“Positioned perfectly for the future”
In 1953, Al and Mary Morrison turned their dream of owning a business into a reality when they founded Morrison Industrial Equipment Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fifty years later, the third-generation company has grown to become one of the nation’s largest forklift dealerships with offices in eleven cities throughout Michigan and northern Indiana.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Morrison points to his parents’ legacy of exemplary customer service, honest business dealings, and fair treatment of employees as the basis for the company’s success. Those characteristics have generated a solid customer base and a loyal group of talented employees.
“Our success as a company goes back to my parents and the way they treated customers, suppliers and employees,” the second-generation Morrison says. “Right from the start, they pushed the idea of better serving customers through branch offices. They also insisted that everyone who came in contact with the company be treated with dignity and honesty. Those traits have been passed from one generation of the family to the next.”
Natives of Indiana, Al and Mary weren’t thinking about owning a business following their marriage in 1930 in the midst of the Great Depression. They were more concerned about surviving the economic bust. Trained as a civil engineer, Al put his skills to work for the Indiana Highway Department, supervising the construction of roads and bridges. Mary tended to the child rearing and the family’s finances.
Their first introduction to a lift truck occurred just before America’s entry into World War II in 1940 after Al was hired at an Army munitions complex in Indiana, which stretched 14 miles and consisted of 1,100 buildings. As production manager, Al devised a better system for moving finished product around the plant for eventual shipment to Army transport sites. The lift truck, a newcomer on the industrial scene, proved to be an integral component in his material handling system.
Knowledgeable in industrial engineering, Al went to work for Battle Creek-based Clark Equipment Co., which then was the largest maker of lift trucks in America. For Clark, Al promoted the practicality of using lift trucks to such companies as Sears, Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward.
In the early 1950s, Clark went from a system of direct sales to distributorships offering sales, parts and service. The operational shift inspired Al and Mary to think about their own distributorship.
As the distributorships were parceled out, the couple faced a choice between Peoria, Illinois or Grand Rapids, which enjoyed the advantage of diverse industries and a stable economy. They opened the distributorship in Grand Rapids on February 16, 1953, with six employees.
Al brought his savvy about lift trucks and industrial organization to the business. Mary’s contribution centered around her instinctive financial skills, which she supplemented by taking college classes in office management.
“They worked as a team, coming to the office together in the morning and going home together at night,” Dick Morrison says. “My dad possessed an engineering mind and was always looking at ways to improve service by using a system or process. My mother was very much a full-time partner and took control of the business finances.”
Mary’s frugal nature, honed during the Depression-era struggle, served the business well. She insisted that the company keep debt to a minimum, even paying Clark in advance for lift trucks.
The Morrison’s territory originally encompassed the western half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and included the Lansing area. Not long after opening the business, Al and Mary could see the advantage of opening branch facilities to more quickly meet the needs of industrial customers. They established the first branch in Kalamazoo, paving the way for the “minutes-away service” the company offers today.
“My parents pushed the idea for expanding so we could take care of people in their backyards with same-day service,” Dick says. “There was no grand plan for expansion. We were just all fired up about what we were doing and trying to take care of our customers.”
Al, who died in 1993, and Mary, now 90, were actively involved in the business until the 1970s when their three sons – Bill, Jack and Dick – became responsible for day-to-day operations.
A Family Affair
Each son joined the business upon graduating from college. Bill, the oldest and now retired, spent most of his career in the Saginaw area on Michigan’s east side. His efforts were focused on one of the company’s former affiliate operations, the sale of semi-trucks. Interested in construction, he also oversaw the company’s branch-expansion projects.
Jack, now semi-retired, worked in all phases of the operation at the company’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, and has served as executive vice president for the past two decades. He is known in the industry for pioneering a cross-referencing system to match replacement parts that fit more than one lift truck application. The system led to a joint venture with Caterpillar called Rapidparts Inc., which supplied generic parts for all brands of lift trucks. Jack served as president of that company until Morrison sold its interest in 1995 to Caterpillar.
