Led by MHEDA’s new president, Riekes Equipment Company builds on its roots.
The beginnings of Riekes Equipment Company can be traced back to 1913, when Samuel Riekes started his own business recycling bottles in a barn near Omaha, Nebraska. The business grew throughout the early part of the 20th century, but by 1936, the Great Depression was in full swing and the company was struggling. Samuel’s son-in-law Mort Richards started offering for sale the two-wheel hand trucks the company used to move cases of bottles around the plant, and business boomed again. The company was particularly successful during World War II, when Richards started selling electric industrial trucks made by Yale & Towne Manufacturing.
Since that entrée into the material handling industry, Riekes Equipment Company has continued its relationship with Yale. Today’s products may look a little different, but the successful results do not.
Consistently one of Yale’s top-performing dealers, Riekes Equipment Company has evolved into a thriving, five-branch operation spread throughout the northern Great Plains.
Foundation of Excellence
Throughout its history, the company has proven resourceful and resilient, never content to rest on its laurels. In 1984, then-president Bob Schaap hired Duncan Murphy, a furniture salesman with no experience in material handling, as his successor. Murphy learned the industry under Schaap’s tutelage, spending time riding with service techs, working in the parts department, getting to know all aspects of the business. By 1986, Murphy was prepared to take over Schaap’s post as company president. “He really let me take the reins and do some things that weren’t consistent with the way he would have done them,” Murphy recalls.
Murphy holds Schaap in such high esteem that he established an award in his honor, given to the employee that best exemplifies Schaap in the areas of education, responsibility and excellence.
Paying respect to the past allows Riekes to lean on its reputation while continuing to look forward and grow. Since Murphy took over in 1986, Riekes Equipment Company’s sales have grown tenfold, up to around $30 million in 2008. With the growth in sales has come expanded territory and increased responsibility to serving customers. “We have a lot of geography to cover in a market of about 1,600 trucks,” Murphy explains. “We have to be a lot of things to our customers. If we’re going to travel 50, 60, 100 miles, that trip needs to be worthwhile for both us and our customer.”
Customer service is one thing that has never waned at Riekes. Service technicians comprise more than half the work force, a testament to Murphy’s customer-centric philosophy. “We really try to communicate to customers the fact that they’re important to us all the time, not just when a transaction is going on,” he explains. “Their issues are ours too, even if there’s not an immediate opportunity for us. The stability of our company also gives the customer familiar voices and faces and a style of doing business that they can count on.”
Each year, the company conducts a customer survey, and the data prove that customers appreciate the efforts by Riekes employees. “Our employees came up with the motto a few years ago that Riekes is dedicated to customer satisfaction. Everyone is on the same page and really provides consistency in our company culture.”
In order to meet such high customer service standards, Murphy and his management team look for a specific type of employee. “We don’t require industry experience,” he says. “Somebody who has an inquiring mind and a capacity to learn is often the best fit with our culture. If we can find that, then we can train them up.” The training involves an extensive program; no detail is too small. “We script each employee’s first 90 days with what they’ll see and do.” Training begins with the fundamentals, and exposes the employee to all facets of the business, much like the training Murphy himself went through when he joined the company. “I want everyone to understand that their success is dependent on the success of the person next to them, so they are more likely to help out that person,” Murphy says. “Cross-training allows for ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ understanding of each other’s issues. Even if you’re an accounts receivable clerk, you’re going to learn to drive a fork truck.”
That system builds a good team atmosphere, and the low annual turnover rate of less than five percent reflects the positive environment. “We socialize a lot, we have fun and we try to make work less stressful. Everyone understands their role and supports the effort wherever they can,” Murphy says. “If you know what you’re supposed to do and are confident in your abilities, you can proceed.” Murphy helps instill such confidence by giving all employees leeway to make decisions to satisfy the customer. “Our company tree is relatively flat. I grudgingly gave my managers more authority about six or seven years ago, and we’ve really skyrocketed since that happened,” Murphy says.
Twice a year, Murphy surveys employees to get their input about the direction of the company. One survey is repeated every year and focuses on communications, strategic planning and benchmarking. The second is shorter but more specific, concentrating on special topics such as benefits, technology or change. The response rate is usually between 65 to 75 percent of employees, so Murphy knows most everyone’s opinions are being heard. “These surveys give us material from which we can address what our employees see as needs for the company. We communicate that to everybody and it gets us all on the same page.”
That communication happens in a lot of ways, including an internal bimonthly newsletter that is sent to employees’ homes. The company Web site, of which Murphy is particularly proud, recently added a feature called “Duncan’s Desk,” a blog where he posts his thoughts, opinions and updates of projects that will be guiding the company. “I try to update it every two weeks, and so far we’ve gotten good feedback,” says Murphy.
Playing the Field
Communication isn’t only online, though. In addition to the company’s 25,000 sq. ft. Omaha headquarters, Riekes has four branches ranging in size from 6,000 to 8,000 sq. ft. located in Lincoln and Grand Island, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Murphy makes it a point to get to each one at least once per quarter. “I inject myself in transactions when a customer needs to see that the people at the highest level are going to be interested in their well-being and how things will be working,” Murphy says. “Plus, with today’s technology, people know they can contact me at any time from the lowest levels to the upper levels on any question, thought or comment they might have.”
With most of Riekes Equipment Company’s business centered near its Omaha headquarters, customers fall primarily in two areas—agriculture and food processing—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of diversity. Omaha has one of the top communications networks in the country, acting as a hub for telemarketing/reservation centers and the home of the old Strategic Air Command. “Omaha is a very vibrant community,” Murphy says. “We have a lot of support industries that provide parts for other completed projects because Nebraska is seen as a state with a good work ethic and reasonable cost. Quite frankly, we’ve been less affected than a lot of other areas by the exporting of jobs overseas because we still are seen as a low-cost producer.”
Such a vast array of industries from which to find customers has given Riekes the opportunity to offer diversified product offerings. Nearly half of the company’s business has traditionally come from something other than forklift trucks, including racking, lift tables and other allied lines. Recently, the mix has evolved from a 60/40 ratio of sales to aftermarket to 40/60. “We need to be important to each of our customers,” Murphy says. “It’s an ongoing effort for us to make sure that customers know our capabilities and have awareness of what we can do to help them in their business. We hate it when they say, ‘I didn’t know you did that.’”
With everything in place and a history of success, the future at Riekes is bright. “At the back of my mind, I have some ideas about where I see the company in four to five years, but for the most part, we don’t concern ourselves with that,” Murphy explains. “We look more at the next 12 to 15 months, plan heavily and then build on it year after year. We really want to focus our planning on shorter periods that allow us to bring plans together with specific actions to make those plans successful.”
Murphy and his team stick to a diligent annual strategic planning process to put initiatives in place for each upcoming year. The result of that process at the end of 2008 was a list of several key areas of focus as Riekes positions itself for the future, including continued development of the company’s fleet management program, which currently has more than 3,000 units under contract.
That’s only one of many areas where Murphy and his team will aim for success in the years to come. “Riekes is a mix of history, legacy and innovation,” Murphy says when explaining the company’s long-term success. “We’ve been here a long time, but we’re not the same company we were in 1936.” In today’s ever-changing marketplace, that’s a good thing. Given Duncan Murphy’s record of change for the positive, it won’t be long before he can look back and say the same thing about 2008.