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From Inauspicious Beginnings Comes Astonishing Success

By Steve Guglielmo

When looking at MacKinnon Equipment & Services (Tampa, Fla.) today, it is nearly impossible to picture its roots as a twice-bankrupt Yale Materials Handling factory store. This is a testament to the work of CEO A.D. Sandy MacKinnon, who privatized the store in 1982, and in the 30 years since has grown the dealership from a net worth of negative $1 million to a multi-million dollar award-winning corporation.

After graduating from Hillsdale College, MacKinnon joined Yale in 1964 as a territorial salesman for a factory store in Detroit, Mich. At the time, Yale didn’t have any privately-owned distributors. The manufacturer owned and operated 12 factory stores across the country. MacKinnon had a tireless work ethic born from delivering newspapers in the unforgiving Detroit winters as a child, and quickly advanced within the corporation, taking on a management role in the Detroit store.

MacKinnon went on to adopt a “fixer” persona within the company. After his work in the Detroit store, he was tasked with turning around a factory store in Baltimore that was dealing with financial difficulty. He went on to do the same in Miami and Philadelphia. In 1978 he was promoted to North American National Sales Manager, in large part because of his work turning around those factory stores.

By 1982, however, MacKinnon was itching to return to his roots on the dealership side of the business. “The corporate ladder was not really where I wanted to spend the rest of my career,” he says. Internally, the company had made the decision to scrap the factory store model and begin to privatize as distributorships. “We hadn’t done a very good job of managing our factory stores. We felt that we needed to go out into the private sector to find success,” says MacKinnon. “Consequently, I spearheaded the initiative to begin that transition with our store in Tampa.”

The Tides of Change
MacKinnon’s new business promised to put his considerable fixing skills to the test. He inherited a dealership that had been through two bankruptcies, had a net worth of minus $1 million, 18 employees and $1.8 million in annual sales. “Anybody that had dealt with our dealership in the past was probably not very happy with us,” says MacKinnon. “We were almost better off starting with a blank slate where nobody knew us.”

Having been a Yale factory branch, the newly minted Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia stocked only Yale products. MacKinnon knew that to turn things around, he would need to supplement the Yale line with other products besides forklifts. “Most of the customers in the area already had a forklift dealer that they knew and trusted,” MacKinnon says. “We needed to be able to go into these customers and say, ‘We’re not here to sell you a lift truck. We’ve got racking, shelving, sweepers and scrubbers. We have other items that we want to talk to you about.’ That way, customers would get an opportunity to see that we’re an honorable company that did what we claimed we would do. Hopefully, the next time they had a forklift need, they would remember that.”

That decision not only provided inroads to potential forklift customers, it also helped fuel a product expansion that continues today. In addition to its original Yale product line, the distributor has forged relationships with such companies as Capacity, Princeton, Factory Cat and Taylor Dunn. “We can do a turnkey operation on a customer’s facility,” says MacKinnon. “We can take the keys to an empty distribution center and fill it with racking, shelving, floor care material, forklifts, dockboards, dock lights and trailer spotters. When we give the keys back, all the customer has to do is load the product on the shelves and open the doors.” The company also stocks used equipment and provides services such as fleet management, OSHA training and warehouse planning.

Recently, the company has even branched out into the construction business, adding JCB Construction Equipment to its line of products. While material handling still accounts for about 85 percent of its annual sales, the construction industry has been a profitable endeavor. While a new industry, construction is not completely foreign territory for the MacKinnon team. “It’s still material handling equipment in a sense. All of our construction equipment handles dirt and a lot of the products have forks. It’s still our niche,” he says.

The Right People for the Job
Rehabilitating the company’s broken image required more than just a diverse product line. MacKinnon realized early on that his company could have the best products in the world, but without a strong staff, it would inevitably fail. All one had to do was look at the original factory store, which, despite having one
of the world’s most successful and respected forklift brands, failed spectacularly.

MacKinnon began to institute a strict hiring policy that continues to this day. “We’re a very difficult organization to get into because of our hiring requirements,” says MacKinnon. “We make it clear to all of our employees that the customer is never the interruption of our work, it is the purpose of it.”

Every new employee undergoes an extremely thorough vetting process before coming on board. “Most candidates will go through two, three or even four interviews. We also conduct an Omnia Profile for each job and check the workman’s comp records for every applicant. We want to hire good citizens and people that we feel will be safe workers. It is my responsibility to make sure that any new employee will not negatively impact our existing employees,” he says.

While the hiring process is grueling and time-consuming, new employees tend to stay for the long haul. The average tenure of MacKinnon employees is more than 13 years. This is thanks, in large part, to the company’s practice of promoting from within. Each general manager of the distributor’s four locations is a former salesperson at the company. Every service manager began as a service technician for MacKinnon. Every parts manager put in their time pulling parts from the backroom. The company’s controller and HR manager came to MacKinnon as temporary help before coming on full time. And all four members of the company’s ownership team came up through its ranks.

“Whenever we hire a new person, we look beyond the position they’re being hired for,” says MacKinnon. “We look at where they can go. We’re very loyal to our employees. My theory is that if I can help our people get what they want, then eventually we’re going to get what we want. And in the end everybody wins.”

