Gregory Poole Equipment Company finds rejuvenation in its entrepreneurial roots.
CEO: Greg Poole III
It is said that 90 percent of family businesses fail in the third generation. Gregory Poole Equipment Company is now well into the third generation and flourishing. The company’s success can be attributed to many things, but it all began with a true entrepreneur, James Gregory Poole Sr.
Poole’s first entrepreneurial gig was that of a road-building contractor. With his crew, he built roads throughout the state of North Carolina, including part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the onset of WWII, funding for new roads dried up as the nation’s attention turned to the other areas. With factories running 24/7 to pump out military vehicles, Poole saw an opportunity in coal, and moved to West Virginia with members of his road crew to start mining coal.
After the war, Poole decided to move back to North Carolina and was approached by Caterpillar Tractor Company about opening a dealership to serve the Eastern half of the Old North State. In 1951, Poole and his uncle, William Lewis Gregory, founded Gregory Poole Equipment Company in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Foray into Material Handling
Despite its current success in material handling, Gregory Poole Equipment Company wasn’t always a forklift dealer. As a Caterpillar dealer, the company’s product line was dictated by its supplier, which at the time manufactured mainly heavy construction and earth-moving equipment. Instead of building roads, Poole was selling to road builders.
In 1965, Caterpillar acquired Towmotor Corporation, taking on a brand that had become synonymous with lift trucks. The company encouraged many of its heavy equipment dealers to branch out into material handling to support the new line. Following suit, Gregory Poole established its Industrial Lift Systems Division in 1968 to support the sales and service of material handling equipment.
Today, the Industrial Division accounts for around 17 percent of Gregory Poole’s overall revenue. Construction still accounts for the majority of the company’s revenue—more than 55 percent. In 1990, the company launched its Power Systems Division to support products including generators, truck engines and marine power equipment. Under this division, Gregory Poole has grown into Caterpillar’s largest pleasure craft marine dealer in the United States. Combined, the Power Systems Division makes up 25 percent of the company’s revenue.
Since its start in 1968, the Industrial Division has grown steadily. In 1983, the company tapped then-marketing manager Richard Donnelly to help develop the business. Donnelly recalls, “Greg Poole Jr. came into my office and said, ‘We’ve seen what you can do with marketing. We want to see if you can run an operation.’” Donnelly became general manager of the Industrial Division, bringing in $4 million in sales the first year.
Within a few short years, Donnelly and his team—which included an up-and-coming salesman named Hal Ingram—grew the division’s sales to $10 million. In 1986, the Industrial Division, well established in the eastern parts of North Carolina, expanded into South Carolina, opening branches in Charleston and Florence.
As the division grew, so did Donnelly’s and Ingram’s responsibilities. After becoming vice president of the industrial division in the early ’90s, Donnelly took on responsibility for the Construction Division a few years later and, in 2000, the Power Systems Division. Donnelly now serves as executive vice president for Gregory Poole, while Ingram has taken over as vice president of the Industrial Division. With sales over $50 million in 2011, Donnelly’s and Ingram’s influence on the division has been extraordinary.
The division’s geographic growth has given way to expansion in the number of product lines Gregory Poole represents. Along with selling Cat and Mitsubishi equipment in the three states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, Gregory Poole is a Crown dealer in North Carolina and a Linde dealer to the north and south of the state. The company is a dealer of Kalmar heavy lifts in all three states and sells Ottawa trailer spotters in the Carolinas.
Ninety percent of Gregory Poole’s Industrial Division business is industrial trucks, with its largest markets being manufacturing and food and beverage. Ingram adds, “Distribution is a growing market, particularly in the port cities of Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.” Short-term equipment rental accounts for about 12 percent of revenue in the Industrial Division and is an area that continues to grow. “Customers are getting busier as the economy improves,” says Ingram, “but they still lack the confidence to commit capital to purchase new equipment.”
Cultivating Knowledge Workers
Altogether, 176 employees work in the Industrial Lift Systems Division, with many of those being technicians. Out of Gregory Poole’s 800 full-time employees, 410 of them are technicians. And when it comes to technicians, Gregory Poole Equipment Company has a rather unique approach. “They are more than just technicians; they are knowledge workers,” says chairman and CEO Greg Poole III. “When we deploy technicians, whether it’s to a bay in a shop or a job site, they are working to solve customers’ problems.” And for Gregory Poole, solving customers’ problems is a core competency. “We do that better than anybody,” he says.
