Expanded facilities, improved visibility and enhanced employee skill sets position company for a post-recessionary surge.
Since its founding in 1954 in a converted single-bay brick garage with a handful of employees and a lone Ford panel van for mobile service, Thompson & Johnson Equipment Co. has grown into a thriving multi-million dollar, multi-branch, multi-state material handling operation with an eye firmly set on continued growth and prosperity.
Thompson & Johnson began as the vision of Lawrence “Tommy” Thompson and George Johnson, two sales representatives who worked together in Upstate New York for the Clark Equipment Company. When Clark established distributorships, the two men formed a partnership and chose Syracuse to establish Clark’s central New York territory.
From its humble beginnings, Thompson & Johnson grew rapidly, and by the 1970s was operating out of a 19,000 sq. ft. facility on ten acres of land in East Syracuse, New York. Today, the main facility stands at 45,000 sq. ft. with a 12,000 sq. ft. warehouse. In addition, three branches have been established in Elmira, Endwell and Albany, New York, expanding Thompson & Johnson’s reach beyond the central area of the state into eastern New York, western Vermont and Massachusetts, and northeastern Pennsylvania.
The Stability Triangle
“We have a simple mission statement tagline: ‘Delivering Our Promise,'” says Thompson & Johnson President and CEO David Schneckenburger. “That starts with selling leading products in the industry. We strive to sell top-end products because quality lasts and price doesn’t.”
Quality products serve as the foundation for Thompson & Johnson’s Stability Triangle business model-represented by an equal-sided triangle whose three sides are made up of the customer, the employees and the company’s bottom line.
“Whenever an employee makes a decision, it needs to be based on the correct combination of those three factors,” Schneckenburger says. “Otherwise, if a decision is made that maximizes profits for the bottom line but at the expense of the customer, we will lose that customer. Or we can give the product away, which will make the customer happy, but with no profit, we’re out of business. Our goal is to find an equal balance of the three. When we make a decision with that balance, then it should be a good long-term decision.”
Schneckenburger attributes this philosophy of fairness and balance in business to his father-in-law, George Johnson, the late co-founder of Thompson & Johnson who remained active in the company until the age of 83. “Anyone who knew George would describe him as a gentleman and a man of integrity,” Schneckenburger says. “Like him, we very much value integrity in our dealings with customers; we strive to do what’s right.”
Another significant influence on the business was former Executive Vice President Bill Mantz. “Bill retired three years ago after 44 years with Thompson & Johnson,” Schneckenburger says. “He was hired as a mechanic in 1962 straight out of the Air Force and moved up the ranks. He grew our service department into what it is today. The sales philosophies and integrity of George and the practicality and work ethic of Bill have certainly molded who we are today.”
What Thompson & Johnson is today is a $30 million, full-service material handling company with 110 employees whose average tenure is 13 years. “We still epitomize the family business,” says Schneckenburger. “We try to be as flexible as possible with employees’ personal needs because when you’re a small business, you don’t have all the perks that large corporations do.” That said, the benefits of working at Thompson & Johnson are many-paid holidays, health insurance, a dental plan, short- and long-term disability insurance, a 401(k) and a profit-sharing plan. This is in addition to a biannual company party, monthly breakfasts to celebrate employee birthdays and giving employee veterans the day off on Veterans Day. “If we have the right personalities for our culture, our retention is excellent,” Schneckenburger says. “We try to hire people who have integrity, are honest and have a good work ethic. If they have those three things, we can usually train the rest.”
Helping lead Thompson & Johnson is another family member, Schneckenburger’s brother-in-law, Vice President for Customer Service Francis “Chip” Gorham, and Vice President for Finance William MacBlane. To assist with day-to-day operations, the executives have assembled a senior management group consisting of General Parts Manager James Antoine, General Service Manager Adam Park, Sales Manager Shaun Harrington, Albany Branch Manager George Visconti, and General Bobcat Manager John O’Mara.
The management group is essential to running the complex operation that includes material handling equipment sales, rentals and leasing, a parts department with $1.5 million in inventory and a round-the-clock service support operation. Roughly 50 percent of Thompson & Johnson employees are service mechanics and technicians.
“What separates us from our competitors is the top-end products we sell and the service we provide thereafter,” Schneckenburger says. But Thompson & Johnson doesn’t rely on products and service alone. The company’s strategic goals include improving process documentation, instituting standard instruction procedures and enhancing employee training-with the overriding objective of enhancing customer satisfaction while minimizing process errors.
“We want to improve our customer satisfaction scores, which are measured both internally and externally,” Schneckenburger says. “We send follow-up letters to every customer who receives a powered piece of equipment or any major service job, which I sign personally. It’s a very simple, short survey. We get about half of them back, which is a great return. Toyota and Bobcat have a variety of surveys that they send to customers after the sale of new products, which is our external satisfaction measurement.”
Thompson & Johnson has more than 1,000 customers, primarily in warehousing/distribution and manufacturing, ranging in size from large, national chains to local businesses. “We service companies that have one walkie pallet truck to a fleet of 150 trucks,” says Schneckenburger. “Looking at our business, our average service account has two-and-a-half forklift trucks. Our bread and butter is the small guys. That’s where we live.”
The recessionary pressures Thompson & Johnson faces are significant. The market for the area is currently down more than 45 percent. Fortunately, according to Schneckenburger, the company’s revenues have declined less than 15 percent. Another challenge is finding the skilled mechanics the distributorship needs for its service area. Despite the challenges, it is growth, expansion and employee training that top the list of goals as the business moves forward.
The 12,000 sq. ft. Elmira branch, for example, relocated to new, 18,000 sq. ft. quarters at the end of September, while the Endwell branch will be moving to a larger facility in nearby Vestal before the end of the year. “Bobcat has a new line of products, primarily compact tractors, that requires more of a retail presence,” Schneckenburger says. “Our new facilities are more consumer-friendly.” The Vestal property has the added advantage of being located right next to an interstate highway, allowing for convenient highway access and better visibility.
Another bold move was to hire a full-time mechanic trainer. “When the recession hit, we basically stopped our training,” Schneckenburger says. “Then we realized that when we come out of this recession, we have to be ready to go. So we’re investing the money and getting the training program going again, so we can help existing employees improve their skills and become better mechanics or step up from mechanics to technicians.” Thompson & Johnson defines a mechanic as a member of the service team who has the basic skills necessary to perform service calls. A technician has the same skills as a mechanic, and has demonstrated those competencies over time.
Schneckenburger sees the future of the industry as more electric and fewer internal combustion products. He also sees it becoming more distribution-based and less manufacturing-based. “We are positioned to cover those markets with a complete breadth of products,” he says. “For the customer’s benefit, there probably isn’t an application that we don’t have the right powered piece of equipment for or the technical expertise to support that product after it’s sold or leased.
“Customers appreciate being treated fairly,” Schneckenburger says. “They want us to help them reduce their expenses, and reducing expenses doesn’t mean staying with the cheapest product. When customers give us the opportunity, we can do a great job for them and help them thrive.”