Participants:

Pierre Pereira, vice president of sales and marketing, Billy Goat Industries, Lee's Summit, Mo.

Rob Faber, commercial sales specialist, Morbark, Winn, Mich.

James Day, general manager, Turf Teq, Honey Brook, Pa.

Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager for compact utility equipment, The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minn.

Nathan Antons, national sales manager, SourceOne, Lincoln, Neb.

RER: Describe the current conditions in the outdoor power equipment rental market.

Pereira: The year 2008 has held steady for outdoor power equipment at both independent rental companies and those with lighter mixes of equipment. However, many larger players have been impacted by lower utilization rates on larger equipment such as aerial and earth engaging, and have cut budgets across the board — including outdoor power equipment.

Faber: The current conditions we are seeing in the rental market are just like most segments of the economy. Customers are cautious of making new capital expenditures on equipment.

Day: We have not seen a slow down with our products. We manufacture commercial products and our customers typically use our equipment out of necessity, not convenience. We are also a relatively new company so our growth can also be tied to more people learning about our products.

Borenstein: Just like the rest of the economy, the outdoor power equipment rental market is showing weakness. This is driven by reduced starts in new home construction.

Antons: We still see it as an area of growth potential. As the economy tightens we believe there will be fewer homeowners using lawn maintenance contractors and more becoming do-it-yourself landscapers. This will feed market to the rental dealers for equipment such as aerators. There are large percentages of homeowners who are always going to want to maintain good curb appeal. The current conditions may also add to rental growth of our aeration products by lawn maintenance contractors who want to add services if their mowing contracts are lower.

How much has the market grown in the past year and what do you anticipate for the coming year?

Pereira: Independent rental continues to grow outdoor power equipment above GDP based on a favorable mix of products, customers, locations and store hours. Weather had a bigger impact on growth than the economy/geography in many cases last year.

Faber: The market has been a challenge in 2008 because of the present economy. We look for more significant growth in 2009, as rental stores may see more customers wanting to rent equipment that they do not use every day, instead of buying.

Borenstein: The rental market will rebound along with the economy — but we anticipate some of the current softness will continue into 2009.

Antons: As with most other markets, it has declined somewhat, but not as drastic as others. For the coming year, we are looking to expand with more distribution in the western area of the U.S.

What types of new technologies, enhancements and features are on the horizon for the next generations of outdoor power equipment models?

Pereira: Emissions, noise, ergonomics, safety and productivity continue to be key industry drivers for the next generation of outdoor power equipment.

Faber: Morbark's new design standards are focused on improving the ease of operation while enhancing operator safety. For example we are currently incorporating ergonomic control bar heights on all of our chippers.

Borenstein: Much of Toro's new equipment benefits from new designs in engines, hydraulics and ancillary components. In the future, you will see fuel-injected engines, along with more efficient and simpler hydraulic systems.

Antons: Consumers are going “green.” They want to be earth friendly, conserve, use fewer chemicals and recycle. That fits with our product line; aeration is one of the most beneficial, nontoxic, water conservation programs available. A biannual aeration will have more benefits than any other lawn care program available, without any environmental impact.

What are customers asking for in their outdoor power equipment and how are manufacturers responding to them?

Pereira: Ease of operation, durability and service are three common requests of rental companies. One example is the newest generation of Billy Goat aerators, which feature improved tine and drive operation for ease of use and operator comfort. Also, items such as removable tine stars make for simple service, and the elimination of center drums/wheels improve both durability and safety.

Faber: Rental customers are big on the importance of safety features on machines. Some examples of safety features on Morbark chippers include utilizing a hydraulic brake on the chipper drum. When an operator shuts the engine off, the hydraulic system is ported to act as a brake bringing the drum to come to a stop within 8 seconds. All Morbark chippers have dual safety cables that hang in the infeed of the chipper. These cables are secondary to the safety control bar, which is a safety standard in the industry. Morbark installs hood safety switches on all of its chipper hoods. This switch will shut the machine down if the pin that holds the chipper hood in place is removed while the machine is in operation, and will not allow the machine to start if the pin is not installed before beginning operation.

Day: Customers want to be more productive and reduce their operating costs. We have seen the need for more mechanization in the landscape industry as well as the need to reduce fuel costs. Over the past year we have added several new blades and attachments for our machines that are a direct result of customer feedback. These blades and attachments allow our customer to do more with the same machine.

