Homelite Corporation is a worldwide power equipment manufacturer (chainsaws, leaf blowers, trimmers), that became notable as being one of the largest post-World War II manufacturers of portable electrical generators and professional and consumer level chainsaws, as well as holding the distinction of producing the world's first one-man operated chainsaw.
A connection with the land lies at the heart of the Homelite, brand both past and present. Starting out as a pioneering enterprise bringing electricity to rural homes in 1920s North America, the brand has gone on to carve out a place for itself as the inspiration behind the rise of the chain saw consumer market and a leading innovator in the field of outdoor power equipment for home owners. Founded on the dictum that for every problem there is a better solution than that currently in the market, the company’s innovative lightweight products and long history of performance have helped millions of people over the years to live more comfortable lives. Such an outlook gives Homelite a natural synergy with TTI, enabling it to thrive since becoming part of the group in 2001.
The Homelite story is a saga of American enterprise. It was 1921, and following an early retirement for a man of his age, 55-year-old Charles H. Ferguson, an inspired amateur inventor and tinkerer, spent a great deal of time in the workshop of his country estate in Valhalla, N.Y. There he rigged up a water wheel and a small DC generator to draw power from a brook running through his property and was soon able to provide power to his home to run electric lights, a toaster and his soldering irons.
Not fully satisfied with this arrangement, he then built a 2-cycle gasoline engine to run a low voltage DC generator. The rest is history.
The motor he created for his generator was to power the first Homelite products. The small ‘Model D’ engine was an amazing one-man achievement – far ahead of its time. Through numerous product applications, it was to remain basically unchanged, except for minor refinements, for nearly 35 years. The invention proved to be a life changer for him and many others. While Americans in the cities enjoyed a ready supply of electricity at that time, Ferguson soon realized there would be a market in supplying rural homes with this product. In more remote areas, no mainstream electricity was available and not likely to be for many years as the private electricity companies that dominated the industry in the United States saw little profit in investing in the infrastructure to supply these areas.
The possibility of buying a generator opened up a whole new way of life for farm owners and rural residents in the United States. Life on a farm was very tough without electricity. All machinery had to be operated by hand and most jobs meant hard manual labor. Milking cows was hazardous with lanterns hung in the barn. Inside the farmhouses, it meant a lot of extra work, with no lighting or opportunity to take advantage of the new electric-powered products coming on the market, such as refrigerators and washers. It was thus not surprising that when Ferguson began to market his generators, The Home Electric Lighting Company found thousands of eager buyers.
In 1924, the company adopted the simpler name Homelite®, with Ferguson continuing to oversee its dramatic growth. By 1927, Ferguson moved manufacturing and distribution to Port Chester, N.Y. As Homelite’s production increased, Ferguson built a self-priming pump, using an early engine design, and later a ventilation blower and compressor (Model K). As further evidence of his engineering genius, he invented a pump seal during these early days – an unprecedented design with only one moving part lubricated by the water passing through it, which remained in production, unchanged until1974! Homelite’s first self-priming pump, the Model S, appeared in 1934. By 1941, it was manufacturing eight different commercial generator, pump and blower models underpinned by Ferguson’s philosophy of identifying a particular need and then providing a solution to make life easier. Lightweight, powerful products became the cornerstone of the company’s success.
After World War II, Homelite developed a hi-cycle generator offering more power from a smaller engine. The innovation proved a turning point for the company leading to Homelite’s first chain saw, an electric model called the ECS-20. After rigorous research and development, the company entered the gas-powered chain saw category with the pioneering Homelite one-man chain saw. The first such machine in the United States, the renowned 20 MCS was powered by a 2-cycle engine run on gasoline yet only weighed 35 pounds (15.9kgs).
The 20 MCS was much easier to handle than the heavy, 2-man chain saws that had been used commercially for many years while remaining just as powerful.
Ground-breaking products and new features continued to be introduced by Homelite’s research and development team in the 1950s. A lightweight gear drive saw was brought in and, later, the first direct drive chain saw, the model EZ. By the 1960s, this design developed into the Zip, the Wiz and the Buz.
The launch of the XL-12 chain saw in 1963 proved another milestone, combining Homelite’s commercial know-how with consumer appeal. As its name suggested, the power head weighed just 12 pounds (5.5kgs) due to its magnesium alloy frame while offering professional-level quality. A quantum leap over existing models, the XL-12 caused a stir even within Homelite as to its place in the market when set against large professional saws. After 50,000 units had been sold in a single year, a salesman famously declared at a Homelite meeting: “That’s it. The market is saturated.” Yet the XL-12 went on to become every company’s dream product by igniting a new consumer category that turned chain saws into an everyman tool.
In doing so, the XL-12 helped to make a name for chain saws not only as a must-have outdoor piece of equipment - but in popular culture and beyond. Chain saws made movie appearances and even sparked a new art in the form of chain saw carving. And far from the salesman’s dismal forecast, as the leader of the pack, the XL-12 became a best-seller. Over 1.5 million were eventually sold during its 23-year life cycle, generating market share leadership for Homelite and interest across the expanding range of such products. With the 1978 saw line-up, the company built and shipped a total of one million chain saws over a 12-month period.
