Passion + Entrepreneurship: A Winning Combination
Jack and Jim Phillips, founders of Equipco Division Phillips Corporation, were classic entrepreneurs who exhibited great passion and commitment for a material handling product line that they believed in. Today that passion and commitment is clearly illustrated whether one is talking with the company’s current management team of President Carl Swanson and Vice President Thomas Rush, or any of Equipco’s 96 employees. In the words of Carl Swanson, “It’s all about passion and commitment. Without passion and commitment, we would go nowhere.”
A Strong Tradition
In the early 1900s, the Phillips Mine and Mill Supply Company manufactured haulage equipment and steel handling devices for the many large steel and mining companies located in the City of Pittsburgh. Phillips Mine and Mill Supply Company’s manufacturing plant was composed of multi-storied buildings connected by ramps and cobblestone streets interlaced with railroad tracks.
By 1944, the two Phillips brothers completed their education and joined the family business. That same year, Jack Phillips learned of a versatile lift truck manufactured by the Hyster Company of Portland, Oregon. The unit featured pneumatic tires, essential to the cobblestone roadways surrounding the plant, and an internal combustion engine, which enabled the lift truck to travel long distances and climb the many high ramps.
The entrepreneurs saw the potential for a product line that included fork trucks, straddle carriers and the Karry Krane, which was used to pick up and transport heavy objects throughout the plant. Hyster Company Founder and President Ernie Swaggert visited Equipco and a business was born. In addition to purchasing a Hyster lift truck and a Hyster Karry Krane, the Phillips brothers signed a Dealership Agreement, dated August 7, 1944. This agreement made Equipco the first Hyster dealer in North America. The newly formed company was called Equipco Sales Company and its territory included Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Southeastern Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Western Virginia and Northwestern Maryland. In 1955, the company was renamed Equipco Division Phillips Corporation. Corporate headquarters are located in a 46,000 square foot facility in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania’s Phillips Industrial Park, which honors John M. Phillips, father of Jack and Jim. In addition to his role as a great industrialist, Phillips was the founder of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and the recipient of our country’s highest conservation award, presented to him by President Harry S. Truman. Phillips was also co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America.
Tom Rush and Carl Swanson have worked together for over 30 years. Rush joined the company in 1964, working in the parts department, later becoming a sales representative. Swanson joined the company two years later as a sales representative. In December 1982, Kenneth (Buzz) Kendall, the company’s then sales manager, and sales representatives Swanson and Rush purchased the company from James Phillips. In 1990, Swanson and Rush purchased Kendall’s share of the company. They have been compared to a quarterback and a running back who work closely together and know each other very well. Rush handles the sales end of the business and Swanson oversees the administrative functions and general operations of the company. Together, they are involved in the day-to-day issues of moving Equipco forward.
“We Earn Our Business”
Equipco’s goal is a simple one: to provide a total solution for customers to meet all of their material handling needs. Rush explains: “A total solution means that we will supply our customers with everything from forklift equipment to warehouse equipment, to storage & handling equipment, to a financial commitment. If necessary, we will partner with another company in order to deliver lines we don’t represent.”
The company’s philosophy is based on the “We Care” message that is repeated throughout Equipco’s facility. Says Swanson, “We want to make sure our customers are treated as we want to be treated. The day we lose sight of the customer and what his needs and requirements are is the day we become a dinosaur.” Swanson often tells customers that Equipco wants to build marriages, not dates. “When that kind of relationship is built with a customer, you really are thought of as a partner.”
Equipco’s Other Owners
Equipco is committed to its 96 employees and strives to create an environment that stimulates growth, including an open-management style. “This company really belongs to the employees,” Swanson says. “Tom and I may own the building and the stock—but the company belongs to each employee.”
When recruiting new employees, Equipco looks for people who are competitive, have high energy, integrity and a strong work ethic. Swanson says, “Equipco is a good team and good people. That’s what Equipco is all about. You don’t always find people so committed with such passion. When the team’s all charged up and pulling this wagon in one direction together to get it done, you have to either get on or get out.”
|With a Dealership Agreement dated August 7, 1944, Equipco became the first Hyster Dealer in North America.|
Rush apologizes for sounding boastful, but states firmly, “Our people are fantastic. There are none better. We have followed a tradition established by the Phillips family. The Phillips family hired individuals who were committed to customer service and those who possessed a strong work ethic. When Carl and I joined the company, we mirrored the behavior of those around us. After purchasing the company, Carl and I continued to work in the same fashion.”
