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Cutting Into the Mower Game : Yamaha Starts Grass-Roots Drive to Sell Lawn Tractors Mostly Through Bike Dealers

June 30, 1989|JOHN CHARLES TIGHE | Times Staff Writer

As a rebellious youth, Jim Wyand would hop on his Yamaha motorcycle to get away for the weekend. Now that he has settled into adulthood, Wyand is more likely to be found riding his Yamaha lawn tractor in the back yard of his New York home.

Once only a maker of powerful machines for daring roadsters, Cypress-based Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. is attempting to grow up along with its audience by entering the lawn-tractor market.

Buyers like the 31-year-old Wyand, who mows a three-acre tract in Plattsburgh, N.Y., are convinced that the high-tech, high-powered lawn tractors introduced by Yamaha last year are better products than the more established Lawn Boys, Toros and John Deeres of the industry.

But it is far from certain whether Yamaha will succeed as a newcomer in a market that has been shrinking in recent years.

Yamaha plans to sell its tractors mostly through its 1,500 motorcycle dealers, who provide a ready-made distribution network and access to thousands of current and former motorcycle owners, such as Wyand. But the company is not well-versed in lawn-care products, and the tractors are not the primary product for most dealers.

The company also is at a price disadvantage because its tractors are made and assembled in Japan, then shipped to America. In addition to shipping costs, the dollar's increasing strength against the yen adds to the price of Yamaha products sold here.

Since the early 1980s, motorcycle makers have been developing new markets for their small-engine expertise because motorcycle sales have slipped as the U.S. population has aged. Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki now make snowmobiles, water-ski vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and snow removers.

In the lawn-care business, Kawasaki and Suzuki began selling engines to American mowing-equipment makers, who put their brand names on the mowers and tractors.

In 1983, Honda became the first motorcycle company to make lawn mowers. Last year, it produced 100,000 mowers at its plant in North Carolina.

By fall of this year, the plant will begin making lawn tractors, with a capacity of 60,000 annually.

Yamaha hopes that its lawn-tractor sales will soon expand, but the overall market has not experienced growth over the last several years. Annual sales of riding mowers and lawn tractors remained flat at about 750,000 until last year, when drought and heat helped drive down sales to fewer than 500,000.

Yamaha's strategy in the lawn-tractor business is similar to what Honda has done in the mower business. Yamaha has developed a premium, high-priced tractor to go after what it considers to be a growing segment of the market. Its 12- and 18-horsepower models start with suggested retail prices of about $3,000, well above the popular Lawn-Boy lawn tractors.

Yamaha entered the lawn-care market last year by shipping about 1,500 tractors made in Japan to 350 American dealers, most of whom have been selling Yamaha motorcycles for years. The company expects that about two-thirds of its tractors will be sold through Yamaha motorcycle dealers, while a third will be through lawn-care retailers.

Industry analysts said the initial reception was disappointing. Fewer than 500 units were sold by dealers by the end of the year.

But more than 2,000 Yamaha tractors have been sold so far this year, prompting dealers to ask for more stock and prompting the company to consider U.S. production.

"We're being noticed. And a lot of our motorcycle buyers are coming to us," said Joe Stahl, manager of Yamaha's power-equipment division, which employs 18 sales and administrative workers in the United States, most of them in Cypress.

Not everyone has noticed Yamaha, though. In a review of lawn tractors in the June issue of Consumer Reports magazine, for example, Yamaha isn't even mentioned.

"They're not part of the Who's Who of lawn tractors," Bruce Butterfield, president of the National Gardening Assn, said, adding:

"But by taking the high-end approach, they're going about it in a good way. Most people traditionally think of the technology of lawn tractors as similar to that of a garbage disposer.

"But the Japanese manufacturers are changing this."

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