Advanced Handling Systems’ J.J. Phelan finds his niche in material handling.
For J.J. Phelan, 34, material handling is a family affair. After nine years as an engineer and project manager in the Navy, Phelan left his military career behind in 2004 to join Advanced Handling Systems (Lakeland, FL), working with his father, CEO Jack Phelan.
“I wanted to come back to Lakeland after the Navy,” says J.J. Phelan. “I asked my father if a position would be available for me in the family business, and he was excited about my wanting to return.”
Phelan spent his first two years in charge of product sales and service engineering before being promoted to chief operating officer in 2006. In that role, he reports directly to his father, and most of the functional managers of the company report to him, including sales, engineering, field operations, accounting, finance, IT and human resources. “I manage those groups—and hopefully try to manage them profitably—and provide the strategic direction for them to implement,” Phelan says.
Phelan typically gets up between 4:30 and 4:45 a.m. and is in the office by 5:30. “I’m always the first one here and always make the first pot of coffee,” he notes. He uses that early-morning quiet time to get administrative tasks out of the way before other employees start to arrive between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. From 7:30 a.m. on, though, every day is different. On Mondays, Phelan holds one-on-one meetings with each of the eight staff members he directly supervises, followed by staff meetings and a meeting with his father. The rest of the week, he tackles a variety of other tasks, including visiting job sites and riding along with Advanced Handling Systems salespeople to visit strategic accounts.
Seven of Phelan’s eight direct reports are older than he is, a situation with which he is not unfamiliar. On his first Navy ship as a 22-year-old recent college graduate, Phelan served as a division officer. “My division had everything from 18-year-old enlisted guys all the way up to senior enlisted men who were older than I was,” he says. “One of the guys who worked for me, a first class petty officer in his 50s, was the oldest person on the ship. He wasn’t just older than I was—he was older than my dad, which was a shock early on. I had to learn to understand the separation between age and position.”
The most important part of establishing and maintaining trust with different generations in the workplace, Phelan notes, is integrity. “Integrity, simply stated, doesn’t just mean not lying, cheating or stealing. It means doing what you say you’re going to do, being forthright and always doing the right thing. When people see that, it builds trust and confidence.”
Phelan describes his greatest challenge in his role as chief operating officer as “managing people.” “I’ve had to work to overcome a lot of my weaknesses in dealing with people, like fear of confrontation or the fact that I don’t have a high degree of empathy,” he says.
Working with his father has helped bring some of Phelan’s strengths and weaknesses into greater focus. “Dad is a lot more direct than I am,” he observes. “I’m jealous sometimes of the way he can just say what he says, and not have to work himself up to confront somebody. He’s a great decision-maker, and he’s a risk-taker, which are great as a leader. I need to work on those things. But I think I might be easier to deal with, from the employees’ perspective—I’m a bit softer around the edges.”
The most important thing J.J. has learned working alongside Jack Phelan for the last three years is to respect his father’s judgment and experience. “Before coming here, I made good grades, went to good schools and was a proven success in my Navy life, so, translated, I had a big ego,” J.J. Phelan recalls, a bit ruefully. “When I came on board, I thought, ‘I’m going to show the old man how good I am.’ But it didn’t take me long to realize that he knows what he’s talking about and he’s very successful at what he does. Now, when we differ in opinion, I have to take a step back and think, ‘Remember how nine out of the last ten times we disagreed, he was right? He just might be right again!’”
Overall, the experience of joining the family business has been a positive one for Phelan. “I love to see my parents in the office every day,” he says. “We do chit-chat about family stuff, and I enjoy that. Of course, not everybody gets along all the time, and that’s as true with family as it is with everybody else. But it’s definitely been more good than bad.”
There are a lot of things Phelan enjoys about his current position, and about working in material handling. “If you have an inquisitive nature, this is a great industry to work in, because in material handling you can service a multitude of customers that cover a multitude of industries,” he says. “As an engineer, I’ve always wondered how things work, and how people or companies do what they do. This way, I get to see how our customers’ operations work, how they build their widgets and how they distribute them. It’s fascinating.”
His favorite part of the job, though, has more to do with people than widgets. “The best part is seeing our team together, working positively, having fun and doing well,” Phelan says. “I’m very competitive, and I like to win, so winning as a team gets me charged up.”
It sounds like J.J. Phelan and Advanced Handling Systems are definitely a winning combination for the engineered systems industry.