A mentoring program is in place to help new hires learn the company’s culture. New salespeople are matched with experienced employees who are street-savvy and wise. Swanson makes sure they spend time with other salespeople who have good work ethics, who know how to treat customers, and who have humility. “I want them to be realistic and know that not every quote they do is an order.” This mentoring is also done with service employees, mechanics and aftermarket teams. Swanson cites as an example Allied Equipment Manager Don Heberle, who recently trained two sales representatives. “Those sales reps are currently working as a team with our forklift sales representatives. The exchange of experiences and knowledge between them and the different divisions is benefiting the entire company.”
Equipco personnel are encouraged to participate on various dealer councils and industry committees. By doing so, employees gain an increased level of product knowledge as well as an enhanced ability to meet the needs and interests of the company’s customers. Swanson says, “They bring great ideas back; and they also provide great ideas.”
Swanson has served as a past president of the Hyster Dealer Council. Rush has been an active participant on Trackmobile’s Dealer Council. Kathy Hall, MIS director, and John Weslow, service manager, participate on this year’s Hyster Dealer Council. John Vukson, manager of accounting operations, was chairperson of the NDS Solutions committee last year and Kathy Hall is participating on that committee this year.
Equipco also encourages its employees to maintain an active membership in a variety of industry-specific trade associations. In addition to its MHEDA membership, Equipco is active in the Pittsburgh Automobile Trade Association, the Public Recycling Officials of Pennsylvania, the Association of East Coast Hyster Dealers, the Penn York Lumberman’s Association, the West Virginia Forestry Association and the Hardwood Lumber Manufacturer’s Association.
Single Source Supplier
ITA numbers point to a 2,500 truck market. The steel industry is still present in the region, but not quite as dominant as it once was. As the market changes and evolves, Equipco is adapting its product mix to meet the needs of the market.
Resources are targeted to providing a broad range of products, parts, financing options, training and service to support customers before, during and after the sale. Equipco’s goal is to increase its allied product sales to the point of equaling its forklift and aftermarket sales volume.
While recognizing the customer’s need to maximize storage space, allied lines have been expanded. A Systems Group is marketing a growing number of systems products including carousels, mezzanines, rack and shelving products. The Warehouse Products Group provides CAD drawings, assists with SKU and throughput analysis, performs both commercial and technical investigations and works to form a mutually beneficial partnership with Equipco’s customers.
Equipco’s continuing effort to become a Single Source Supplier of equipment has spawned a complete line of industrial cleaning and maintenance machines, incorporating walkie and rider scrubbers and sweepers along with electric and gas-powered burden and personnel vehicles.
To address the safety and cleanliness at customers’ facilities, Equipco progressed into waste reduction and recycling systems. Compactors, balers, shredders and related products are available to reduce volume and store material for disposal or recycling.
Equipco’s future growth will involve continued expansion of the Allied Equipment Division to stay on the cutting edge of design, development and distribution of products and systems to new and existing customers in order to facilitate their changing requirements. Rush explains, “Our strength is and will continue to be our ability to react quickly to a customer’s needs.”
Marketing and Ride ‘Em Cowboys
In addition to participation in industrial shows, Equipco hosts a lift truck rodeo every other year. This past year, the company provided a luncheon and open house for over 200 guests, including 22 vendors and 68 lift truck operators who competed for trophies and monetary awards. Every contestant had completed Equipco’s forklift operator training as a prerequisite. Charlie Adams, aftermarket sales manager, described the competition as “awesome” in all four categories: Tenderfoot for new operators; Cowboy for average operators; Gunslinger for above average operators; and Top Gun for all first place Gunslingers from previous Rodeos. Each contestant competes in three categories: a written test, a daily safety start-up check, and one shot at an obstacle course judged for proficiency and timing. Any company with a winning representative is given a wall plaque for supporting Equipco’s training program. Based on the rodeo results, Adams says, “Companies that continue to train their trainers have the best operators. You don’t have to be the fastest to be the best.”
