Wisconsin Lift Truck provides solutions of excellence in its quest to be its customers’ sole source of material handling needs.
By Steve Guglielmo
Wisconsin Lift Truck celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2012. In the half-century since its inception, the company has grown from a small parts and service company to one of the most decorated and respected material handling distributors in the world.
The company began with an ambitious goal of being “The sole source of material handling needs for our customers.” In order to achieve that vision, the company has steadily expanded over the years. “Over time, we added lines to meet the needs of our customers,” says Jerry Weidmann, president of Wisconsin Lift Truck and its parent company, the Wolter Group. “In addition to our vision of being the sole-source of our customers’ material handling needs, we must also provide ‘solutions of excellence.’ We must add value by solving our customers’ problems. Merely having a breadth of product is not enough. That product has to be part of a larger solution. It’s combining those two elements – being the source and the solution – that makes Wisconsin Lift Truck a leader in the material handling industry today.” This vision is so important to the company that every employee has it laser-cut onto marble stones sitting on each of their desks.
Today, Wisconsin Lift Truck and its affiliates have 345 employees operatingin three states and nine facilities. And its accolades speak for themselves. In 2011, the company was named a MHEDA Most Valuable Partner, one of only 22 MHEDA members to be recognized for their commitment to business excellence, professionalism and good stewardship. The company has also been consistently recognized as a top dealer by its manufacturer partners, being named a dealer of excellence by four of its manufacturers in 2011.
In the Beginning
In 1962, Otto Wolter (founder and CEO) was working as a parts manager at Wisconsin Industrial Truck. He and Bill Sommers, a salesperson at Wisconsin Industrial Truck, decided to use the skills they had acquired to open their own material handling dealership. Together, they formed LPM Parts and Service of Milwaukee. Shortly after the company was founded, Otto’s brother-in-law(Joe Weis), a field service technician at WIT, joined the company. In the early years, Otto’s wife, Marilyn, handled the company’s administrative work. This emphasis on family began a philosophy that has carried through to today, where eight family members still work.
From the start, the new company focused on selling solutions rather than simply product, always striving to meet that goal of being the sole source of material handling needs.
“Wisconsin Lift Truck has always been solutions-oriented,” says Weidmann. “Even in the early days, WLT worked as a partner with its fleet customers to identify the right equipment and strategies for managing their fleets.”
The company added the Advance Sweeper Scrubber line in 1964, the White lift truck line in 1965 and a skid steer line in 1966. By 1969, the newly named Wisconsin Lift Truck and Leasing Corp. had outgrown its original building and moved into its new corporate headquarters in Brookfield, WI.
The 1970s and 80s began a period of aggressive expansion for Wisconsin Lift Truck. The company’s Green Bay branch opened in 1970. In 1974, WLT opened its storage and handling business. In 1975, WLT formed an engine and transmission rebuilding division. Between 1976 and 1985, WLT opened branches in Janesville, WI, Wausau, WI, and Rockford, IL. That geographic expansion, combined with a growth in product lines, shaped the future of Wisconsin Lift Truck.
In 1991, Otto’s son-in-law, Jerry Weidmann, was asked to do consulting work for Illinois Lift Truck Corp., an affiliate of Wisconsin Lift Truck. Jerry came from the world of finance, having worked with small companies in the investment world.
That same year, Weidmann became the general manager of Illinois Lift Truck. When Jerry took over that role, Illinois Lift Truck and WLT’s Rockford operations had $10.0 million . By the end of his seven-year tenure with Illinois Lift Truck, renamed Illinois Material Handling, revenue was up 280 percent to $28 million.
“Because of my investment background, I knew that the acquisition aspect of the business is something that we would focus onmore frequently after I joined the company,” Weidmann says. “One of the things that I brought to the table was looking at the size of operations and how to get critical mass in the market and expand efficiently using acquisitions as a strategic resource for growth.”
