With a distinctive Web presence and a sharp Internet marketing strategy, Cisco-Eagle proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
In football, a team huddles to discuss strategy. Players gather to devise a game plan, to motivate one another, to formulate a tactical approach and generate the energy and the enthusiasm to carry it out.
At Cisco-Eagle, the multi-million dollar material handling equipment powerhouse, huddles take place via monthly Web conferences, uniting the company’s 110 employees and eight locations in three states. Financials are discussed, including departmental performance, variances and projections for the upcoming period. These numbers are visible to everyone via Web conference software. There are no secrets, and the goals are not unlike a football team’s: to strategize, motivate and inspire.
If Cisco-Eagle is a football team, then President and CEO Steven W. Strifler is indisputably the quarterback. A West Point grad and former officer in the U.S. Army, Strifler took Cisco-Eagle’s reins after its founder, Warren Gandall, stepped away from daily operations in 2000. Now company chairman, Gandall is credited with building Cisco-Eagle from the ground up.
In 1970, Warren Gandall made a decision: After working as a material handling specialist for an industrial supply company, he left his job and went into business for himself. Gandall’s company, then called Eagle Material Handling, saw immediate success and grew steadily throughout the Southwest from its headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shelving, rack and warehouse storage equipment made up the bulk of Eagle’s sales until the early 1980s. When conveyors and conveyor solutions began playing an increasingly important role in Eagle’s offerings, Gandall created Eagle’s systems and design department. Integrated systems design and conveyors became one of the company’s primary offerings, and remain so today. In 1985, Eagle purchased Cisco Material Handling, a Dallas-based business with a product line similar to Eagle’s and a solid 26-year industry history. With that, Cisco-Eagle was born.
By 2000, Gandall knew Cisco-Eagle was well positioned and that continued growth would require major changes to the management structure. Strifler, then vice president of Cisco-Eagle’s Arkansas operation, had a five-year history with the company. He came onboard in 1995 as a sales engineer and quickly worked his way through the ranks by achieving successes in Arkansas. Recognizing his management potential, Gandall confidently named Strifler Cisco-Eagle’s new president in April 2000.
Strifler accepted, despite knowing that the numbers were not in his favor. “I heard somewhere that less than one percent of executives who take over for the founder make it through one year,” says Strifler. The reason for such dismal figures? According to Strifler, it depends on the founder’s attitude and sense of ownership. “For some founders, the company is their baby, and passing on the ownership is difficult. It’s hard to let go.” Gandall, however, helped make the transition nearly effortless. “Warren has allowed me to take on every initiative I’ve wanted to chase,” says Strifler. “He’s let me enjoy the success when we experience success, but he’s also let me make mistakes and take my lumps, too.” In March 2009, Strifler was honored with another title: company CEO. Gandall remains active in Cisco-Eagle’s operations as company chairman.
Integrity and Honesty
From the start, one of Strifler’s main goals as president was to carry on his predecessor’s core values. “Above all else, Warren managed the company with integrity and honesty,” he says. “He respected and empowered every employee to get involved in the decision-making process. I wanted to carry on that tradition.”
In 2000, Cisco-Eagle did just that when an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, was implemented. The program, which makes each employee a corporate stockholder, gets everyone involved. Says Strifler. “The ESOP gives every single employee the accountability, the success—and the stress—that come with being an owner.” Echoing Warren Gandall’s management style, Strifler acknowledges the ESOP’s profound effect on company culture. “Everyone has the opportunity to influence our collective success.”
Another initiative that has had a measurable effect on Cisco-Eagle’s company philosophy is Open Book Management (OBM). OBM advocates the complete transparency of the company’s financial numbers—and gives each employee the financial literacy to interpret and impact those figures. “Everyone is in the know,” says Strifler. “Every penny that’s spent or brought into the company is visible to employees.” According to Strifler, the change in employee outlook has been monumental. “Instituting OBM took people out of their silos. Every employee in every department has some insight into what everyone else is doing and how that affects our overall performance and success.”
Getting into the Game
The company Strifler runs today looks very different from the Cisco-Eagle of the 1970s, 80s or 90s. That transformation is most readily apparent on the company’s Web site, which has evolved into a virtual extension of Cisco-Eagle. An online store, videos, a blog, product guides, calculators, manuals, downloads and other tools are all components of the site, which Strifler calls “the center” of the company’s marketing strategy.
“In the late 90s, we knew the importance of a quality Web site,” says Strifler, who worked closely with Gandall, Director of Marketing Chris Doyle and the marketing team on improving the site in 2000. “But as we began making changes, we all thought, ‘You know, if we’re going to do this, we might as well try to educate our employees, customers and end-users, and make money in the process.” And so began the evolution that has made Cisco-Eagle’s Web site the foundation of the company’s marketing efforts, a primary channel for new customer solicitation.