Qualifying rounds for the Rodeo are held three weeks prior to the actual Rodeo. The rodeo enables Equipco to meet a lot of operators, a lot of managers and a lot of companies. It also sends the message to customers that “Equipco Cares.” In the odd year, Equipco hosts a golf tournament for management personnel along with a morning open house at its facility.
Equipco has invested in a marketing program called “Drip Irrigation” that flows from the central Goldmine database to acquaint new customers with the company and to stay in touch with current customers. The Drip Irrigation process is based on a series of correspondence that is automatically generated and sent to select customers on a predetermined schedule. The goal of each correspondence is to educate and provide valuable information to the customer. For example, the process for the topic of Fleet Management involves several letters, sent several weeks apart. The first letter on Fleet Management details the advantages of not owning the equipment. The next letter is about costs. “Here is the normal cost of fleet management. Check to see if your costs are greater or less than ‘x.’ Maybe there is a reason for you to be talking with Equipco.” The next letter lists customers, recognizable names, that Equipco has fleet management programs with. By the time the customer receives the last in the series of correspondence, the customer has some knowledge about the product or service, some information about Equipco, and a reason to talk with an Equipco representative. Hopefully, they feel more comfortable allowing direct contact by an Equipco sales representative.
Equipco has always attempted to be at the forefront in the use of new technologies. The accounting and parts departments have been computerized since 1970. Equipco’s branches used the first fax machines in the late 1970s to transfer orders to the main offices. Staff have been using word processors and personal computers long before they became common place.
Today Equipco is committed to E-commerce and to the use of the Internet as a sales and communications tool. “E-commerce is the future,” says Swanson, “and we believe E-commerce will add value to our dealership over time. We want to make sure Equipco is there.”
In August 1996, Equipco designed its first Web site. The site was informational, summarizing product lines. By 1998, Equipco’s Web site included online forms for a visitor to order parts and initiate sales, service, rental, used equipment and training inquiries. Another redesign in March of this year enables a customer to log on to the Web site at www.equipco.com to view equipment pictures, descriptions and prices, and, with a credit card, to place an order. Used equipment is showcased on the site. The ability to rent equipment is accomplished by an online inquiry form. Customer visits by sales representatives can be requested through an Internet form. Individuals can register for training and see an annual training calendar. Job openings are posted along with interview information.
As it develops, Equipco will be using the Internet site for other online activities including the rapid placement of parts orders, sending and responding to inquiries about parts availability and pricing. Service technicians will be able to access a customer’s service work history from remote locations. Used equipment, rentals and training will be marketed online. Eventually, a virtual tour of Equipco will be possible.
Equipco celebrated its 55th anniversary last year. Some say that the company’s commitment to passion and excellence and hard work and earning the business of the customer are old-fashioned values from another century. Imagine a company in 2001 that still offers the personal touch and advertises that a real person is available to take a phone call; a company with a Customer-Comes-First policy that is communicated loudly and often.
When asked how a company with a history so tied in to personal contact is facing the issues of this new millennium, issues that deal with speed-to-market, fast response times, Internet selling, and technologically designed, state-of-the-art equipment and processes, Carl Swanson answers unhesitatingly and resonantly: “Passion! It’s all about passion!”
“How we grow with the technologies and still maintain our core values is a question that every business owner should be asking of himself or herself,” says Swanson. “I don’t know if we as an industry have a real understanding of where our clients are going in the next 10 years.” To continue to move Equipco forward, the company has embarked on a process to find that answer. The first phase involves learning what customers are looking for today. Next comes finding out what they want and will need five and ten years down the road. Customer and non-customer surveys will be done from the top level on down. Swanson and Rush want to know what’s going on long range so they can at least be in the middle of a company’s plan for the future. Swanson says, “We will elevate employees’ sales skills so they can market up the ladder to be proactive in those changes. We do some of that now, but we want more, especially in these days of rapid company changes and developments.”
“People are still buying from people, not machines,” says Swanson, “How do we make it easier for our customers to do business with us, because that’s the way they want to do business, not because we think it’s the way they should? Building those relationships takes time and it takes an ability to listen. Most of all, it takes passion.”
Passion is something that each and every Equipco employee has, in great abundance.