Lessons Learned From The Demise Of An Iconic Innovator

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The downfall of Briggs & Stratton comes as a shock to the business world, market watchers, and the innovation community in general.

The downfall of Briggs & Stratton comes as a shock to the business world, market watchers, and the innovation community in general.The downfall of Briggs & Stratton comes as a shock to the business world, market watchers, and the innovation community in general.

Have you heard the news? Briggs & Stratton has applied for bankruptcy in the United States. Never heard of them? You might want to check your lawnmower, pressure washer, or other motorised tool in your shed. There’s a chance it’s powered by a Briggs & Stratton-designed engine.The downfall of Briggs & Stratton comes as a shock to the business world, market watchers, and the innovation community in general. Before 2020, it was the world’s largest manufacturer of small gasoline engines and employed thousands of people.

Here’s our take on the demise of a great American manufacturing company and the lessons we can learn about innovation and corporate resiliency.

What happened to Briggs & Stratton?

In July 2020, the manufacturing company, based in the American mid-West, applied for bankruptcy.The future for the company, at least under its current structure and brand, is uncertain. The next steps are to work with a private equity firm, KPS Capital Partners, to sell its assets.Briggs & Stratton was founded in 1908 and manufactured gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment. It sold its products in over 100 countries around the world.

The company owes its success in part to its innovative roots in the 1950s when it revolutionised products in the lawn and garden industry with its combustion engine technologies. The company used innovative materials including aluminum, cast-iron and a combination of other metals to drastically improve on the design of engines that existed at the time. Over the years, they integrated great new designs for components that further advanced small engine technology.How, then, could a company known for innovation ultimately disintegrate in 2020?

From what we’ve been able to glean from scouring over financial records and interviews with outgoing executives, there are lots of factors that contributed to the demise of Briggs & Stratton.Over the past few years, steel and aluminum prices have risen, sales have slowed from brick and mortar stores, and the largest customer of Briggs & Stratton products, Sears, went bankrupt. In 2020 you can’t discount the market-wide effects of the COVID-19 health pandemic, either.

That’s a lot of problems! Steering a company out of those tough times is no easy feat, but it’s not impossible, either.Is there something that could have been done? As a product design specialist and fervent supporter of the power of innovation, we certainly believe so - and it all comes down to sustained innovation.

What can we learn from the demise of Briggs & Stratton?

One of the biggest crusades that we often fight is to transform thinking in the business world from viewing innovation as a checkbox buzzword to an essential and sustained process as part of everyday operations.That certainly could have helped Briggs & Stratton to stay ahead of the curve and avoid a yard sale of its assets. If a business can’t stay, well, in business in the face of external pressures like rising input costs and decreased demand, then it’s not a very healthy enterprise after all.It all comes down to two important lessons and, sadly, Briggs & Stratton provides us with the perfect opportunity to illustrate them.

Lesson #1: Innovation is not a once-off event.

Innovation isn’t about making one amazing new product and then riding on its success for years to come. Generating impact is a critical process for a business and it takes more than a single new idea to get there.Sustained innovation is the goal and it’s possible only by continually pushing for new ideas at the pace and scale of underlying problems. Innovation has to be embedded as a lifeblood of a business. It should be the solution to external problems such as demand shocks and global health pandemics, not the trivial buzzword that gets touted in the eulogy for a failed enterprise.Innovation as a solution was right in front of Briggs & Stratton. Bigger and better new product developments could have brought a whole new customer base to prevalence and could have introduced their product line to adjacent markets. Or, regional collaborations and innovations with supply chains and online platforms could have offset a decline in sales and transformed their reliance on brick-and-mortar shops.There’s always an innovative solution, the trick is to find it and then utilise it in a sustainable way that scales with the problem-solving needs of the business.

Lesson #2: Execution is critical.

You can have all the great ideas in the world, but without execution, they’re worthless. It’s ironic now to look back at the soon-to-be-defunct innovation page on the Briggs & Stratton’s website, which touts that their new product line is ‘made to make life better.’

It would appear as though making life better simply wasn’t enough as a sustainable innovation model.It’s been said that innovation is about solving problems. Earlier, we listed the problems that Briggs & Stratton faced. Are they much different than those faced by many other retail manufacturing companies around the world?

Not really.

Without coming up with new solutions to problems, it’s hard to steer a path toward survival. And that’s one major problem that Briggs & Stratton should have been solving to make its own life easier. It’s easy enough to blame it all on COVID-19. But it’s probably more realistic to pin it down to a lack of sustained innovation, problem-solving, and execution.

---Do you have some thoughts of your own about Briggs & Stratton? Do you have an alternative version of its struggles to share? Contact us with your thoughts or leave a reply, below.

We’d love to hear from you.And, for more innovation-related content, be sure to check out our Innovolo blog. See you there!

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