Three generations of Shaws maintain entrepreneurial spirit.
The name of the material handling company is Fred Hill and Son, but for the last 65 years, a more accurate moniker is probably Ken Shaw and Son and Son. Fred Hill was originally a tool and die maker who did most of his business with the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia beginning in 1894. Once the Mint began doing its own tooling, though, Hill had to turn his focus elsewhere, so in 1918 he began dealing basic material handling products like hand trucks, platform trucks and casters from his store on Arch Street in Center City, Philadelphia.
One day in the late 1920s, young Ken Shaw was going door-to-door looking for work after losing his job at Sears. Shaw, whose family knew the Hills, ambled into Fred Hill’s store just to say hello. When Shaw mentioned he was looking for work, Hill offered him a job working the counter and making local deliveries until he could “find something better.” The job paid six dollars a week.
Ken Shaw realized that his search for something better was over. It was there in front of him. Following the deaths of Fred Hill and his son in the 1930s, Shaw bought the business from the two widows on June 3, 1939, for the price of $2,706.91. The company has since been passed down through three generations of the Shaw family and is now run by Ken Shaw III.
The company has built its reputation on being a one-stop shop that makes it easy for its customers to do business. “Our salespeople have been trained to never say no and give the customer what they want and need,” Shaw says. “We’ve gradually built up the volume of vendors that we represent.” To meet customer needs, Fred Hill and Son offers over 15,000 products from over 250 manufacturers. At one time, the company was an Allis Chalmers fork truck distributor, but now focuses primarily on storage equipment. “The largest part of our business is rack and shelving, and we also do a lot with the ergonomic products, lift tables and office furniture,” Shaw explains.
All that merchandise requires a lot of storage space, and the demand is met by Fred Hill and Son’s 110,000 square-foot facility that sits on 10 acres in the northeast section of Philadelphia, the fourth location the company has had in its lengthy history. It originated on Arch Street, but was forced to relocate to 10th and Cherry Streets once the Independence Mall project went through in 1954. In 1964, the company moved out of downtown into a 64,000 square foot building before moving to its present quarters in 1987.
Beyond the address changes, the Shaws have left their impression on the company in many other ways. “The key to our success is being able to recognize changes in the business world and being able to adapt to those changes as best as we can. The last two years probably have been some of the most difficult in the whole history of the material handling industry.” If anyone would know, it would be a company that has been around for 110 years. “Having a history gives us credibility because of the longevity, but we need to stay fresh with product offerings and the solutions that we can provide in order to maintain that value to the customer. It’s a balance of selling on the long history while keeping up with the changes in the industry,” Shaw says.
Rolling With the Changes
The majority of those industry changes center on technology. Fred Hill and Son has stayed current by adding engineering capabilities like AutoCAD, and changing the way it produces its product catalog. Early iterations of the catalog in the 1970s were a hodge-podge of different styles and layouts because each manufacturer would design its own pages. In the late 1980s, Fred Hill and Son invested in a Macintosh computer, PageMaker and PhotoShop and began doing all the layout and design themselves, which really helped develop a brand image. “Having those tools has helped us stay competitive and hold our place in the marketplace,” says Shaw.
Recent years have seen other technological changes at the company, including an updated phone system that enables an on-hold marketing program. A full-time IT specialist was added to the staff to oversee the computer infrastructure that was put in place about four years ago. Now, Shaw comments, “We host our Web site here. We have a Web server, the exchange server for e-mail, and a Citrix server, which is a Web-based remote client application for our outside salespeople so that they can check in from home no matter what operating system or connection they have.”
The Web site is one place where Fred Hill and Son really works to stay ahead of the curve. An e-commerce module was added two years ago. “Although we haven’t seen a huge influx of e-based business,” says Shaw, “we feel that we need to offer the capability for customers to buy online if they choose to, and also give them access to information to compare us to competitors. In the business environment, many people use the Internet as a resource to do research, gather information, determine which direction to go, and then call to place an order.” In designing the site, ease of navigation and fresh content were the two main points of emphasis. “If it’s boring, people will stop coming back to see what’s going on,” Shaw explains. Over 4,000 customers have signed up to receive a monthly broadcast e-mail featuring new product offerings as well as Fred Hill and Son news updates.
Strategy Breeds Longevity
Another way the company tries to stay fresh is by getting more involved in business and trade groups. “Trying to get exposure to as much outside of our business within material handling and also other industries helps keep the growth process strong. We constantly need to evolve who we are and what we’re doing,” Shaw says. Since rejoining MHEDA in 1999, Shaw has attended several Conventions and is active in the MHEDA-NET program.
Adaptation is certainly a good survival method, but the real key to longevity is a firmly rooted strategy. “Our focus on being a solutions-based material handling company, rather than just selling on lowest price, is an approach that has worked well for us. There will always be some customers who are just looking for low price, but we don’t invest a lot of time in them,” indicates Shaw. Fred Hill and Son utilizes a structure of six account executives, also known as outside salespeople, and three inside department managers, each of whom specializes in a different product category. The department managers take phone orders and do some customer service, while the account executives stay on the road looking for sales opportunities. “We use the account executives as field project managers and our department personnel as desk project managers. When a customer calls in, they can make suggestions for doing a project a better way. That means a lot to the customer,” Shaw explains.
Fred Hill and Son Company has aged gracefully, and if it’s true that with age comes wisdom, then this very smart company is poised for any material handling challenges the future may bring.