There were 561 exhibitors spread across 184,500 square feet in the Orange County Convention Center at the Golf Industry Show in Orlando, Fla., last month. There were 14,147 attendees and twice as many sore feet at the end of the twoday event on Feb. 5 and 6.

Mark me down for two of the sore feet . and a stiff back for that matter. While I couldn’t make it to every booth, I made more stops than a presidential candidate on a weeklong campaign tour.

I also attended several excellent parties, press events, dinners and even an Orlando Magic basketball game outside of time spent on the convention floor. I spoke with representatives from various companies, big and small.

The good news for the golf industry – in addition to the show’s numbers being up in several categories this year – is that more companies are bullish about the golf industry again. They’re no longer citing that dreaded three-word cliché – “I’m cautiously optimistic” – when asked about the state of their businesses and the industry. They like what they see. Read on and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Nothing runs like a new assembly line

John Deere Golf held a press conference at the Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando on Feb. 4 to introduce a slew of new golf course maintenance equipment. Mark Ford, John Deere Golf’s marketing manager, said it was the company’s biggest equipment introduction ever.

But that wasn’t all. Ford also revealed that the company had recently built a new assembly line at its turf care plant in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., where some of the new equipment was produced. Three years were spent planning the plant, and it was built from the ground up to manufacture fairway, rough and trim mowers. The line, featuring cameras and integrated torque tools, was constructed to be “the ultimate in mistake-proofing,” said Mike Koppen, group marketing manager for John Deere Golf.

The reason for mistake-proofing the plant is simple. “We’ll get a better product off the line,” Koppen added.

Included in the product introduction are John Deere Golf’s new A Model Fairway, Trim and Surrounds and Rough Mower line. The company also launched the A40 and V40 PrecisionCore Aerators.

“You don’t make an investment like this … unless you’re thinking long term and are confident about the health of the industry,” Ford said. “We’re making a statement … endorsing the golf industry as having a bright future.”

Jake’s stake

If you visited the Jacobsen booth, you were overcome by orange. Maybe you even sipped some orange juice at the booth’s juice bar. Jacobsen definitely lived up to its MO for the show, which was “Orange everywhere.”

Apparently, more superintendents are seeing orange, too. In 2013, Jacobsen increased its market share, according to President David Withers, who couldn’t reveal the exact number.

“What’s exciting to me is that more customers are considering us,” Withers said. “[They’re] giving us a chance.”

But Withers didn’t revel in the good news.

“We know we don’t deserve anybody’s business,” he said firmly. “We have to earn everybody’s business. We have to earn every single machine we sell.”

Withers, who took over an unstable company with problems three years ago, has worked for Jacobsen for 22 years in the U.S. and England – “I’ve had about every job there is,” he says – and he knows how important stability is to an operation. There was too much turnover among people in key positions at Jacobsen before Withers took over as president.

The turnover didn’t bode well with Withers’ three B’s approach – “building” relationships, “building” a good machine and “backing” it up.

“When you think about building relationships, how do you do that when you’re turning people over all of the time?” Withers asked. “I value stability, and I think we’ve managed to bring that back over the past few years.”

Charlotte-based Jacobsen also held a press conference during the show to announce it acquired the assets of Dixie Chopper, a Coatesville, Ind., based manufacturer of zero-turn radius mowers for the commercial and residential markets.

“The addition of Dixie Chopper expands our reach into the consumer and commercial sectors, including municipalities, with a full range of zero-turn mowers known for their speed, quality and performance,” Withers said.

Known as “the world’s fastest lawn mower,” Dixie Chopper mowers are capable of mowing up to 6.6 acres per hour. The company manufactures 11 models of zero-turn mowers.

More proof

Want another sign that the golf economy is improving for suppliers and superintendents? Consider the sales of LebanonTurf’s Country Club MD brand, which debuted last summer.

Christopher S. Gray Sr., a professional product manager for LebanonTurf, said demand for the product has been greater than initially expected. The two batches of Country Club MD that LebanonTurf manufactured – about 23,000 bags – have nearly sold out.

Country Club MD (maximum dispersal) incorporates Lebanon’s Meth-Ex slow-release nitrogen, stress-altering stimulants, sea plant kelp meal and humic acid.

“The feedback we’ve heard from superintendents is that they love its ability to melt into the canopy after application,” Gray said, also noting that superintendents like being able to utilize the biostimulants in the product without needing to make a separate application.

Even during the economic downturn, Gray believes most superintendents didn’t downgrade to less-expensive fertilizers when their maintenance budgets were trimmed.

“A universal truth has always been – you get what you pay for,” Gray said. “Most superintendents understand that if you’re going to cut corners on course maintenance, fertilizer selection is typically a poor place to choose, especially when it comes to putting greens.”

Country Club MD is not only selling well, but the line is being expanded with four additional greens-grade products this spring.

“We had a lot of feedback from our distributors, both domestic and international, about creating some products that include phosphorus,” Gray said. “So we listened and responded with these new SGN 80 products.”

“Game changer”

The talk at the Nufarm booth – and elsewhere – was the news that Nufarm Americas and Valent U.S.A. entered into an agreement that appoints Nufarm as the exclusive distributor of Valent’s branded products for professional turf, ornamental and aquatic uses. At its booth, Nufarm touted the alignment as a “game changer.”

