Industry Watch

The Altoz assembly line

Central Boiler adds Altoz Mowers to manufacturing mix

Using one facility for both product lines, company combats seasonal nature of original business

By Dan Emerson

This year has been an unusually busy one at the manufacturing plant in north Minnesota where Central Boiler has produced wood-burning heating systems for nearly three decades. That’s because the plant, in the small city of Greenbush, now manufactures an additional product: high-end riding lawnmowers. While one assembly line cranks out boiler systems, a second line produces mowers for next year’s mowing season.
Husband-and-wife company owners Dennis and Terri Brazier launched the mowers, sold under the Altoz brand, last year. Dennis Brazier has used the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that put Central Boiler on the map to develop riding lawnmowers he hopes will shake up the commercial landscaping industry. 
They just might. The high-tech mowers look more like sleek racing vehicles than utilitarian grass-cutters — although appearance is just one aspect of their appeal. 
Brazier’s entrepreneurial journey started several decades ago on the wheat and barley farm his family has owned for decades, near Greenbush. In fact, entrepreneurship has become a Brazier family tradition.
Dennis Brazier has two brothers who also own manufacturing companies. The oldest son, 62-year-old Glen, is founder and CEO of Mattracks, a Karlstad, Minn.-based manufacturer of tracks that can be installed on vehicles, enabling them to travel over rough terrain. The other brother, David, owns Tackle Tamer, a Keewatin, Minn.-based firm that makes injection-molded products. (A fourth brother had a business selling high-performance auto parts.) 
Back in the ’70s, Glen owned an auto repair business, where Dennis spent a lot of time during his high school years. As a foreshadowing of what was to come, he and Glen once built a four-wheel-drive vehicle “pretty similar to the Polaris Rangers of today,” Dennis recalls. 
In the mid-’70s, when energy prices were soaring, Dennis cobbled together his first outdoor wood-burning heating system, using a 500-gallon fuel tank and other scavenged parts. It was a crude version of what his company makes today. About 10 years later, he started selling the systems, including four to area farmers in the first year. 
After launching Central Boiler, he gradually developed a network of distributors, who now number about 350 and cover most of North America and are extending to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia. 

The E-Classic 1450 boiler

The factory, which started as a 25,000-square-foot steel building erected on the farm in 1991, has been expanded five times to a current size of 300,000 square feet. At its peak production, during a 2008 spike in oil prices, the plant was cranking out about 500 furnaces a week. The company has sold more than 100,000 boilers over the years.
In the early ’80s, in his spare time, Brazier built a riding lawnmower. “I always liked lawnmowers,” he says. Once again, Brazier turned his hobby into a business, launching Altoz as an enterprise that would keep his manufacturing facility and employees busy every season of the year. 
To make his mower vision a reality, Brazier tapped into the expertise of his 12-person engineering staff. He also commissioned Kiska, a Salzburg, Austria-based industrial design firm, to develop an eye-catching and functional chassis design.
One significant move to set the stage for producing mowers was upgrading the boiler operation to an automated assembly line. That freed up more worker time for the mower operation.
The mower assembly line is “even more advanced,” Brazier says, since it includes digital tools such as sub-assembly and assembly animations to relay technical information and processes. This allows employees to move easily between the work stations or manufacturing lines and assures each mower is built using the same processes.
How does a small startup compete with global brands like John Deere, Toro, and Honda? Brazier set out to do it by creating “a premium mower that not only performs well, but has some style in it, as well.” Most commercial mowers, he says, “look like they were made in a welding shop. The springs and other components are exposed, giving them a ‘bear trap’ look. In building a mower, you can weld a bracket on, chop off a chunk of steel, and have sharp corners — or you can stylize it.”
The Altoz mowers made a major splash in the industry when they were introduced last year at the annual Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Kentucky. “Normally, when you introduce a new product, you would have a bunch of ‘know-it-all’ company owners and engineers coming up to tell you what you did wrong,” says Brazier. “But we had so many people welcoming us for bringing something new to the industry.” 
Trade shows are Altoz’s most important tool for reaching the wholesale market; the firm will display its mowers at 10 to 15 shows this year, the largest of those being the Green Industry and Equipment Expo. Trade magazine advertising is another key marketing channel.
Last year, Altoz produced an average of about 320 mowers per month, in four models with cutting widths ranging from 48 inches to 72 inches. Powered by either Kawasaki or Briggs & Stratton engines, they sell for suggested retail prices between $8,300 and $15,000.
Brazier says he’s learned a few things from running Central Boiler that he’s applied to the mower enterprise. One is “a basic way of doing business that’s worked well with hundreds of dealers for many years; the way we treat those dealers and end-customers should set the stage to deal with new business. Our dealers deal with consumers directly on a regular basis.”
He believes it’s also important to be open to any suggestion that comes from the field. “If we start to see a negative trend and it’s something we can address, we will. That’s the nature of engineering.” In making boilers or mowers, “we don’t wait until a new model year to make improvements; we implement them as needed.”
For most manufacturers, matching production and inventory management to the ebb and flow of market demand is a constant challenge. The mower business is no exception, Brazier says. “Managing growth and production is definitely a ‘learned’ science. We analyze a lot of data from previous years to manage that.”
Developing the ability to speed up and slow down production to match dealer orders has been an important strategy. Adding a new product line to complement the boiler business has evened the seasonal workload and also made it easier to recruit and retain employees.
Matt Schauberg, a project manager who joined Central Boiler five years ago, now spends part of each year working on the Altoz line.
Adding the mowers has helped ensure a consistent work flow at the plant, regardless of the season, he says. “It’s given everyone a sense of confidence that there is not going to be a slow time of year. It’s also cool that we use the same equipment [to manufacture both product lines].”
Karl Pittman, who purchased an Altoz mower last year for use in his Tennessee-based lawnmowing business, says his machine has lived up to the marketing hype. “There are no flaws in that machine,” he says. “The other machines I’ve used in the past are no comparison. He cites the mower’s precise cut, well-engineered design, and solid construction.
While the Altoz mowers have been a hit, Brazier has a larger vision to expand the brand to include other equipment and “all kinds of things people use outdoors. We don’t want to limit the brand to mowers.”