Dan Samet

Dan Samet, president of Rhino Ag in Gibson City, speaks to members of the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce during the group’s monthly general meeting at The Sand Trap in Gibson City.

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GIBSON CITY — Exactly 104 days after Alamo Group Inc. acquired the Dixie Chopper business, its manufacturing plant in Gibson City built its first Dixie Chopper zero-turn lawn mower.

The milestone marked the start of what is expected to become a resurgence of the Dixie Chopper brand. Some 10,000 Dixie Chopper units are expected to be built per year at the plant at 1020 S. Sangamon Ave., according to Dan Samet, president of Rhino Ag, a division of Alamo Group.

“It’s a real iconic brand,” Samet told members of the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce during their Jan. 2 general meeting at The Sand Trap in Gibson City. “We’ve been overwhelmed with the response that we’ve gotten from dealers and customers.”

Samet said the Gibson City plant’s “bookings” for Dixie Chopper mowers for 2020 exceeded expectations, so “now the challenge is to get those built, and built right, and delivered to the customers.”

Even competitors are happy to see Dixie Chopper mowers being built again, Samet said. Textron Outdoor Power Equipment Inc., a subsidiary of Textron Inc., ceased production of the mowers in November 2018, before finally agreeing to sell the Dixie Chopper business to Alamo in August 2019.

After the acquisition, Samet said, “we quickly put together a program to go down to ... the green industry expo in Louisville, and a number of people who came up to our booth were just excited that Dixie Chopper was back in business. Even competitors, they said, ‘The landscape just isn’t the same without you.’”

Alamo’s acquisition of the Dixie Chopper business took a while. At first, Textron was not willing to sell it, Samet said.

“We knew the brand and we’d been wanting to expand our presence in that marketplace, so it seemed like it might be a good fit, but Textron had no intention of selling the business,” Samet said. “It took a while for them to answer the phone, and then they finally did and said, ‘We have no interest in selling; we’re just done.’ But we didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We kept after it for a while, and then finally we were able to kind of break the ice a little bit. They had some changes in personnel, and they had somebody who was willing to talk, and in August of 2019 we were able to complete the acquisition.”

There was a “real flurry of activity” following the acquisition, Samet said.

“We moved in (to the plant in Gibson City) probably 50-plus trucks of inventory — of machinery, some of the fixtures for a lot of the units, things of that nature,” Samet said. “We cleared out an area of the building and put in an all-new overhead crane system (for assembling the units) and got everything ready to go with the machines that was necessary for that. We brought in new robotic welders, and it just so happened that the brand of robots (Textron was) using (at its Dixie Chopper manufacturing plant) in Indiana were the same that we were using, so we already knew all the programming and we had expertise in that regard. That helped with the transition.”

Prior to the acquisition, Textron shut down its Dixie Chopper manufacturing facility in Greenscastle, Ind., and the lease for its warehousing facility in Indiana was expiring.

Following the acquisition, Alamo brought in four workers who were in operations and management in Indiana to work in Gibson City, Samet said. Meanwhile, Alamo retained the warehousing facility in Indiana, “so all the service parts, warranty tech service and customer service are still being handled over there,” Samet said.

About 25 new full-time workers are expected to be hired by the Gibson City plant to “support the Dixie Chopper product line,” Samet said.

Depending on demand, even more could be hired eventually.

“The bookings program really exceeded our expectations, so if that trend continues in 2020, it might go up another eight or 12 folks,” Samet said.

The Gibson City plant — which also produces Rhino Ag tractor-powered pull-behind equipment and EarthMaster heavy-duty primary tillage equipment — currently has about 175 employees.

Later this month, the plant will be adding two more Dixie Chopper zero-turn models to the 17 it currently is manufacturing, Samet said. The models the plant builds range in width from 40 to 74 inches and in horsepower from 22 to 36, Samet said.

As there is not yet a Dixie Chopper “dealer base” in the Gibson City area, most of the mowers built will be sent to dealers in the South, where the brand is particularly popular, Samet said. There are about 300 Dixie Chopper dealers in the U.S., Samet said.