“This was a very important development for us,” Dick notes. “If we could sell potential customers the parts for a competitor’s lift truck that needed to be repaired, it gave us the chance to show them we were better than their dealer at servicing their repair needs.”
Dick, the youngest son, spent the first part of his career at the Kalamazoo branch. In the 1970s, Dick was transferred back to company headquarters and named vice president of marketing. He succeeded his father as president in the mid-1980s. Dick held that position until late 2002 when Vice President of Operations Roger Troost, a 29-year veteran of the company, assumed the role.
As the second generation phases out of the company’s operation, a third generation is being groomed to take over leadership positions. The trio includes Bill’s sons, Greg and A.J., and Jack’s son, Jeff.
Jeff is responsible for administrative management responsibilities, including purchasing, marketing and advertising. Like his uncle Dick once did, A. J. manages the Kalamazoo office. Greg is president of CISCO, Inc., an affiliated company under the Morrison Industries corporate umbrella. CISCO, Inc. specializes in lift truck batteries, charging equipment, loading dock equipment, and recently added overhead doors to its product mix.
Dick Morrison is very proud of the process he and his brothers have set up to continue their father’s legacy. Each of his nephews are developing according to a well-thought-out plan.
Al Morrison made sure that his sons were trained not only in selling skills, but in the intricacies of managing a business. Dick explains by citing his 15 years as manager in Kalamazoo, the company’s largest branch. “I made all kinds of mistakes trying to take care of customers and trying to be a businessman, doing things that weren’t successful, but seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
The second-generation Morrisons learned that mistakes were real opportunities, and their advice to other family owners is to “let your child fall down and get muddy.”
Greg Morrison typifies the company’s training process. While attending college, Greg worked in the parts department. After graduation, he worked outside the business for a few years, then rejoined the company as a salesperson, becoming one of the sales force’s top producers after a short time. It was then that Dick Morrison held what he calls a “career planning session” with his nephew, presenting him with this choice: Remain as a high-earning, commissioned salesperson, or change careers and commit to learning the skills required to run the company in the future. “This grooming process was very similar to what my father did for my brothers and me,” notes Dick Morrison.
Today, Greg, A.J. and Jeff work in sales and management, sharpening their skills in both areas. They meet monthly with Jack and Dick Morrison to ask questions, review decisions, and listen to their uncle and father explain the how’s and why’s of specific company business. Just like their father taught them, Jack and Dick are making sure that the next generation knows not only how to be good salespeople, but how to manage and grow the company well.
They’re also learning the big picture of the material handling industry. Jack Morrison served as MHEDA’s President in 1979, and he worked resolutely to help members upgrade their management skills by sponsoring strategic seminars and conferences. His nephew Greg has been an active MHEDA member, presenting at several seminars. In 2003, Greg was elected to the Board of Directors and serves as a Director. Several Morrisons have served on Dealer Advisory Boards and Councils.
Growing the Company
The most significant change during the company’s history occurred in 1984. At that time, the company abandoned Clark as a supplier after 31 years and switched to the Caterpillar line of lift trucks.
Morrison Industrial Equipment Company now supplies lift trucks from multiple manufacturers to insure customers have access to the product that best meets their needs. The flagship lines are Caterpillar and Mitsubishi, which have awarded Dealer-of-the-Year recognition to the company on consecutive occasions. Says Dick Morrison, “We want to be seen as a dealer that represents our manufacturers’ and suppliers’ best interests. We are very honored and proud to receive the recognition, because at our company, we expect to do more than just a good job.” Morrison acknowledges that this high standard pays off. “You want your manufacturer to respect you. You also want your banks to respect you.”
Behind all Morrison Industrial Equipment Company’s sales, leasing, parts and service activities is a group of more than 300 employees. “We are very fortunate to have employed a lot of very top quality people over the years,” says Dick Morrison. “That has allowed us to put the right person in the right job, which is another one of our keys to success.”