At the heart of Cisco-Eagle’s Web site is the company’s online store, which accounts for 15 percent of total annual sales revenue. What Strifler terms the “e-commerce push” began in 2001, after the Cisco-Eagle marketing team recognized the potential impact of a well-designed online catalog. “In 2000, the marketing team began attending conferences on search engine marketing, e-commerce, usability and other topics,” says Strifler. “So we got in the game fairly early.” Nine years later, their efforts have certainly paid off. The company not only generates $8 million annually in equipment sales from the Web site, but, according to Strifler, the site has also led to several large-scale projects and installation work. “The store helps customers understand our expertise and helps them make buying decisions by focusing on details and extensive information. This generates business both directly and indirectly.”
By 2002, as the online store grew and traffic to the Web site increased, Cisco-Eagle realized that the Web initiative was quickly becoming more than just a division of the marketing department.”The Web site was taking on a life of its own,” Strifler says. “As content was added and traffic to the site grew, it required more specialized attention.” As a result, the Cisco-Eagle Web Team began to take shape. “We made a decision early on to internally build and grow the site.” says Strifler. Specialists in SEO, programming, database management and e-commerce were hired to develop each area of the Web site. Currently, 11 full-time employees are dedicated to content creation, site support and managing online sales that come in from around the world. “It was a huge undertaking, but the pieces of the puzzle eventually came together.”
An Evolving Strategy
That puzzle, however, is constantly evolving. “The Web is such a dynamic arena,” says Strifler. “We continuously have to revise your strategy.” The site’s most recent revision includes the addition of a blog. Focused on informing and educating customers on material handling products and practices, the blog is collaboratively written by Cisco-Eagle employees, and everyone at the company is welcome to contribute their expertise. Updates are made at least once a week, keeping the content fresh and up-to-date. The blog is not a direct sales tool. Doyle acknowledges that appeals to buy product are not found on the blog. Rather, it is written to help warehouse and facility managers in their day-to-day jobs, and its benefits are twofold. “First,” says Doyle, “The blog provides another way to establish our material handling expertise. The informative entries show customers that we know what we’re doing when it comes to the products we sell.” The second benefit of the blog comes into play when users search material handling terms on Google. “Google loves blogs,” says Doyle. “If a potential customer wants information on a specific product or material handling concept, our blog is likely to pop up in the search results. It’s an important way to drive traffic to the Web site.”
Videos are another recent enhancement to the Web site. Displayed prominently on the homepage, videos demonstrating Cisco-Eagle’s products and service capabilities are an effective tool. “Like photos in a brochure, the videos are a more illustrative, more compelling way to demonstrate one’s skill set,” Doyle points out. While some of the featured videos are created by the Web Team, others are provided by vendors. Cisco-Eagle plans to continue adding video to the site, building a wide-ranging library of product demos for prospective customers to view.
Beyond creating an even stronger Web presence, Cisco-Eagle has no shortage of strategic goals for the future. Tripling the number of outside material handling sales personnel, developing core software for electronic controls, bolstering the systems integration and design team, expanding into new geographic markets and adding a location or two are all on the agenda—evidence that Strifler isn’t afraid to aim high, even in a discouraging market. Like Cisco-Eagle, Strifler has taken the economy’s troubles in stride. He knows that it’s important to be prepared for a very different material handling market to emerge when the downturn subsides. “There’s such a low barrier to entry in the material handling industry that as soon as things begin to improve, we’ll see a whole new flock of people trying to get into the market and make a quick buck,“ he warns. The good news? “I’m sure we’ll see a lot of pent-up demand and customers whose goals have shifted from simply surviving to making their companies better. Things will turn around,” says Strifler, without hesitation. And if history is any indication, Cisco-Eagle will be there, ready to prosper, when they do. Beyond creating an even stronger Web presence, Cisco-Eagle has no shortage of strategic goals for the future. Tripling the number of outside sales personnel, developing core software for electronic controls, bolstering the systems and design team, expanding into new geographic markets and adding a location or two are all on the agenda—evidence that Strifler isn’t afraid to aim high, even in a discouraging market. Like Cisco-Eagle, Strifler has taken the economy’s troubles in stride. He knows that it’s important to be prepared for a very different material handling market to emerge when the downturn subsides. “There’s such a low barrier to entry in this industry that as soon as things begin to improve, we’ll see a whole new flock of people trying to get into the market and make a quick buck,” he warns. The good news? “I’m sure we’ll see a lot of pent-up demand and customers whose goals have shifted from simply surviving to making their companies better. Things will turn around,” says Strifler, without hesitation. And if history is any indication, Cisco-Eagle will be there, ready to prosper, when they do.