editor's note: In this two-story section, we provide a portrait of the people behind the mowers you use on your golf courses and what it takes to be a great technician to take care of that machinery.
We're amazed by the intricacy of golf course mowers. The technical nuance of a mower's design, whether it's for the fairway, greens or other area, is extraordinary and intriguing.
Who are the people behind these amazing machines? Read on to meet some of the brightest people in the golf course maintenance industry. Humble people whose main goal is to satisfy their customers: superintendents.
And, in the second story, find out what to look for in that "diamond in the rough," as in a top turfgrass technician.
(Left to right) Erhun Iyasere, Jarrett Jones and Derek Mookhoek spend their days doing many different things, including researching new product development.
PHOTO: BY LARRY AYLWARD
Jacobsen's Mookhoek: Is it really pressure?
Who'd want the pressure that comes with being the director of engineering for a major mower manufacturer? You're responsible for satisfying golf course superintendents' needs to provide golfers with mowing perfection on greens, fairways, tees and even roughs. Good luck with that.
But that's not how Jacobsen's Derek Mookhoek sees it.
"If you love what you're doing, is it really pressure?" Mookhoek asks.
The 38-year-old Mookhoek is the director of engineering and oversees mechanical design. His team's goal is to bring innovative but affordable technology to the golf course maintenance industry.
Mookhoek has been at Jacobsen for about two years and was previously an engineer for Cessna, Jacobsen's sister (both are owned by Textron) company, where he worked for 15 years. Mookhoek has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in business. His days are filled with various projects.
"A day in the life of an engineer is really a mix of things," Mookhoek says. "We spend a lot of time in new product development, listening to the unique needs of our customers and working on the factory floor with production."
Erhun Iyasere, who grew up in Nigeria, is one of Jacobsen's youngest engineers. The 29-year-old has worked as an electrical design engineer at the company for two years and has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Clemson University.
Iyasere was interested in working at Jacobsen because the company pioneered electric-powered mowers. Now he spends much of his time "designing electrical systems to accomplish what mechanical systems do," he says.
For Iyasere, the customer is top of mind.
"Every decision you make impacts the customer; every switch, every bolt and every interface the customer has to deal with," he says.
When he graduated from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Neb., with an associate's degree in engineering and drafting design, Jarrett Jones knew he wanted to work on mechanical design. He landed at Jacobsen about eight years ago as a designer.
"You're always trying to research the next big thing," the 34-year-old Jones says. "It isn't that much different from the automotive industry."
Jones works on mechanical design related to a wide range of products, from greens mowers to Jacobsen's largest rotary mower. What does he like most about his job?
"Seeing a product get built that you were part of creating," he says.
Mookhoek marvels at the intelligent people that surround him. He says he's just a guy who "grew up turning wrenches and just loving mechanical things."
So it's no surprise that Mookhoek has a 1956 Chevy Bel Air in his garage that he's restoring. You can see how he ended up in his current role at Jacobsen.
"At the end of the day, engineers just like designing new stuff and making it perform," Mookhoek says.
Ron Reichen (center) says an engineer can't do his job without good product managers, including Tracy Lanier (left) and Brad Aldridge.
PHOTO: BY LARRY AYLWARD
John Deere Golf's
Reichen: I don't like
the word "impossible"
Ron Reichen played with big toys when he was a kid. His favorite was a Briggs & Stratton engine. Seriously.
"I took it apart and put it back together so much that the bolts wore out," says Reichen, staff engineer of golf products for John Deere Golf in Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
All of the aptitude tests that Reichen took when he was a teenager pointed to him being a mechanic, like his father.
"But my dad said I was going to college," Reichen says. "So I decided to become an engineer."
The good-natured 61-year-old Reichen, who has worked for John Deere for 33 years (27 years in the golf segment), has a bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois.
Reichen likes a challenge, and he wants the engineers he oversees at John Deere Golf to feel the same.
"I don't want to hear 'can't' or 'impossible' in their vocabularies," he says.
In 1997, a superintendent asked Reichen to design a fairway mower to make his fairways look like they were walk-mowed so he could increase the club's green fees.
"I took it as a challenge, and that's where we came up with our spiral rollers," Reichen explains.
There have been other challenges, such as when superintendents kept demanding lower and lower height of cut from greens mowers. It was an exciting and pressure-filled time, Reichen says, but he and his staff delivered.
"It's why I lost all my hair," he says with a laugh.
Reichen works closely with John Deere Golf product managers, including Tracy Lanier and Brad Aldridge, who spend a lot of time talking to superintendents about their mowing needs.
"Properly communicating the ideas and requirements of the customer to the engineering group is critical," Lanier says. "I like engineers that think out of the box - and when you throw an idea out to them they don't say they can't do it."
Aldridge says it's vital for engineers and product managers to trust each other and be open with their ideas.
"It takes a team effort," he adds.
Every few years, John Deere Golf holds its Feedback session. Golf course superintendents from around the country are invited to the event to provide feedback to John Deere engineers and other staff in regard to new equipment, some of which isn't on the market yet. Reichen has attended all 20 Feedback sessions. He admits he didn't like them at first.
