Last July, Exmark Manufacturing announced Judy Altmaier as its vice president and general manager. She replaced Rick Olson, who took over as vice president of international business for Exmark’s parent, Toro. After decades of running global operations for Eaton Corp., and a four-year stint at Big Red in Minnesota as vice president of operations, she moved down to Nebraska and into the top spot at Exmark.
We caught up with Atlmaier to discuss what she’s learned in the last 12 months in the GM’s seat, where she sees the mower market moving and why the company has to make so many different kinds of equipment. – Chuck Bowen
Lawn & Landscape: Tell me about your first year in this position. What surprised you the most in the past 12 months?
Judy Altmaier: First of all, I can’t believe it’s been a year already. In my mind and when I talk to people I think, “Ok well I’ve been here about five months.” That’s how much time it feels like. Time has flown because I’m having a great time doing this. I guess what I was surprised with was how much I really truly loved this. This is really a great job and a great division and good product. I knew particularly that the people here are very proud of what they do. But I was surprised at the absolute depth of passion that the entire team has here.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: Tell me about that decision to put up your hand and say, ‘I want to go head up Exmark.’
Judy Altmaier: Every job happens because there was an opening. When Rick Olsen returned to the headquarters to run the international division, it left an open position. It wasn’t on my list of things to do, but I started thinking about what it would be like to be involved with this business at such an intimate level. From an operations standpoint, I loved what I was doing, but I thought, you know, the time was right for me personally and professionally to jump into Exmark.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: What have you learned since you joined Exmark?
Well I can tell you it’s a very different look when you’re trying to drive initiatives from an operational standpoint. When you get into a division all of a sudden things become clear. Like, “Oh, now I understand why there have to be all these different products.” I used to joke with the divisions when I was in operations that if I ran marketing as an operations person, we’d have one product, we’d make a lot of them and they’d all be very, very good. That’s how an operations person thinks: You’ve gotta have standardization, communization of parts, everything should look the same. You make a lot of them and it’s gonna be great.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: When you and I sat down at GIE+EXPO last October, we talked a little bit about what you had planned for Exmark. You said Exmark is already a really well-run company. So when you get up in the morning, what’s at the very top of your to-do list?
I always am wondering if we’re looking out for what our competitors are doing, not that you’d want to build your business model based on what your competitors are doing, but you don’t want anything to sneak up on you that you aren’t expecting – some technology or something that’s way cooler than something we have. I don’t know if that’s a high risk but you’ve gotta think about it.
So we spend a lot of time looking at other peoples’ products to just check out their quality and their technology. But then we spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about growing, what will we look like 10 years from now, and how do we have to be prepared? It’s not just about product then. You have a bigger company and bigger division then you need to think about all the things you need to support it. Do you have the right systems? Do we have the right depth strength? Those are the things that I spend a lot of my thinking time on. And is the customer going to value something, ultimately, that is different than what they value now?
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: Can you give me a look into the future and where you see Exmark moving and what contractors might expect?
Probably not in the way that you would like me to, frankly. I would say we’ll continue to focus on technology and operator comfort, and way to help our commercial cutters be more productive and fuel efficient. And one more thing is some green technology, I know you just spoke with Gary Busboom at length about propane, you know all those things are very near and dear and we continue to work on every single day.
Steve Jobs said about the iPhone, people don’t know what they want until they see it. It’s probably the same with mowers. People didn’t know they needed this until we brought it out and said look how cool this is, look how much this is going to help, look how much this is going to save you. So we also need to make sure we’re not getting caught up in the coolness of it. Ultimately that’s not valued by the customers and a waste of time and energy on probably the wrong area, and it’s a delicate balance.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: So, tell me, I’m interested to hear your opinion about Jacobson acquiring Dixie Chopper. What did you think about that when you heard about that?
I thought it was surprising. I thought it was just an interesting move. You might be surprised to know that they didn’t call me to ask my opinion before they did it, so I wasn’t involved in that decision. I thought it was an interesting time for them to jump in. I don’t know if their revenues are down or they’re losing market share in their other business, so maybe that’s why this is interesting to them. But I think with this one, time will tell. I don’t know what they plan to do with it.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: VallleyCrest is a Toro account and Brickman is an Exmark account. What does the KKR deal mean for you at Exmark?
I don’t know that we can predict what it will mean. I think we have to focus – it doesn’t really do me any good to spend time worrying about that. I think what I need to spend time on is focusing on being the supplier to Brickman, to ValleyCrest, to new customers. Provide the products that they want to use and can count on, be reliable every single day. We have to continue to bring value to those very important customers – all of them, the big ones and the small ones. And then I think the details will work themselves out.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: You’ve got a really Zen approach to things.
I don’t know if I have Zen, but I do have a philosophy that you’ve got to understand what’s in your circle of control. There are a lot of things in my circle of concern, but there are only a few things in my circle of control. So I might as well spend my time and energy on those things I can impact and manage and that I can be responsible for. Everything else is very important, but if I focus on the things that matter, that’s the right formula. Time will tell if that’s true, too.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: I know a lot of people, if one of their largest customers acquired their next largest customer, they’d be freaking out. And we’ve had that happen in our business. It can be a bit startling and surprising. It makes the sales guys worry too.
Yeah I’m not really a freak-out kind of person.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: I can tell.
If you ever see me freaking out, it’s big.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: That’s when I should hide.
Well yeah, I don’t even know what I would do if I was freaking out. At the end of the day, whether I freak out, or have a meltdown, or throw a temper tantrum, at the end of the day I don’t get much control of what they do. So all I can do is make sure that we don’t lose focus. As long as I continue to wait, I wait as Exmark continues to bring things that our customers want, like EFI technology that gives them tremendous fuel savings, or we listen to them for what they need on their machines for better productivity. As long as we’re doing that and delivering that, I have to think that that’s the right approach. If we just start developing products and throwing them at them and saying, “here use this,” instead of asking them what they need, that would be an operation of our fundamental approach and I don’t think we’re gonna move from what we did well, which is listening to our customers.
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: Can you share anything about what you’re doing for GIE+EXPO this year?
Well I don’t know that I’m going to be terribly helpful. My quick answer is if people know what to expect, why would they show up?
LAWN & LANDSCAPE: You’ve got to give me something to write about Judy!
I know. I’m sorry. You can say we’re going to have some really cool stuff. We’re going to bring all of our latest and newest, and a couple of things that no one has seen yet. It’ll be fun, and beyond that I won’t tell you anymore.