In 1996, the Illinois Material Handling division of Wisconsin Lift Truck acquired Fiorenza Material Handling. In 1998, it acquired Ener-Gen, a Generac distributor. In 2006, it acquired the Wisconsin division of Material Handling Services. In 2010, the company acquired Witco Systems. In 2012, WLT acquired YDR and Scott Lift Truck.
Today, Wisconsin Lift Truck’s business consists of 65 percent lift truck sales, service, parts and rental; 10 percent aerials, booms and industrial cleaning equipment; 10 percent power systems (engines and generators); and 5 percent specialty equipment. When the company identifies a need or area of potential growth, it acts swiftly and decisively.
“I tried to use the skills that I had from my years in investments, and acquisitions were clearly part of that background,” Weidmann says. “We are continuing to grow our business. We used acquisitions throughout the decade to strategically assist us and we expect to make several more acquisitions in the next five years to improve our ability to serve our customers in all markets.”
Weathering the Storm
Wisconsin Lift Truck, like most companies, was impacted by the economic collapse of 2008-2010. However, the company’s strategic acquisitions have helped it weather the storm better than most and return to pre-recession highs quickly. It is also in a strong strategic position to capitalize when the economy rebounds.
“The financial crisis of 2008 created one of the largest economic challenges the country and our company has ever faced,” Weidmann says. “The market was off almost 30 percent. As this was taking place, I discussed the economy and strategies to deal with it with my fellow MHEDA board members, Currie Group members and others in the industry. I carried the advice of these groups with me into our management meetings and we aggressively addressed the issues. We scaled our business back and then pursued growth through acquisitions. Once it stabilized, and we saw what has become ‘the new normal,’ we were well below our pre-recession levels. By doing acquisitions, we have been able to add additional customers to get our revenue line back up to where it was.”
Built By Our People
While strategy has played a big role in the company’s meteoric rise, such growth would not have been possible without an amazing staff of dedicated employees. The average tenure of a WLT employee is 17 years, and their average age is 48 years old.
“We are a family business with long-tenured employees,” Weidmann says. “Our business was built by our people. We give honor to the commitment employees have shown us over the years and look to function as a team to take care of our customers. Our mission statement and value statements are posted throughout the company to remind all of us what it takes to serve our customers. Regardless of the product or service, it is the unrelenting drive to take care of customers’ needs that determines success.”
When making an acquisition, Wisconsin Lift Truck takes special care to integrate its new employees into the WLT family and culture. “What we attempt to do is blend them together, integrate them with our staff immediately,” he says. “We recognize their employees as if they were employees of our company from the start. If they had 20 years at their prior company, that’s 20 years with us. When we blend, we blend entirely and try to make it as transparent as possible.”
Where Wisconsin Lift Truck has been strongest is recognizing and adapting to trends. This includes technological shifts, looming recessions (and the recoveries that follow) and even future-proofing the work force.
“The reality is that you have to be aware. Know the signs, move early and make adjustments so that you can accommodate whatever direction the business takes you. You can’t overreact and you can’t underreact.”
Though the staff’s average age and tenure speak volumes about the company’s culture, it could also put them in a precarious position without a strong succession plan.
“We are developing younger staff members for the future,” Weidmann says. “We have relationships with a number of technical schools to hire young technicians we can train and develop. We have younger people in many of our departments who are already in training to replace the managers. We review our succession plans as part of our strategic planning process and our HR department regularly communicates with our senior managers regarding staff that will retire within five years.”
The company has been quick to adopt advancements in technology. “Speed of business is increasing,” Weidmann notes. “Computer software, web and phone technologies allow for more information to be accessible in a shorter period of time. We are committed to our mission of enabling customer success through value-added solutions supported by superior service and quality products professionally delivered with a sense of urgency. We believe that by using all of the resources and technologies available to us to accomplish this mission, Wisconsin Lift Truck will continue to thrive long into the future.”