Helmut Ullrich: A sympathetic ear for superintendents

For 2021 Edwin Budding Award winner Helmut Ullrich, product development began and ended by talking with — and listening to — superintendents.


Perhaps the most remarkable part of Helmut Ullrich’s unparalleled, 46-year tenure at The Toro Co. is that it almost was over before it even began.

The way Ullrich recalls, the year was 1980, and he was just a few years into his time at Toro, working for its international division. Globally, times were tough economically, and Toro wasn’t immune.

“They were going to eliminate the international division,” Ullrich says. “I had just come back from Europe, and I walked into the HR office to get my pink slip. You know what a pink slip is? It means, ‘You’re gone.’

“But I was bold. I said, ‘You can keep your pink slip. You can’t do that. I don’t accept that. I just got back from Europe.’ They said, ‘Well, there’s one job nobody wants. It’s posted over there.’ I said, ‘Why doesn’t anybody want it?’ They said, ‘It’s the golf division. It’s for sale.’ I said, ‘That’s my job. That’s my job.’”

Helmut Ullrich

Right: After an impactful 46-year career at The Toro Co., Edwin Budding Award winner Helmut Ullrich retired in October 2020. He still lives in Minnesota and has plenty of quality time for dog pal Oliver. Photo by Lorri Downs

Though the details might have been lost in the intervening four decades-plus, few could have predicted just how prescient Ullrich would prove to be. By the time Ullrich retired in October 2020 as Toro’s senior product manager, he had played a key role in reshaping Toro and changing the company’s financial trajectory in the golf maintenance industry. But his reach extended far beyond Bloomington, Minn., and Toro HQ — further proof of which comes in the form of the 2021 Edwin Budding Award, which Ullrich collected in February at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in San Diego.

“I think it was given to exactly who it was meant to be given to,” says Stephen Tucker, director of golf course and landscape operations at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando and a 21-year GCSAA member. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”

And Tucker knows a thing or two about the Budding Award, which annually is given to “an individual in the turf equipment industry whose actions have gone above and beyond the norm to help shape the turf equipment management industry into what it is today.” Tucker founded the International Golf Course Equipment Managers Association in 2006 and served as its CEO. In 2007, the IGCEMA created the Budding Award — named for the inventor of the reel mower — and in 2015, the year GCSAA absorbed the IGCEMA and introduced the equipment manager classification for membership, Tucker was named the Budding Award winner.

“When you put that much time and effort into it, as Helmut did, the service he provided and continually wanting to excel, to create the best products — and the 40 years of listening that go into that — I can’t think of anyone more deserving,” Tucker says. “This was meant to go to people who don’t get rewarded a lot. Some people get awards all the time. Helmut is exactly the kind of person it was meant to go to.”

‘I wanted to be a farmer’

A native of Germany born in 1943 who recalls the aftermath of World War II in his home country, Ullrich grew up on the family farm.

“Growing up, there were three boys in the family,” Ullrich says in a still-thick German accent. “The oldest gets the farm. I wanted to be a farmer, but I was not the oldest, so that wasn’t an option.”

He earned an undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering in Germany before sailing, at 24, for Minnesota, where he paid for school through a variety of jobs, including as a combine operator.

He earned a master’s in business from the University of Minnesota in 1974 and faced what he calls a Catch-22.

“Growing up on a farm, I really wanted to work for John Deere,” Ullrich says with a laugh. “On the farm, it’s John Deere equipment. I interviewed with John Deere. They got me down to their plant, then, what happened was, I only had a student visa. They couldn’t hire me. I had to get a visa to get a job, but I had to have a job to get a visa.”

Discouraged, Ullrich hired a headhunter, who eventually connected him with Toro.

“The headhunter called and said, ‘I have the ideal job for you, with The Toro Co.,’” Ullrich says. “I said, ‘Toro? Toro Co. who?’ I went in for the interview, and they hired me. Because it was such a small company at the time, they didn’t have a very sophisticated HR department. They never posed the question about the visa, so they hired me on the spot. I had a job, and right away I applied for my visa.”

Helmut Ullrich Toro

Right: Ullrich at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, sporting Toro colors and working the show floor. Photo courtesy of Helmut Ullrich

Ullrich still harbored designs on Deere and wondered how long he might last at Toro. But shortly after he started, his father died in Germany.

“I told my boss, and he said, ‘Our secretary already got you a ticket. Go to Germany. Stay as long as you need,’” Ullrich says. “Those people were so considerate at Toro. I stayed in Germany for three weeks, and they paid for the trip. That impressed me so much, I lasted 46 years.”

A world-class listener

Rest assured, Ullrich more than repaid that debt.

To try to list all the contributions Ullrich made to the industry over his 46 years — from groundbreaking innovations, especially in greens mowers, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Greens Mower,” to subtle-but-substantial tweaks and modifications to products that might only be appreciated by the end user — would be futile.