To this day, MacKinnon is still involved in the interview process of many key positions and salespeople. “It’s a two-way street,” he says. “I want to give them the chance to get to know me and hear what our company is about up front to see if they can buy in. I don’t want to meet a person three weeks later and find out that it isn’t a good fit.”

The company refuses to hire employees from competitors, preferring instead to find and groom its own employees. This way, new employees are immersed in the company culture from day one, rather than having to be retrained.

“We’re not looking for the mover and shaker that comes off the street from a competitor,” says MacKinnon. “We would much rather hire a young up-and-comer that we can groom ourselves. When you get a hired gun by outspending your competition, it sets a bad precedent. Word travels quickly. We would much rather take the time to teach every employee how we do business. We operate under the philosophy that we have to earn our customer’s business every day. Just because we sold them something yesterday doesn’t give us the entitlement to sell them something tomorrow.”

With the rise of the Internet, having the best employees is more important than ever. “Technology today has created a divide between the customer and the salesperson,” says MacKinnon. “Customers would rather have quotes provided via email than sit down with a salesperson face-to-face. It makes it harder to build and establish relationships.”

For this reason, MacKinnon puts a heavy emphasis on training his service technicians to deal with customers, in addition to their technical training. “The service technician is probably the person in the company with the most touch points with customers,” he says. “Since he is fixing equipment, there is no ritual. He can get right into the back room and get working. Our service technicians are our salespeople’s best allies.”

MacKinnon’s meticulous planning and strict hiring policies have worked. In the 30 years since he purchased the dealership, Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia has become synonymous with top-of-the- line service. The company has gone from an abject failure to a 16-time Yale Material Handling “Dealer of Excellence” Award Winner.

Onward and Upward
When MacKinnon was 18 years old and working for his father’s company in Detroit, his father unexpectedly passed away. The company had no succession plan in place. “I saw employees standing around the parking lot wondering if they had a job and what would happen to the company,” says MacKinnon. Determined to avoid a similar situation, MacKinnon has put in place a detailed succession plan.

In 2007, MacKinnon sold 30 percent of Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia to three of the company’s top managers. They are President John Christiansen, Vice President Alex MacKinnon, and Vice President Controller Lisa Rauchmiller.

“I felt it would be a terrible disservice to our employees if I didn’t have a plan that allowed our company to move on if something happened to me,” says MacKinnon. “I have told our people in group meetings that in that event they will not miss a beat. John Christiansen would take the reins and the rest of the board would fall into place and make sure that we keep going.”

This year, the company took another step forward in its evolution. Effective April 1, Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia was rebranded as MacKinnon Equipment & Services.

“This change has been a long time coming,” says MacKinnon. “With all of the additional lines we have added, our name no longer fit very well.”

The decision to make this change was not an easy one. The company has built a sterling reputation in the community and is consistently recognized as one of the best dealerships in the country. “We don’t intend any slight to our leading manufacturers,” stresses MacKinnon. “We are proud to partner with Yale, JCB, and all of our valued suppliers. We recognize, however, that our dealership has a much stronger future as a solutions provider as opposed to being known as a manufacturers’ representative.”

MacKinnon does not take this change lightly. For years, he has resisted putting his name on the business. However, while Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia is a well- recognized brand in the area, so too is the MacKinnon name.

Sandy, his wife Dottie, and his son Alex, are incredibly involved in the community. Last year, Sandy and Dottie were honored as Tampa Metro Civilian Citizens of the year. Sandy has provided leadership on boards of the Florida State Fair, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Sports Authority, the Tampa Museum of Art and other organizations and charities. He also played an integral part in trying to attract the 2012 Summer Olympics to Tampa.

“My father told me to never embarrass the MacKinnon name,” says MacKinnon. “It is my full intention to not only protect my family’s reputation but to make my father proud by conducting our business with integrity, respect and professionalism. While our name is changing, our commitment to excellence is not.”

The Third Ingredient
While having the right products and personnel in place have played vital roles in the company’s meteoric growth, MacKinnon attributes a huge portion of that success to having strong manufacturer-distributor relationships.

“It’s everything,” he says. “It’s so important that the relationship is strong, that communication is good and that the trust and credibility between both parties is always at the forefront.” Having worked on both sides of the relationship, MacKinnon understands the challenges facing both parties. “You have to work as a team. It’s like a marriage, and a successful marriage is not a one-way street. Both parties have to trust that the other has their back. You can’t take advantage of each other,” he says. “Communication is like oil to an engine. Without it, the whole thing just shuts down.”

As the material handling industry continues to shift and evolve, MacKinnon Equipment & Services continues to succeed. As it changes from Yale Lift Trucks of Florida & Georgia to MacKinnon Equipment & Services, the company continues to thrive.

While MacKinnon has set the bar incredibly high in the 30 years since he has taken over the dealership, he has the company positioned to build on and eclipse that success in the next 30 years. “I anticipate great things ahead, for our team members, valued suppliers and customers,” he says. “That is our history and it will be our future.”