Maintaining parity in culture, skill and training among such a large service workforce all begins with recruiting and hiring “the right technicians,” explains Poole. To do this, the company employs a recruiter devoted to recruiting technicians. “He has formed great relationships with technical schools and other recruiting bases, and it has enabled us to consistently find great technicians, rather than ebb and flow with the times.”
New technicians go through a “boot camp” training session at Gregory Poole, where the technicians are introduced to the company’s culture, and the company in turn gets to see each recruit’s level of skill and knowledge to determine where they will be placed in higher-level training classes. From the time technicians join Gregory Poole, training is an ongoing process. The Industrial Division alone has three trainers on staff who regularly attend training sessions with manufacturers. After attending these “train the trainer” courses, they work to develop training sessions with technicians at Gregory Poole based on what they learned.
Along with concerted recruiting and training efforts, constancy has enabled the company to put forth the highest level of service. “During the recession, we made a strong effort to retain our technician base both in the Industrial Division and company-wide,” says Ingram. By retaining experienced technicians, Gregory Poole sought to position itself to be competitive coming out of the downturn. “As business has improved, we have not had to go out and hire many new people. The experienced people we need to grow are still here, and it has really paid off.”
A New Philosophy
When he purchased the business from his father in 1999 and took over as chairman and CEO, Poole had been serving as president and COO for the previous three years. In this role, he had helped run the company under the model created by his father and his grandfather before him. “My grandfather and father were functionally driven—they had a top-down management style,” he says. Reflecting on the newly owned business, Poole faced the reality that growing the business like he wanted meant doing away with the management model that had served the business so well for almost 50 years. “I didn’t want people looking for me to make every decision,” he says. “We couldn’t grow the business with only one entrepreneur and everybody following the entrepreneur’s instructions.”
So began the transformation of Gregory Poole Equipment Company into what Poole describes as an entrepreneurial-based organization. “We are an organization where everyone can make things happen. People are expected to go out and beat the bushes for opportunities, new products and services, ways to reinvent their department or division, run it like it’s their own.” Poole adds, “I look at myself as a venture capitalist who is willing to put capital behind ideas and lend support any way I can.”
To facilitate the new culture, Poole simplified the company’s management structure so that there are three direct reports under the CEO: Executive Vice President Richard Donnelly, who oversees every aspect of parts, service and sales; a vice president of finance, who oversees accounting, treasury and information systems; and the company’s HR manager. “Having a multitude of vice presidents all reporting to me would have been very functionally driven,” he says, “and it would have wasted a great deal of time.”
But under Poole’s radical new approach, there were growing pains. Some people mistook Poole’s laissez-faire approach for disinterest in the business. “People were waiting for me to make decisions, and they felt that I didn’t care. The irony is that I am extremely passionate and extremely competitive, and I do care.” After a transition period, Gregory Poole Equipment Company is living the benefits of empowered employees. Says Poole, “We got through it, and we are much, much stronger than we ever would have been if we had kept to the course we were on.” The proof is in innovations like the adoption of planned maintenance work—long used with lift trucks—for construction equipment, where the company now has 2,000 units on PM. This is one of many fruits of cross-divisional collaboration at Gregory Poole.
Generations of Entrepreneurship
More than 60 years after its founding, Gregory Poole Equipment Company continues to thrive in the entrepreneurial spirit of its founder, James Gregory Poole Sr. If Mr. Poole could see the business today, he would be amazed at the breadth of products and services the company offers and by the systems—from information systems to inventory control—that keep a business of Gregory Poole’s size running smoothly. “When my grandfather started the business, it was one building. Inventory control consisted of a wall in the parts department with slips of paper,” says Poole. “When you ordered a part, you would cross out the number and write down the next number, and that’s how we kept track of inventory.” Today the company tracks 42,000 SKUs and upwards of $13 million in parts on a computer system that uses algorithms to analyze product demand and history and automatically order inventory.
A company can take many roads on its path to success. The road built by Poole and his forefathers was one paved with entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and respect. These qualities have given talented individuals like Richard Donnelly and Hal Ingram a stage to shine and created an atmosphere of camaraderie and kinship where employees can make things happen. Poole sums it up best: “This is not just a job. This is a family—albeit an 800-member family.”