With the many developments in technology during the past century, it should come as little surprise that Toro’s history is as colorful as its bright red lawn mowers and snow throwers.
Legacy of Excellence, A Centennial History of the Toro Company is a new book published to coincide with the Bloomington-based company’s 100-year anniversary. Drawing upon the company’s extensive archives and interviews with longtime employees of the company, Apple Valley author Jeff Appelquist breaks down the company’s evolution from its formation in 1914 as The Toro Motor Co. — which was founded to build engines for The Bull Tractor Co. — to the recent expansion of its Bloomington headquarters. The decade-by-decade chronicling of the company’s evolution spotlights the people, inventions, acquisitions, expansions and hardships that have contributed to the company’s worldwide success.
As a self-employed business consultant, Appelquist spent more than a year compiling the company’s history. To do so required sorting through boxes of the company’s annual reports, newsletters, newspaper clippings, photographs and meeting minutes. “Toro is wonderful in that they have an amazing archive,” he said.
With a room full of archived material, sorted by decade, Appelquist worked one decade at a time in chronicling the company’s history.
The comprehensive archive presented Appelquist with a dilemma, he noted, of how to chronicle the company’s history in approximately 40,000 words. He sifted through the company’s archives and combined his research with the interviews he conducted. By January his book was finished, and editing and production of the finished product was completed in time for the company’s 100th anniversary celebration on July 10.
Appelquist interviewed prominent figures in the company’s history, such as David Lily, who served as Toro’s chief executive for 23 years of his more than four decades with the company. Lily died in February at the age of 96.
He also interviewed James “Doc” Watson in Colorado prior to Watson’s death in 2013 at the age of 92. Watson started working for Toro in 1952 as its chief agronomist and is noted for his research and education worldwide in the turfgrass industry.
Ken Melrose helmed Toro for 24 years, and Appelquist interviewed him about a noteworthy time in the company’s history. Melrose was named president of the company in 1981 following a substantial nosedive in sales, resulting in the company’s first loss in more than 35 years.
Appelquist deemed that era of the company’s history to be of particular fascination. The company was hemorrhaging money due to poor sales of snow throwers in the early ‘80s due to a lack of snow. “They were close to the brink of bankruptcy,” he explained.
Melrose, at age 40, was untested when he was tasked with reversing the company’s fortunes, Appelquist noted. “That was very interesting to write about,” he said.
Photos and advertisements of the company’s earliest equipment, such as golf course maintenance equipment and push-reel lawnmowers, are spread throughout the book. For as much as Appelquist included, “the book could have been twice as long,” he said.
The book is as much the brainchild of Appelquist as it is the fruit of his labor. His diverse career includes stints working for Best Buy and Target. After more than 15 years combined with the Minnesota-based companies he took a buyout in 2009 from Best Buy and has since worked as a business consultant, specializing in leadership development.
While working at Best Buy, he developed a leadership program that involved taking co-workers to the site of famous U.S. battlefields. It was there that he would teach the lessons of leadership. And in teaching those lessons, Appelquist spawned his foray into writing, he explained.
Determining his leadership presentations should have a companion book, he penned, Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn. He followed that up in 2011 with Wisdom is Not Enough — Reflections on Leadership & Teams,” a book he sent to CEOs of 50 Minnesota companies. He heard back from just one of those 50, current Toro CEO Mike Hoffman. The two discussed the book and became friends. With the centennial approaching, Appelquist asked Hoffman if the company was planning to put together a book to commemorate it. Hoffman suggested Appelquist put together a proposal, and in the summer of 2012 a contract was struck.
The book is available online and should be available locally in bookstores soon, Appelquist said. It chronicles the history of a company that moved to Bloomington in 1952, but Appelquist thinks it’s a book that has appeal to readers interested in Minnesota history, leadership, technology and business, regardless of the brand of lawnmower they own.
A photo of Toro’s Research and Development Center from 1952, the year the Bloomington facility opened, shows an employee using a riding lawn mower to cut grass. The Research and Development Center would become the site of the company’s corporate headquarters 10 years later, and remains so today.