Borenstein: Customers are asking for simple, reliable equipment that works well. Toro addresses these needs by closely studying how operators use the equipment — and uncovering areas where we can bring added value and improve their productivity.

After witnessing the difficulty users had transporting conventional walk-behind trenchers to jobsites, we set about designing the new TRX trencher. We met with rental yards and contractors, who asked if we could parlay some of the same successful concepts found in our Dingo loaders (ease of use, maneuverability, tracked design, simple controls, etc.) to the trenching category. We interviewed owners/operators and identified weaknesses in existing technology and areas where Toro innovation could improve today's trenching equipment.

Ultimately, we entered the category because we felt we could help elevate it — and raise the bar on equipment performance. Our TRX tracked trenchers introduced earlier this year feature skid-steer type steering. This eliminates the “muscling around” other walk-behind trenchers require. This system also makes loading the trencher on a trailer easier and enables a high transport speed, both of which improve their productivity.

Antons: User friendly. It has always been our philosophy to build products that are easier to use, such as the Plugr aerator. It is not intimidating for anyone to use, can be transported easily, and can be used by any gender or age of person.

Are there any major trends or changes in technology that you're seeing?

Pereira: Yes. The use of composite materials, like in the Force blowers, dramatically improves output efficiency, improves ergonomics like weight and reduces noise. Billy Goat features not only a full line of composite blowers in the market, but also one of the lightest and quietest with the F601S at 76 pounds and 71 dBa.

Faber: Technology is constantly changing. In our industry, the biggest changes we have seen are new and upgraded electronic components. Along with the implementation of Tier-3 engine emission standards.

Day: Our customers want to see improvements in product versatility, one machine that will perform multiple tasks. We have taken that challenge and continued to add as many applications to our products as possible. Also our products fill a niche in the market and by using one tractor and multiple attachments we can help customers do more with mechanization without spending a lot of money on a single use “niche market” machine.

Borenstein: More choices in hydraulic components and engines are arriving every day. Additionally, Kevlar-reinforced tracks have resulted in reliable and durable-tracked undercarriages. These trends will continue and result in simpler, more reliable equipment.

Antons: Multipurpose equipment, equipment that can be rented out for different applications. We introduced our TurfSavr, that can be used in the spring for a dethatcher, and in the fall for an overseeder.

Is your company bringing anything unique to the outdoor power equipment market?

Pereira: The following items are new over the last few years: The depth adjustment on Billy Goat power rakes extends the life of Flails; the F601S blower is unique in weight, noise and output; aerators eliminate both center drums/wheels for outboard drive wheels and eliminate steel weights, which are often lost in favor of water weight positioned over the tines. Billy Goat's MV vacuums feature a composite impeller housing for long life and improved weight. Lastly, zippers on KV vacuums have been eliminated this year in favor of two long life fasteners.

Day: Turf Teq has introduced a new brush cutter that has the ability to side shift the mower deck from center up to 12 inches to the left of the handlebars. This allows operators to mow tall grass under fences lines or brush under trees.

Borenstein: Earlier this year, Toro introduced the TRX line of trenchers. They're designed with tracks rather than wheels, which allow the machines to easily handle cross trenching and effectively work on wet, rainy days or in sandy, loose soils where wheeled trenchers would struggle. The tracks disperse the weight of the machine, providing high flotation while delivering the necessary traction in any ground condition. And because of the track design, the Toro TRX trenchers offer operators greater stability and machine performance when working on a slope.

The TRX models also include three simple controls that work almost exactly like those on our Toro Dingo loaders — so operators can train quickly and get to the jobsite faster. With the TRX control system, an operator can trench with one hand while adjusting boom depth with the other — eliminating the ‘jerk’ steering required with other trenchers that have handlebar steering.

Also new is our TX 427 series of compact utility loaders, just introduced in October. These models feature engines up to 35-percent more powerful than the models they replaced. This will enable users to complete demanding tasks, such as trenching and tilling, faster and easier.

Antons: It is our goal to always bring out something innovative and unique to the market. We think the Plugr aerator, with its cam-driven tines and no add- on weights illustrates that perfectly.