Sales of lift trucks and their parts, along with leasing and service, still comprise the majority of the company’s $50 million in annual sales. Backing up the operation is a fleet of more than 130 service vans.
The company operates out of two sites in Grand Rapids, a facility that combines the corporate offices and the local service center, and Central Parts, a distribution warehouse that supplies parts for all of the branch locations and the large customers who maintain their own fleet.
Morrison Industrial Equipment’s scheduled maintenance program features 128 checkpoints for the 8,000 lift trucks it services. The company provides on-site service technicians for large corporate customers.
In addition to the Grand Rapids facility, service centers are located in Kalamazoo, Mason/Lansing, Muskegon, Traverse City, Holland, Greenville, Brighton, Saginaw, and Elkhart and South Bend, Indiana.
Setting up so many branches in secondary and third-tier markets was a conscious choice. “We didn’t have a major market,” explains Dick Morrison, “so in order to make a substantial market, we opened this collection of little branches that maybe equals one large city. But it positions us perfectly for the future.”
While the company is always open to new branches in new locations, future expansion will take place inside the plants of their larger customers.
Growth in Fleet Management
Honing in on the latest trend, the company offers consulting services for customers to help them operate their lift truck fleets in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible. This service is allowing many large customers to focus more on their core business and less on fleet operation.
Says Dick Morrison, “Our customers are trying to get out of those things that are not their core business, and forklifts are our core business.” Morrison Industrial Equipment Company isn’t looking at just selling the customer new forklifts. They want to be the company’s internal “forklift department.”
As more and more companies try to figure out how to get out of the lift truck-ownership business, Dick Morrison thinks they are limited by the available options offered by dealers. He also thinks they are doing the right thing by wanting to get out, but are not going about it the correct way. “A CFO makes the decision, but he doesn’t know whether the lift truck has square wheels or round wheels, nor does he care. Somehow there has to be a blend of having someone who cares whether or not the lift truck works, and the guy who cares about how much it costs.”
By positioning itself as the customer’s forklift department, Morrison Industrial Equipment Company is not only servicing the fleet of trucks, but replacing the ones that need to be replaced, becoming a more value-added supplier. “We want to become more integrated with the customer and more than just their lift-truck seller,” Dick Morrison says, and he points to the common practice of customers who, at the end of the lease term, replace their trucks with whatever is the least expensive at that point in time. “We want our relationship with the customer to be ongoing.”
Morrison wants to make sure that the decision maker who is guided by price alone understands the advantages of working together. “A new supplier coming in would have to provide all new trucks, while we are positioned to provide new ones as needed, and service the others.” Morrison calls this a win-win situation and lower-cost alternative, and is aggressively pursuing this activity.
He adds, “Lease with maintenance requires that a distributor becomes very good with maintenance, including service vehicles, technicians and training, because these are your assets.”
In addition to CISCO, Inc., Morrison Industrial Equipment Company is a stakeholder in other material handling affiliated companies. Rental is administrated by Mor-Son Leasing, which maintains a fleet of more than 1,800 short-term and long-term units. Another affiliated company, Mor-Value Parts, which Jack Morrison still oversees as president, supplies replacement parts for indoor sweepers/scrubbers and personnel carriers.
”One thing the affiliate companies share in common is that they supplement what we were founded to do – assist our customers in all aspects of their material handling challenges,” Dick says.
As the company reflects on its past fifty years in the material handling business, and looks to the future, Chairman and CEO Dick Morrison seems filled with contradictions. He is incredibly proud of what the company, its employees, and his family have accomplished. At the same time, he is very humbled by it all. He calls himself and his brothers “just a bridge to the future.”
As he looks at Morrison Industrial Equipment Company’s large footprint, he acknowledges that the company’s future will be built on the passion and innovation of family and employees, who are taking the company to new frontiers. He points to a Nissan dealership recently acquired in South Bend, Indiana. “Before we are finished down there, we will be one of their award-winning dealers, too.”
Done reflecting and ready to move on, he smiles and adds, “Nothing is going to stop us.”