. Now he had a name for his mower. After realizing the challenges of manufacturing and selling a product by himself he showed the product to Roy and others at Excel Industries. They immediately saw the mower’s potential.

In 1964, the company became the first manufacturer of zero-turn mowers in the world. The first model was the Hustler 36, a 36-inch front-mount mower. At the time the sale price was $1,000, or roughly half the price of a new car. It was then deemed that the commercial market was the only viable one at the time. The direction turned to larger machines designed for the commercial and the industrial markets.

Q: What significant innovations has Excel Industries developed and implemented to commercial mowers since it began manufacturing mowers?

A: There have been many. After the first zero-turn mower, Excel was the first manufacturer to make the hydrostatic zero-turn, the hillside zero-turn with auto-leveling cab, the first wide-area zero-turn, first rear-discharge mid-mount zero-turn, the first all-wheel-drive zero-turn, the first mid-mount zero-turn with toolbar for multiple attachments, the first high-lift dump catcher on a zero-turn, the first combination sit-down and stand-up zero-turn, the first electric zero-turn, and the first zero-turn with a five-year, 3,000-hour pump and motor warranty, the Super Z with an industry-exclusive Hyperdrive. And recently, Hustler introduced the first mid-mount, air-cooled, wide-area zero-turn, the Super 104 that is 45 percent more productive than a 72-inch Z.

Q: How does Excel view the commercial mowing market and demand for commercial mowers in 2014? United States? International?

A: The U.S. market for commercial mowers commercial market is expected to grow in 2014. Export markets continue to recover from 2009 and grow. In addition to the United States we are in 25 other countries.

Q: What trends is Hustler seeing in the commercial mowing market?

A: A growing concern for commercial customers continues to be fuel consumption. It is the single biggest cost over the life of the product; it’s bigger than the purchase price. Related to that, contractors are demanding mowers with more power, more horsepower. They want more speed; they want to be more productive. Today, a 999cc engine is common, but bigger engines burn more fuel. Also, some hydro systems and decks use more power than others. We’re responding by seeking more fuel-efficiency in the engines on our Hustler models, but also making the machines more efficient, as well.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine and has been an editor, researcher and writer in the green industry for more than 29 years. Contact him at [email protected].