"We figured it would be a beating session," he says. "Some of our first products in golf weren't well-received."
Times have changed, and Reichen now values superintendents' feedback, realizing it leads to even better products.
"Every day is exciting, and every day is a challenge," he says.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF PROGRESSIVE TURF EQUIPMENT
Progressive Turf's MacDonald: Bring on the challenge
Mark MacDonald's favorite part of being an engineer is getting his hands dirty. Whether it's working on a prototype in the shop or showcasing a product to a customer on a demonstration, MacDonald likes to be in on the action.
MacDonald is the research and development manager for Progressive Turf Equipment in Seaforth, Ont., a manufacturer of pull-behind contour finishing mowers. Like a lot of engineers, MacDonald grew up in a house dominated with technical talk - his father is an automobile mechanic.
"I took my first engine apart when I was in the third grade," recalls MacDonald, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from a community college and has worked at Progressive Turf for three years. "It was a natural thing for me to do."
Unfortunately, MacDonald can't spend his day up to his elbows in grease. He has many responsibilities in his role. He oversees the engineers in the company's design group, and he acts as liaison with the manufacturing side of the business.
Recognizing that Progressive Turf is a small company, MacDonald's aim is to look for more niche products. He speaks to superintendents regularly to keep up on their needs.
MacDonald is not about creating technology that he thinks is cool; he's all about creating reliable, affordable technology for the company's customers.
"That's where the pressure is right now - maintaining cut quality so superintendents can do more with less of their budgets," he says.
There's also pressure to continually design and manufacture equipment to appease golfers' expectations for perfection on the golf course. But those are the challenges that make the job fun, MacDonald adds.
One of MacDonald's hobbies is drag racing. He got into the sport when he was 16.
"I always wanted to make my car better and faster," he says. "It's an extension of who I am."
"We try to keep it light here in the engineering department, but there's pressure," Kevin Myers says.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LAND PRIDE
Land Pride's Myers:
He loves to juggle
Kevin Myers has four balls in the air - as in four projects that he's juggling simultaneously. But that's life as a product designer at Salina, Kan.-based grounds maintenance equipment manufacturer Land Pride. Still, Myers loves it.
But there is a mental strain on Myers to not drop one of those balls. "We try to keep it light here in the engineering department, but there's pressure," the 50-year-old says.
With flow chart in hand, Myers meets bimonthly with corporate representatives at Land Pride to keep them up to date on projects. Those in attendance include the president, the manufacturing manager, the director of quality control, the purchasing manager, marketing people and even the accountant. It sounds like a pressure-packed get-together, but it's actually a healthy process to discuss various projects.
"Our turnaround time from when a project is started to when it's finished is anywhere from two months to a year and two months," Myers says.
Myers, who started at Land Pride in 1989, says it's a good place to drum up ideas and see them through. He says he's always thinking of ways to do things better. He works closely with Land Pride's lone departmental engineer.
"The difference between a designer and an engineer is that an engineer knows how to derive an equation, and a designer typically doesn't but can do the equations [for designs]," Myers explains.
Myers realizes the importance of customer service. It's all about assisting the end users; you're even making adjustments to product inventions as you're going along, he says.
Land Pride is a small company and doesn't try to compete with the Toros of the industry. Myers says he focuses on finding a product niche.
"Our little company will take good things from one product and good things from another product and combine them to make a better product," he says.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF ADVANCED TURF TECHNOLOGY
Advanced Turf's Coleman: Engineering is the fun part
John Coleman is the jack-of-all-trades for Advanced Turf Technology, based in Sheffield, England, the engineering heart of the United Kingdom. Coleman, whose actual title is managing director, is in charge of finance, marketing, production and engineering design.
"Being in a small company, you can dig in and get involved with everything," the 41-year-old says.
Coleman, the former golf course superintendent of Abbeydale Golf Club in Sheffield, has several family members who are engineers, and he's always had a knack for mechanics. In 1999 he began his own consulting business, which married agronomics with engineering.
Like other mechanical engineers, Coleman is a so-called gearhead.
"I could rebuild a car engine when I was 17," he notes.
While his ideas are born from his experience of working on the golf course, Coleman is sure to keep up on agronomic trends. He knows how much they have to do with designing new equipment.
"I can't rest on my laurels because I was a superintendent," he says.
What does Coleman like best about his job?
"Any engineer will tell you that the fun part is the engineering part - taking it from a concept to the prototype," he says.
If a particular mower is not doing a good job on a particular turf variety, Coleman sets out to design a mower that will. He calls the process "conceptualizing."
There's no shortage of ideas, and designing and engineering the good ideas into products is a challenge, but a welcome one. The biggest problem facing Advanced Turf Technology is route to market - the supply chain that a product follows to get to the end user.
"If the product overlaps what John Deere, Jacobsen and Toro are doing, then it will be a difficult time to get to market," Coleman says.
Coleman says most mower manufacturers have done a great job with cutting units. He expects the future of mowing design will focus more on the power train, including electric- and lithium-powered mowers.