They include the 1989 introduction of the innovative and legendary Greensmaster 1000 walk-behind mower, the Flex 21 floating-head mower, 3150 riding greens mower, Dual Point Adjustment cutting units and lithium-ion-powered riding and walk greens mowers. All were industry-firsts and game-changers, and all were created under Ullrich’s watch by a team of engineers and designers to whom Ullrich — who holds three patents — deflects credit.

“I think the term ‘legend’ gets overused,” says Noah Wahl, a former golf course superintendent who now is Toro’s global product marketing manager. “But he really is a legend here, based on his career performance and his personality. Being an immigrant from Germany, I always gave him grief. He had been in the U.S. for 30-some years, and it sounds like he just came here. He never picked up that Minnesota accent. He was always just doing interesting stuff. He’s just a bigger-than-life person, even though he’s small in stature.”

A U.S. citizen since the 1990s, Ullrich had no background in golf.

“I never knew what the game of golf was about before I came to Toro,” he says. “I never golfed. Still don’t.”

What he could do, however, was listen.

“One of his strong suits was just talking to customers,” Wahl says. “He just really, really listened. One of the things he told me was, ‘Customers are busy in their day-to-day, just getting everything done. They’re not thinking about improvements, but it’s in there somewhere.’ He was all about getting that out of them, by asking them questions, pushing them. They may say it’s great, but he’d push further: How could it be better? He kept pushing a topic to the point where he’d find a feature or an item he could improve or a way to revolutionize with some new item or widget.”

Helmut Ullrich golf
Ullrich being interviewed by golf personality Lauren Thompson at the 2022 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in San Diego. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Case in point: Wahl recalls working with Ullrich on a TriFlex mower project, and the area of the armrest came up.

“That’s maybe the 150th-most important thing on a TriFlex, but Helmut was adamant we get it right,” Wahl says. “There’s a balance — the cup holder, but the operator has to be able to see the outside of the cutting unit. He had the engineers all riled up, but he wouldn’t accept it until it was perfect. I was really just in awe of his diligence there. A lot of operators will tell you the cup holder is very important. He stuck to his guns. That was definitely a learning experience for me.”

For Ullrich, it all started with the end user.

“I always could relate to the superintendent,” he says, “and to the needs of the market. If anything, that was my strength. If you go to focus groups, get a bunch of people around, get them to take surveys … they don’t always know what they want. You have to be able to read between the lines, find what really is the essence. Customers don’t necessarily tell you what they want, but they’re very smart. They give you hints. At the end, you need to put it all together as the project leader.”

Tucker was equipment manager at the Ritz-Carlton Club in Sarasota, Fla., when he first met Ullrich. They eventually grew to become fast friends.

“He definitely listened to what you had to say,” Tucker says. “He was proud of his designs, as well. Nobody wants to hear when there are issues, that there are things that could be improved, but he always wanted things to be better. Always. Some people don’t want to listen. Some just shut you out. But he always listened. He might not always agree, but he’d always give a fair assessment.”

Still listening

Ullrich attended the 2022 Conference and Trade Show to collect his Budding Award. He says it was his 40-somethingth trip to the event, but the first when he wasn’t working.

“It was very good,” he says. “It was nice to meet with superintendents again. It was nice to be recognized. But it was different for me. Dr. (Thom) Nikolai and Dr. (John) Sorochan had a seminar. I was able to listen to their stuff. For me, the show was a little different than when I was constantly on the floor. It was more enjoyable.”

His retirement didn’t last long. Less than two months after his retirement, Ullrich decided he “didn’t want to just sit around” his 10-acre suburban Minneapolis homestead.

“So, I went on the internet. ‘Oh, they need school bus drivers,’ so I called right away,” Ullrich says.

Helmut Ullrich Minnesota
Ullrich didn’t stay retired long. A few months after his last day at Toro, he started driving school buses near his Minnesota home. Photo courtesy of Helmut Ullrich

He drives for four schools in the Minnetonka School District — two elementary schools, a middle school and a private school. He spends 61⁄2 hours a day on the road, but there is a small concession to retirement: While before he’d wake up at 5 a.m. to go to work, now he can sleep in until a quarter to 7.

“I like it a lot,” Ullrich says of his new gig. “I must say, I’m delighted with the behavior of the kids. That’s very rewarding. And I got so many letters and gift cards for Christmas. When I was gone for a week out there in California, the parents asked where I’d been. It doesn’t pay any benefits, but you don’t do it for the money. You do it to have some accomplishment, to give back to society. That’s why you do it. And it’s nice to be around alike people who are retired. One of the guys was a nuclear physicist. A lot of them are very educated. You can have great conversations if you get there early.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.