Making it easy for customers since 1940
Johnson Lift/Hyster is a relative newcomer to the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association, having joined in 2004, but has been serving the southern California marketplace for 65 years. Ruel Johnson was Caterpillar district manager in Peoria, Illinois, when he decided to move to California and buy the Freeland Tractor Company in 1940. The company then became known as Johnson Tractor Company, a dealer for Caterpillar tractors. Capitalizing on the economic growth of World War II and the state’s agricultural boom, Johnson’s company quickly started to grow. What was then a six-person operation expanded its footprint and focus, adding employees and branches. In 1976, the company became a Caterpillar forklift dealer. Then, when Caterpillar merged with Mitsubishi, Hyster approached Johnson Lift, a division of the renamed Johnson Machinery Company, to become its dealer in 1992.
Johnson Machinery Company, which also sells Caterpillar earth-moving equipment and power generation equipment, employs 580 people. Over 210 of those employees work at Johnson Lift/Hyster in one of its six Southern California branch locations that serve the California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Ventura, Imperial and Santa Barbara, as well as Yuma, Arizona, and Baja Norte, Mexico, including the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.
The vast reach of these branches allows Johnson Lift/Hyster to service a large base of customers. “In the forklift business, there is practically an unlimited amount of customers and industries to sell to,” says Steve Smith, vice president/general manager of the forklift division. In fact, Johnson Lift takes great care to manage the list of potential customers in its area. About 100,000 names comprise the prospect universe in their service territory database. Roughly 30,000 of those have been contacted as prospects with some form of advertising medium and about 5,000 are actual customers. “Within our prospect universe, there are no fewer than 300 different industries we might service that need a forklift,” Smith says. “We have good produce customers who use nothing but pallet jacks, container handling companies at the Port of Los Angeles that hoist 105,000-pound containers, and everything in between. Anybody who consistently lifts anything over a couple hundred pounds is a good prospect for us.”
To these customers, Johnson Lift/Hyster offers a full range of products and services that includes new forklifts, used forklifts, forklift rental, safety training, financing, service, parts and fleet management. The rental fleet features over 550 regularly maintained lift trucks, including over 120 electric forklifts. The parts department offers a consignment program to its major accounts, whereby Johnson Lift/Hyster performs a complete fleet analysis to determine age of machines, likely parts to be replaced and the fastest moving parts by machine that should be kept in stock. The company’s service department boasts 65,000 square feet of shop space and over 110 factory-trained technicians. Of those 110, 35 are in the shop and 75 are in the field. Johnson Lift/Hyster maintains a fleet of 70 field service trucks, seven welder-equipped service vehicles and five tire press vehicles. The dispatch center is available at any time of day or night so customer emergencies can be remedied quickly.
Clearly, Johnson Lift/Hyster emphasizes a high level of service, a fact further exemplified by the company’s Service Code of Ethics. This code, available on the company’s Web site at www.johnson-lift.com, outlines 24 promises that the company makes to its customers. The list includes rules such as:
- Educate the customers on why repairs are needed.
- Don’t charge for repairs under warranty.
- Don’t exceed quoted price without approval.
Johnson Lift/Hyster makes this information publicly available and reinforces it to employees. “We have honest people with integrity,” Smith comments. “It’s an underlying theme in our culture and we reinforce it with our employees every day.” The Service Code of Ethics is only one such list. The Web site also lists the company’s Make It Easy Principles (sidebar), which clearly state the company’s customer service policies. “That’s one of the foundations of our culture. The power of the Make It Easy Principles extends beyond the lift truck division and makes up the underlying philosophy of all the Johnson Machinery Companies. We have exceptional flexibility when it comes to putting together programs to make our customers’ day-to-day jobs that much easier.”
Keyed on Technology
Service is only one reason that explains Johnson Lift/Hyster’s extraordinary growth in recent years. The lift truck division has seen a substantial market share increase in the last four years. The company recently was awarded Hyster’s Dealer of Distinction award for the first time in its history, and Johnson Machinery achieved a Gold Dealer level for Caterpillar dealerships. “Obviously, what we’re doing is working,” notes Smith.
Smith is referring to the company’s focus on operational technology. The company’s Web site is maintained by Smith himself, and he understands the importance of this burgeoning medium. “The Internet not only increases our awareness, but also leads to a number of highly qualified leads every day which are automatically distributed into our contact management system so that our sales reps receive these leads instantly,” he explains. It also internally generates a lead form, which is then communicated via two-way radio, fax or e-mail to ensure instant response to sales leads. The lead generation and management campaigns allow Johnson Lift/Hyster to follow up systematically with the best prospects.
The reliance on technology doesn’t stop at the sales end. Johnson Lift/Hyster has leveraged the technology in the parts department as well. “We’re encouraging our bigger parts customers to use a custom requisition form that they e-mail to us to tell us what they want,” Smith explains. “We have a single point of contact that processes these kinds of orders.” The company gives its customers two-way radios for the larger fleet accounts to enhance communication between Johnson Lift/Hyster and the customer. The company also distributes lists of the contacts assigned to each customer’s account for service management, parts management, senior management and an assigned technician, if necessary. The wide variety of technology makes communication that much easier.
Communication Breeds Efficiency
Communication, in addition to technology, is another of Johnson Lift/Hyster’s top priorities. These two cornerstones converge in the content of the Web site itself. On the home page, viewers can click on the tab for Branch Teams Communications Guides to learn the contact information for the managers of each of the company’s six branches. “Invariably, when it comes to servicing customers or resolving problems, under all the layers it all comes down to communication and determining who said what, when,” says Smith. “We try to be exceptionally proactive and give people multiple points of contact throughout the branch, multiple phone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses. We’re making more and more use of technology to communicate with people more efficiently, careful not to eliminate the human element so critical to forging long-lasting partnerships.”
As a result of clear communication, Johnson Lift/Hyster is succeeding in a hotly contested region. “Southern California is very competitive, maybe the most competitive marketplace in the world. If we don’t consistently market our products and services, and innovate with different ways to service the customer, we run the risk of falling behind the competition. The spirit of marketing and innovation at our company is talked about day in and day out,” Smith comments.
The culture of innovation leads to low employee turnover. Johnson Lift/Hyster’s technicians currently have an average tenure of more than 10 years, a fact of which Smith is quite proud. Another reason employees are not anxious to leave can be attributed to Smith’s management style. “We create objectives and encourage our managers to take risks. We encourage people to be as creative as they want; try it for a while and if it doesn’t work, learn from your mistake. We also balance this creativity with longstanding principles that are designed to sustain satisfaction with our four main constituencies: shareholders, manufacturers, customers and employees. When you find something that works, stick with it. Have fun and work hard. It’s pretty simple.”
The formula for success has been laid out. Smith expects adherence to that formula will yield positive results. Sales were up 30 percent in 2004, and positive results are expected this year. “The future holds a lot of promise,” Smith notes. “Sustainable growth involves more than selling forklifts to new customers. We have to have the infrastructure to accommodate demand, while not hiring too many people waiting for that demand—it’s a tough balance to strike. To that end, we have come up with a unique way of marketing to, and recruiting, technicians and parts agents. We manage technicians and parts agents like prospects. We set up a pipeline and when an opportunity for growth arises, we make sure we have a new truck to put them in, or a counter to put the parts agent at. As long as we can continue to add service technicians and parts agents, I feel very confident we’ll be able to keep growing our business as much as we want.”
With its experienced team at the helm, Johnson Lift/Hyster can expect nothing less.