Aussie lawn lords Cox and Greenfield battle tough times

If the quintessential Australian sport of mowing the lawn had its own champions, the names Cox and Greenfield would be kings.

For more than half a century, the two companies' brightly coloured ride-on mowers have been competing for the hearts and minds of gardeners around Australia.

Two years ago, however, Cox and Greenfield found they were both battling more than long grass as cheap imports, drought and rising costs savaged their bottom lines.

"Both businesses were losing money and Greenfield was losing a significant amount," say Cox Industries chief executive Peter Jamieson, who recalls using a Cox mower as a part-time school gardener at Ballarat during his university days.

Cox's distinctive red mowers have rolled out of a factory in Brisbane's southern suburbs since 1954, the first model being called the Mow Mobile. Just down the road, canary yellow Greenfields had been produced since 1965.

Founded by engineer Owen Cox, the mowers were designed to handle rough Australian acreages and farm work. There is a story of one Cox customer taking his mower back to the dealer because of a small rattle only to find a star picket fence post wrapped around the blades.

Greenfield, started by Theo Reinhold in 1965, had a similar reputation for quality. Inspired by the undulating acreages near his home in the western suburbs of Brisbane, Reinhold invented a transmission drive system that gave his machines the power to climb hills and still mow effectively.

Fast forward six decades and Cox and Greenfield were finding it increasingly tough to keep their heads above water. Jamieson realised they needed to merge or somehow join forces to survive.

 

Cox CEO Peter Jamieson at the Acacia Ridge factory. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter
Cox CEO Peter Jamieson at the Acacia Ridge factory. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter

 

Jamieson says he made some tentative approaches to Greenfield managers about a merger but had not been successful. Finally, he decided to call Greenfield director Lewis Reinhold, the son of Theo, directly and ask to discuss the future of both companies. "I asked him if he would like to catch up for a coffee and he said he could meet me in 10 minutes," he says.

A formal merger never occurred. Instead, Greenfield was liquidated as a going concern last year, owing creditors $3.2 million, but Cox picked up the manufacturing rights to Greenfield mowers as well as employing a handful of its former employees.

Given Owen Cox and Theo Reinhold, both now deceased, were known to be fierce rivals the irony of both mowers being produced under one roof has not been lost on those in the industry. But for Jamieson, the merging of the two brands reflects straitened times in manufacturing.

"Labour costs are a big issue for Australian manufacturers especially compared to places like China," says Jamieson as he walks past laser machines cutting steel and workers assembling mowers. "We have to be smarter in areas like sourcing of components (some of Cox's engines are now built in China)."

He remains convinced there is a niche market for high-end mowers - top-end Cox and Greenfield models retail for in excess of $7000.

"We like to say you can mow the lawn with other mowers, but ours cut grass," says Jamieson, pointing to a transmission system being bolted inside the chassis of a Cox mower on the factory floor.

 

The production line at Cox Mowers manufacturing factory in Acacia Ridge. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter
The production line at Cox Mowers manufacturing factory in Acacia Ridge. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter

 

The "Cox Live Drive" - an engine transmission system invented by Owen Cox - was designed to withstand heavy conditions and to be easily repaired.

"It was what made Cox so popular in the first place," he says. "It was designed so that if a farmer got stuck out in the paddock it could be jury rigged and he could find his way back home." Cox and Greenfield mowers, which together sell about 4500 mowers each year, now account for about 10 per cent of the market for ride-on mowers in Australia. The rest are cheaper imported versions, mainly from China and the US, that are increasingly attractive to younger customers.

"If the US has had a bad season and they have a lot of unsold stock, they will ship a lot over here and discount it," he says.

Mower sales are largely at the mercy of rainfall because without rain there is no grass to mow. "Our sales season moves with the rain, starting in Victoria in October or November before moving into Queensland in February and March," he says. "Unfortunately, we've had two bad seasons. We can't ship enough mowers up to North Queensland where there has been so much rain but we can't give them away in Victoria."

Jamieson, a former general manager of the Geelong Football Club, realises manufacturing won't make him rich. But being part of what he considers an Australian icon is important. Jamieson says his fellow director Findlay Andrews is absolutely committed to manufacturing in this country.

Not everyone has the same affection for "Made in Australia". Cox relies on an extensive network of dealers throughout Australia to sell its machines often against cheaper imported models. Cox has 280 dealers from Perth to Cairns while Greenfield has 180.

He notes a generational divide in who is prepared to buy Australian products. "Australians over 40 are more likely to support Australian made but those under 40 are less likely," he says. "They prefer the cheaper options, something that can be disposed of in two years rather than 25 (years)."

Jamieson also says local manufacturing receives little government support despite low tariffs exposing them to cheaper imports: "There is no access to competitive finance."

 

Cox CEO Peter Jamieson. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter
Cox CEO Peter Jamieson. Photo: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter

 

BDO partner Andrew Fielding, who worked to try and get a financial lifeline for Greenfield before it went under, agrees that government support for local manufacturing is poor. This is despite manufacturing employing nearly three times as many as the agricultural sector.

He says the root cause of the problem is lack of access to low cost capital. Small businesses in Australia often have to resort to loans against a director's home or expensive arrangements that include debtor finance and credit cards.

"What manufacturing needs is low-cost funds to purchase raw materials, access to letters of credit or guarantees to support overseas supplies and access to funding to purchase state of the art equipment."

He says a government-backed bank similar to the old Queensland Industry Development Corporation should be considered to help manufacturing. The Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority that supports farmers could be a model.

Back at Cox, the company's 65 workers are relying on the survival of the business. Jamieson says the deal with Greenfield will hopefully allow Cox to fight on. "Without economies of scale provided by Greenfield we could not have reached the break even point," he says.



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