Published in Manufacturing
Nelson Wilner, Vice President of the Engines Division at Kawasaki Motor Corp. Nelson Wilner, Vice President of the Engines Division at Kawasaki Motor Corp. Courtesy Photo

Kawasaki engines exec talks innovation

BY Sunday, July 23, 2017 02:07pm

By moving R&D from Missouri to West Michigan, Kawasaki Motor Corp. will be able to deliver faster technical support and service to customers and OEMs. That’s according to Nelson Wilner, a veteran sales and marketing executive in the marine industry who was promoted to lead Kawasaki’s Engines Division, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids. The group focuses on manufacturing industrial engines, primarily for the landscaping industry. While Kawasaki’s manufacturing operations are in Missouri, the division operates its sales and marketing and other business operations from Grand Rapids. Wilner spoke with MiBiz about the decision to move the company’s separate R&D group to West Michigan and other innovations at the company.

Looking at your business operations, what are you doing that’s innovative?

The big step we’ve had recently is bringing R&D in house here. They used to be with our manufacturing facility (in Maryville, Mo.) and now they’re here in-house in Grand Rapids. We’re still getting used to being together, but it’s been an amazing relationship. It’s about a year old right now and you have to monitor and direct it sometimes, but to bring sales and marketing people and technical people who are dealing with customers all day long and OEM questions and requests together with the R&D people is kind of magical. Rather than R&D off in a think tank somewhere, we’re all together here in a building so it really gets us in sync as one team. It’s really kind of cool and has been an amazing experience to see this come together.

I think some companies see the benefit of having their R&D teams close to their manufacturing staff. What made your organization make the decision to move them to work with sales and marketing?

A lot of companies keep them separate, as did we. But then, we realized this was the best way to do it. To bring information from our big customers or small customers directly to R&D, it cuts the transit time of that information so much and you’re getting it right from the source many times, rather than through different filters. Aside from that, we pride ourselves as a place where employees want to work and enjoy working. We feel like we have a very happy group of employees here in West Michigan and we continue to build this stronghold in West Michigan.

How has the R&D staff integration process developed?

Our vision is to be our customers’ most essential partner and we’ll do what we need to do to be their professional partner. In our vision and mission, we actually put employees first and customers second. We talk about empowering employees and inspiring achievement through employees and then customers second. Ultimately, it’s very simple that happy employees make happy customers. That’s really something we try to live here each day. We really like work-life balance. I think that’s a bit of Japanese influence there as well. It’s very important that your life is in balance, so I think this company comes by that honestly.

In a mature sector like the landscaping industry, where are you focusing your R&D teams on innovation?

There are multiple different types of companies around. You’ve seen those guys out there that are cutting grass with the big Zero Turn lawnmowers. Efficiency is very important and performance is very important, and that’s where Kawasaki comes in. We’re the power plant for that equipment. Is it innovative like automotive? I would say not. But we’re certainly moving in a lot of those innovative directions in terms of efficiency of the engine and performance.

What’s a specific example of that?

EFI (electronic fuel injection) is really big for us. That’s the big recent innovation that we’re continuing down that path. … For landscaping, you have not just the speed of the piece of equipment — your mower — but you have blade speed also. To have proper power that can move you efficiently and quickly so you can get your job done quicker, and not have to go over it twice, that’s another thing EFI gives you. It gives you the torque you need for speed and for the blade speed.

How does that help the end users?

(Companies that use our equipment) are all small businesses, one-, two-, three-, five-employee outfits. When we help them run better, when we keep them reliable, when our service staff handles them and services them quickly with information, it helps small businesses all around the country. We’re very proud of that and we take that very seriously. If your lawn mower at home is broken, it’s annoying and you have to get it fixed and your lawn may get a little bit long. But if you’re a commercial landscaper and your piece of equipment goes down, it’s costing you money and you have your own employees to worry about.

Is fuel efficiency a concern for your customers?

It’s funny — it depends on when you ask that question. Back when gas was $4 a gallon, it was a huge issue. Now it’s not so much. But we live in a world where it could wind up back at $4 a gallon again. Fuel efficiency is important to everybody.

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