Minnesota Supply Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has built a reputation for industry leadership throughout the upper Midwest. That reputation began with a young accountant named Chester Stone who saw an opportunity in selling material handling goods 80 years ago.
The son of a purchasing agent for the SOO Line railroad company, Stone started his career in material handling as a manufacturer’s representative. His first customers were the many railroad companies converging in Minneapolis. As grain mills grew up along the Minnesota River, Stone supplied them with shelving, racking, lifting equipment and winch lifts. During the 1920s, Stone–or rather, his company, Minnesota Supply Company–added a new product line, lift trucks. Minneapolis “start-up” companies like Honeywell and 3M quickly picked up these electric workhorses. By 1940, lift trucks accounted for one-third of all sales and Minnesota Supply Company had found its niche as a material-handling source in the upper Midwest.
For the first half of the company’s existence, there were only 11 employees: Stone, his brother, five sales representatives and four support personnel. In 1958, John Stromsness became the twelfth member of the company. Forty-one years later, he is CEO and chairman of the board of the 115-employee firm.
Lift Truck Technology
“There have been many changes in the 80 years since Chester Stone, and almost as many in the 40 years I’ve been with the company,” says Stromsness. “It’s hard to say which stands out the most, although I have to think the biggest change has been in lift trucks. The changes in throughput alone are incredible. Increased battery power, self-diagnostics, speed, higher lifts, turret–it’s just fantastic to see how far the equipment has come.”
There were physical changes for the company in addition to product changes. A decade after Stromsness joined, Minnesota Supply doubled in number and put five service vans on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Service became the watchword during the ’60s,” recalls Stromsness. “Before then, lift truck repairs or maintenance were performed by the customer. It was like caring for a car or tractor, and any good mechanic could handle the job. But by the late ’60s, lift truck technology reached the point where trained technicians were required because of the level of complexity. This led us, and others in the industry, to start offering mechanical service to our customers.”
At the same time, growth in staff meant growth in the physical site. Minnesota Supply had a $200,000 inventory to manage, offices at one location and the supply shop at another. By 1975, the company needed to consolidate at one location. Six years later, when the company outgrew its space needs again, a new 33,000 sq. ft. building was constructed to house offices, inventory and the service department.
Since 1989, Minnesota Supply has had to lease an additional 20,000 sq. ft. adjacent to its building to hold the rental and used equipment departments. “We are a stocking distributor for six different companies,” Stromsness says, pointing out another reason for the company’s space pressures in recent decades.
Million Dollar Inventory
The pressure increased again when Minnesota Supply added a major forklift supplier in 1989. Instead of one line, Minnesota Supply suddenly represented a wide range of lift trucks and other material handling products. The company had to double its size once more to meet the supplier’s expectations–from 50 to 100 employees within a month.
Today, Minnesota Supply Company employs 50 technicians and drives 40 service vans across a territory that includes Minnesota, western Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. Most technicians report to work at Minnesota Supply, but a few others are based at clients’ plants to provide on-site maintenance and training. Additionally, the company maintains a rental fleet of over 200 units.
Since 1989, Minnesota Supply Company has grown to include seven profit centers, a million-dollar inventory and an affiliation with one of the most recognized brands in the business.
“You have to be able to change,” says John Stromsness when asked the secret of the company’s longevity, “You have to have the courage to put your neck on the line.”
No matter what changes have occurred in material handling since 1919, that entrepreneurial courage remains the constant ingredient in Minnesota Supply Company’s success.