How MTD Products Brought an Impossible Product to Market

By Scott Kirsner |  June 8, 2015

When he took over a new role as Vice President of Business Development in 2012, Roy Keating understood that he was being handed a big mission at Ohio-based MTD Products: to help the privately-held manufacturer accelerate its growth coming out of the recession. “We wanted to do more breakthrough technology, and launch things that were unique to the market — not keep playing a zero-sum, dog-eat-dog game with the competition,” Keating says.

One of the first products to emerge from MTD’s new emphasis on breakthrough technology is the Troy-Bilt FLEX — a multi-function, all-season engine with attachments that can turn it into a leaf blower, power washer, lawn mower, or snow-thrower. It began showing up in Lowe’s stores this spring.

Here’s how Keating got MTD, founded in 1932, to take on a project that some inside the company thought was impossible.

• “The business development role I now have hadn’t existed at MTD before,” Keating says. “Because of the downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009, our industry had been seeing slow growth. My background had been about 18 years in sales. I knew the company, knew the culture, and knew the category, and I had a lot of passion about product.”

• MTD had already launched a set of attachments for a hand-held trimmer tool that could turn it into a pole saw or hedge trimmer. “It has been very successful, and we’ve had it in the market for about 15 years,” Keating says. But Keating says there was serious skepticism about whether the company could take the same approach with a larger, wheeled version. “People would say, you can’t do it because of this or that,” Keating says. One issue was that it needed to operate in winter and summer weather, for instance. Much of the initial feedback, Keating says, was that “you can’t do it.”

• To help explore the feasibility of the idea and conduct research with consumers, MTD engaged Nottingham Spirk, an open innovation and product development firm based in Cleveland. “We had never really gone outside our own four walls for product development help,” Keating says. “But Nottingham Spirk did the old, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ to explore some of the reasons people believed this kind of product was impossible to do.”

• Collaborating with Nottingham Spirk, MTD held consumer focus groups and conducted research on price elasticity. “It was the most research and consumer insights work we’ve ever done for a single project,” Keating says. “We felt like this was a big swing — a game-changing technology and idea.”

• The research ratified one element of the idea: “People wanted to own more outdoor power equipment,” says Vikki Nowak, Vice President at Nottingham Spirk, “but it cost too much money and took up too much space.” Figuring out how to move heavy equipment was also an issue. “We heard from people who get their brother to carry the snow thrower into the basement at the end of the winter, or devise elaborate rigs to hoist them into the rafters,” Keating said. That led them to ensure that the attachments were light, had handles, and could easily be kept on a shelf or transported in the trunk of a car. “Consumer research showed us that people took equipment over to Grandma’s house, or their cottage, and they needed to be able to get it into the trunk,” Keating explains. The core engine component folds up and turns into a cube so it can be easily stored.

Gathering feedback on foam prototypes.

• Showing prototypes to consumers led MTD to simplify the FLEX’s control system and ergonomics. “They wanted the handles and levers and speed controls to be simple, and they also wanted to know when they’d successfully connected an attachment,” Keating says. MTD designed in an audible “click” when something is attached. “You can feel that it is solidly on. It gives the consumer the feeling of being in control,” Keating says. And the phrase “It just clicks” was integrated into the FLEX’s marketing materials.Consumers also wanted to be able to switch attachments in a few seconds — without using tools. That was a big design challenge, Keating and Nowak say. But “we wanted to design something not for the gearhead, but for the average Joe,” Keating says.

• MTD took a different approach to protecting the intellectual property around the FLEX. “We had meetings with our in-house and external lawyers, with engineers in the room,” Keating says. “There was more thorough involvement from the beginning, in terms of the legal rigor, and patents we applied for.”

• MTD worked with Lowe’s as the exclusive launch partner for the FLEX product. “They were part of the pricing process, and they are the biggest distributor of this product,” Keating says. The base engine is priced at $399; a snow thrower attachment is $399, the pressure washer $279.

• About 20 pilot units were produced last November in MTD’s Mechanical Engineering Center. “It was gratifying to see how much of the feedback we’d gotten had been integrated into the product,” Keating says. Full-on production began in February.

Setting up a mock retail environment in which the FLEX product line would be placed next to competitors’ products.

• Keating says that the FLEX base power unit is now available in more than 1,000 Lowe’s stores. “It has been a very smooth and successful launch, supported by a 360-degree marketing campaign, including tons of demos around the country,” Keating says. ” We are striving to change 40-plus years of established consumer behavior and expectations, and consumers definitely want to see this thing in action. Sales have met expectations, especially amongst early adopters.”

• “You can’t just do something like this based on your gut,” Keating says. “We wanted to let the consumer tell us how to do it best.” Key to the project’s success, he adds, “was true support from our CEO, our COO, to whom I report, and our head of engineering.”

A video overview of the FLEX system is below.