Coleman keeps his mind sharp and sound through vigorous exercise, including as a triathlete. It's another role for this jack-of-all-trades.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF TORO
Toro's Lonn: Sometimes ideas fly, sometimes they don't
Put one and one together: In the 1960s, Dana Lonn's dad was a mechanic for Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis, Minn., and Lonn was scoring A's in his high school math and science classes.
Hence, it's no surprise that Lonn earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota and is now managing director of the Center for Advanced Turf Technology at The Toro Co. in Bloomington, Minn.
The 61-year-old Lonn has worked at Toro for 43 years, starting out as an entry-level engineer after high school. Over the years, Lonn has learned not to become discouraged in his work. Sometimes his ideas fly, and sometimes they don't.
"My job is to provide choices to the organization," Lonn says. "Some of those choices become products, and some don't. Sometimes the time just isn't right for some products."
Lonn oversees 15 engineers and his working days are varied. One day he's working on budgets, the next day he's meeting with the potential supplier of a new technology, and the next day he's studying a prototype.
While Lonn is in a management role at Toro, he prefers to not think of it that way.
"I hate the word 'management,' because it has the connotation of control," he says. "I prefer the words 'leader' and 'mentor.' I really despise the word 'subordinate.' The people I work with are just like me."
When he was a kid, Lonn was a huge fan of the U.S. space program, watching every Apollo liftoff. He was intrigued by how NASA engineers could get a rocket to launch into space.
"Looking back and realizing what those men and women accomplished by putting those machines together ... it's really inspiring to engineers," he says.
Lonn, who became an Eagle Scout when he was 13, downplays his profession as being filled with people who are more intellectually gifted than others.
"It's no different as far as having to have a focus on what you do," he says. "Take golf course superintendents - they have to think through what they're doing to understand their goals."
PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRECISE PATH ROBOTICS
Precise Path's Smith:
It all started with LEGOs
Aaron Smith graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the top undergraduate engineering college in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. Smith is now a lead engineer for Indianapolis-based Precise Path Robotics. And, it all started with LEGOs.
When he was a child, Smith loved his building blocks. He'd read the directions for the initial assembling of a LEGO model, but then he was off making his own creations. "The signs were there for me to become an engineer," the 27-year-old says.
Smith earned a mechanical engineering degree with a minor in computer science at Rose-Hulman because he wanted to get into robotics. That's how he ended up at Precise Path working on the company's RG3 robotic greens mower.
What Smith loves about his job the most is that he gets to do a broad range of challenging engineering work, something he says he might not have the opportunity to do elsewhere. He has spent much of his time implementing new and innovative sensor technology into the RG3.
It has been a trying, but fascinating, endeavor.
"A lot of our sensor technology is based on technologies from other industries that need to be carefully applied to work well outdoors," Smith says. "Early on, it was challenging to make the technology work so that we could move forward. It was some of the slam-your-head-against-the-wall technology we struggled with, followed by that ah-ha moment."
Just like he did with his LEGOs, Smith and the Precise Path team have found ways to make it work. Over the past five years, Smith has been involved in numerous design cycles and along the way has solicited input from superintendents around the world to improve his designs.
"Our decisions on product improvements are driven by the feedback we receive from the superintendent," Smith says. "It's all about meeting their needs."
Smith says it has been rewarding working on a product for the golf industry.
"As a golfer, I had no idea about the complexities of maintaining a golf course," he says. "I hope that my contributions to the RG3 will make a superintendent's job a little bit easier."
Ryan Steiner's favorite part of being an engineer at Ventrac is getting to use the equipment that he helped create.
PHOTO: BY LARRY AYLWARD
Ventrac's Steiner: The right music for the right project
Ryan Steiner grew up on a farm and often found himself tinkering with equipment and other machinery on the land. His father, Roy, encouraged him to get his hands greasy.
"I was told not to be intimidated by how something works," says the 35-year-old director of engineering for Orrville, Ohio-based Ventrac. "I was also told that if you take something apart, it might be challenging to get it back together again, but that was the learning part of it."
Roy later became an engineer and founding partner of Venture Products Inc., the parent company of Ventrac, where his brother, Dallas, is the president.
Not surprisingly, Ryan, who has a master's degree in engineering management from the University of Akron, has two brothers who are engineers, one who works at the company as director of manufacturing.
Ryan had a hand in developing Ventrac's contour deck for golf courses.
"It was a great concept with great problems that we had to resolve in getting it to where it is today," he says. "But that's not a bad thing. Anytime there's innovation, there will be roadblocks that have to be resolved."
Ryan's favorite part of the job is using a product he helped design and his company created. Whether he's testing the product at the company's headquarters or using it at home, it's still a big thrill.
Ryan, who oversees seven engineers, says a big challenge for all of them is thinking ahead to what their customers' future needs will be.
"You can't look ahead far enough," he adds.
Ryan is a music fan, and he will cue up different styles of music on Pandora Internet radio to suit the mood he's in according to what he's working on.
"As we near the end of a project, and I'm working on documentation or paperwork, the tempo tends to get harder and harder," he says. "If I'm working on manuals, I listen to alternative rock. And when in doubt I can always break out ZZ Top."
Aylward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.