As the consumer base for chain saws widened, safety became a more pressing issue. It was not long before Homelite’s innovative talents had worked out a solution, leading to the introduction of its Safe-TTip® anti-kickback device. When statistics from the US Consumer Products Safety Commission confirmed that the device improved the safety of using a chain saw, in the interests of all users, Homelite abandoned its patent rights so that other manufacturers could add the device to their products.
In the late 1970s, Homelite took its range of products forward again by targeting home owners who wanted to keep their yards well tended and their gardens smart using modern appliances. Just as Homelite’s 2-cycle chain saws replaced backbreaking axes, the new string trimmers meant there was no need to kneel on the hard ground to use hand shearers when trimming lawns and borders. Blowers replaced rakes and brooms in getting rid of fallen leaves and unwanted debris from yard, walkways, decks and driveways. Hedge trimmers meant bushes and hedges could be cut back and shaped more quickly. Homelite’s time-saving tools enabled home owners to have more leisure time to enjoy themselves, and they proved highly effective. In 1993, Homelite shipped 1 million string trimmers.
During its period of diversification into chain saws and the wider outdoor equipment market, Homelite had been on the move, undergoing a series of ownership and management changes from the 1950s until TTI acquired the company. In 1954, J.A. Abbott bought control from Ferguson. In 1955, Homelite became a division of Textron.. Abbott remained president until 1969, helping to build Homelite’s presence in the new casual user category from the 1960s onward. He was assisted by Robert Straetz, who managed sales in the 1950s and 1960s and took over as president in 1969.
As the era of mergers and acquisitions heated up in North America, the speed of Homelite’s moves increased. In 1975, Homelite headquarters was moved to Charlotte, N.C., the same year that the 5 millionth Homelite chain saw was produced. Bev Dolan, founder of EZ Go golf carts, another Textron company, became president in the late 1970s. Dolan oversaw significant increase in market share in chain saws and the introduction of products such as the first gas-powered string trimmers and blowers. In 1981, Jacobsen consumer products merged with Homelite, adding items such as walk-behind mowers, riding mowers, lawn and yard tractors and snow throwers to the product mix. The Homelite division changed hands again in 1994 when it was bought by John Deere, an agricultural equipment manufacturer, before entering the TTI family in 2001.
For TTI, the acquisition of Homelite offered an opportunity to enter a new but related area of outdoor power equipment for lawn and garden. The brand brought gas-powered engine technology to the group and complemented TTI’s production of consumer power tools under Ryobi through the products’ different selling seasons. It also expanded TTI’s overall customer base. For Homelite, the new arrangement enabled a rejuvenation of its innovative market position through line extension and new solutions driven by TTI’s cutting-edge approach to product development and production.
One of the first indications of how TTI’s efficiency and fast-moving capabilities would reinvigorate the brand and its sales was the rapid adaptation of Homelite products to fit new environmental regulations in the United States.
In April 2002, a few months after acquiring Homelite, TTI arranged a licensing agreement with a leading Japanese industrial company to manufacture 2-cycle clean air gas engines. TTI went on to re-engineer a lower-cost model. An overseas engineer with relevant experience was hired to set up factories in China – the first in the country for production of such engines – and within six months these facilities were up, running and producing engines. The initial production capacity was 1 million units per year.
By 2003, TTI had succeeded in modifying Homelite’s product line to meet the new standards for emissions, opening up greater opportunities for the future. The move also enabled the technology to be employed in TTI’s other brands.
Since then, Homelite has launched products in line with its heritage and proactively moved into different areas. Under the guidance of Lee Sowell, president of TTI’s Outdoor Products Division, the brand has returned to being an innovative leader.
With the development and introduction of new products spanning, lawn and garden tools, the Homelite brand is now exploring pressure washers and portable generators as well.
The division has continued to capitalize on its strong brand awareness in the chain saw category, with a value-driven selection of homeowner models that weigh in at less than 10 pounds, but still carry a big bite. (show picture)
The TTI Outdoor Products Division abandoned any distribution strategy through the historical independent dealer and distributor system. In its place Homelite entered into exclusive distribution arrangements with leading home center retailers in the different worldwide geographic locations where it competes (deleted as it is delisted in UK). The arrangement enables Homelite to partner under the umbrella of each retailer to effectively reach the broadest number of customers.
This approach gives the brand’s products a wide appeal in the home center channel segment, enabling Homelite to better embrace social trends, ranging from the rise of the single woman household, to the expanding number of active retirees in different parts of the world.
Today Homelite is currently a subsidiary of Techtronic Industries, and has shifted its production primarily to consumer level lawn and garden equipment and light duty chainsaws. Replacement parts for the older, professional-grade, saws are generally limited to new old stock (NOS) and salvage parts. However, these saws were built to last, and a good percentage of them are still in use to this day. Homelite's parent company is headquartered in Hong Kong.
The future remains bright for Homelite. The brand continues to grow as new product categories are regularly introduced. With better reliability and competitive pricing, many home owners are making the switch to Homelite outdoor products.
Through the years, Homelite has seen many changes in ownership and positioning. Yet, the Homelite of today is focused on delivering reliable solutions to around-the-home needs. This positioning is parallel to Charles H. Ferguson’s original vision for the brand – to take a problem and find a better solution.