Rick Fletcher, Nufarm’s technical services manager for turf and ornamentals, said the agreement combines the product portfolios of the two companies into one broad portfolio with little cannibalization. Fletcher also revealed that no jobs will be lost as part of the agreement.

“We knew we wanted to bring their people over,” Fletcher said. “We knew we needed more feet on the ground to get that interaction with the buyer, the end user and the distributor. And we knew we needed more tech support.”

For Fletcher, who joined Nufarm when the company acquired Clearly Chemical in 2012, the deal means there’s just more “toys” for him to play with in his sandbox.

“Now my sandbox is the size of a football field, and there are toys everywhere!” Fletcher said. “My problem is: Which toy do I play with first?”

Bayer: Embracing sustainability

Ten years ago – heck, maybe even five years ago – I don’t believe a chemical company would have had the mettle to devote a segment of its booth theme to sustainability. But that’s just what Bayer CropScience’s Environmental Science division did during the show.

“Sustainability” was a buzzword five years ago. Many industry companies and superintendents were trying to get their arms around sustainability’s concept (still are). Back then some people thought sustainability was about ditching conventional and synthetic pesticides for organic products, which it’s not.

With its booth, Bayer was conveying that its synthetic pesticides fit well with sustainability’s message, which is to ensure profitable businesses while making decisions that are in the long-term interest of the environment and communities.

Gilles Galliou, vice president of Bayer CropScience’s Environmental Science North America division, said the booth’s message reflects Bayer’ motto: “Science for a Better Life.”

“It’s about having green space that people can enjoy,” Galliou said.

Bayer is in it for the long haul when it comes to sustainability.

“We’re trying to project ourselves to what will be the future of the business 10 years from now,” added Galliou. “We want to discuss with [superintendents] what it means to them and how we can help them. We want to be part of it.”

Better quality and quicker recovery

At the Syngenta booth, everybody was talking about better quality turf that will recover quickly from stress. Mark LaFleur, marketing communications lead for Syngenta Turf and Landscape, explained that Syngenta wants to work with superintendents on a “total turf management” approach that takes into account multiple types of plant stress, including abiotic and biotic stressors as well as stress that can come from the environment or people.

“Looking at turf from this holistic approach will help superintendents produce quality turf that will recover quicker from stress, which will ultimately help them drive revenue for their course,” LaFleur said.

Syngenta is calling this holistic approach to turf management “BQR,” which stands for “better quality, quicker recovery.” The Syngenta team is currently working with superintendents throughout the country on ways to better manage their turf so it can recover more quickly from stress.

On hand at GIS were several Syngenta territory managers, which shouldn’t be confused with a typical sales representative, LaFleur said.

“We don’t call them sales managers because they are more than that,” he explains. “Their goal is to become true partners with superintendents to help them implement agronomic programs and become better environmental stewards among other things.”

Currently, the Syngenta technical team is working to develop roughly 40 different agronomic programs to help superintendents in different regions, LaFleur said.

Reiter: “Remote management”

Rob Reiter didn’t sound like a guy who had been on the job for less than a year and was attending his first GIS. Reiter, group marketing manager for Rain Bird, seemed to have his finger on the challenges superintendents face from an irrigation perspective. Reiter calls the solution “remote management.” He said superintendents must ask themselves if they can start doing more controlled irrigation by not being on-site.

“Golf is becoming more about intelligence,” said Reiter, who has spent much of his career in technology strategy.

Rain Bird is aiming to become more proactive in dealing with irrigation challenges on the golf course, instead of being reactive, Reiter noted.

“What we’re really interested in is where do you want be three to five years from now managing your golf course so we can start to look at those developments today and begin to solve your problems before they happen,” he said.

The Turfco barometer

Scott Kincaid and his family at Turfco have been in business for almost 100 years. So when Kincaid, the company’s executive vice president, said there’s “no question” that the golf industry is coming back in the U.S., we tend to believe him.

“We’re seeing superintendents who made it through the recession and have figured out how they’re going to survive,” Kincaid said.

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, Kincaid said Turfco’s leaders, recognizing that superintendents’ maintenance crews were getting smaller, focused on making equipment more productive and efficient to help superintendents with time management, among other things.

Toro’s centennial

The Toro Co.’s booth was dotted with new products for 2014, not to mention equipment from yesteryear. The nod to the past was in honor of Toro’s 100-year anniversary, which the company celebrates in July.

In 1918, Toro introduced its first product built specifically for golf, a power fairway roller based on a Bull tractor frame. In 1919, the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis approached Toro about creating a motorized fairway mower to replace horse-drawn equipment. Mounting five lawn mowers onto the front of a farm tractor, Toro created the motorized golf course equipment industry.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

After a nearly 20-year hiatus, the Golf Industry Show returns to San Antonio in 2015. The show is set for Feb. 21-26 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. For more information, see http://www.golfindustryshow.com.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. In 2010, Toro introduced the industry’s first lithium ion battery-powered walk greens mower. And at this year’s show Toro unveiled the Sand Pro 2040Z, the industry’s first mechanical bunker rake with zero-turn radius capability.