Association evolves over six decades to consistently deliver progressive, relevant programs to meet member needs.
By Chris Powers
The Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association (MHEDA) of today is a thriving association of more than 600 members representing the finest distributors, suppliers, factory-owned branches and manufacturers’ representatives in the material handling industry. The association holds an Annual Convention that draws hundreds of members, families and guests. A 17-member board of directors makes recommendations and develops initiatives in the areas of education, networking, membership and member advocacy. It is a modern, innovative organization that is the envy of trade associations across multiple industries.
It’s a far cry from the MHEDA of 60 years ago, which began in 1954 as no more than an idea in the minds of a small group of distributors. At that time, material handling was an up-and-coming industry that was capitalizing on the wave of manufacturing in the United States after World War II. As the industry grew, it became evident to a number of distributors that they needed to band together to improve profitability and business acumen. A handful of distributors contacted one another to gauge interest in establishing a trade association, and on October 10, 1954, met at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago.
The eight distributors at that meeting were: A.C. Andrews, A.C. Andrews Company; Robert G. Arnold, Arnold Machinery Company, Inc.; Albert Bode, The Bode-Finn Company; Art Canfield, M.E. Canfield Company; C.H. “Bud” Ellis, C.H. Ellis Company, Inc.; Harry W. Embry Jr., Embry Brothers, Inc.; George E. Furnival, Furnival Machinery Company; and L.J. Johnstone, Lewis Johnstone Company. Joseph T. King and William R. Noble, from the law firm of King, Noble & Sonosky, also attended. In what would become a defining attribute of MHEDA, the group represented a large geographic area and multiple lines of business.
After a spirited discussion, the group officially formed the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association. Word of the new association quickly spread throughout the industry, and by spring of 1955, there was enough interest to hold the association’s first annual Convention. The Morrison Hotel was again the meeting spot, and 60 distributors traveled to Chicago to take part in the event. Meeting attendees achieved their primary business goals of electing a board of directors and writing association bylaws, and MHEDA was up and running. Few in the room knew it at the time, but they had laid the foundation for an association that has helped the industry and its members prosper for six decades.
From the very beginning, one of MHEDA’s defining and most sustaining traits has been excellent leadership. The first board was made up of a distributor from each of 10 geographic regions:
• Ralph H. Field, Field Machinery, Inc. (Cambridge, MA)
• George E. Furnival, Furnival Machinery Company (Philadelphia, PA)
• Harry W. Embry Jr., Embry Brothers, Inc. (Louisville, KY)
• Bud Ellis, C.H. Ellis Company (Indianapolis, IN)
• H.A. Pierce, W.S. Nott Company (Minneapolis, MN)
• Harold W. Wiese, Wiese Planning & Engineering, Inc. (St. Louis, MO)
• John C. Mayfield, John C. Mayfield Company (Houston, TX)
• Robert G. Arnold, Arnold Machinery Company, Inc. (Salt Lake City, UT)
• S.B. McDonald, Air-Mac, Inc. (Seattle, WA)
• A.R. Canfield, M.E. Canfield Company (Los Angeles, CA)
Association officers were elected in addition to the 10 board members. Robert H. Braun of Robert H. Braun Company (Pico Rivera, CA) was elected president, and the remaining offices were filled by William Oliver, Lift Truck Sales and Service (Kansas City, MO), as executive vice president; C.C. Haddrell, Lee H. Long Associates, Inc. (Wellesley Hills, MA), as second vice president; and Albert Bode, The Bode-Finn Company (Cincinnati, OH), as treasurer.
This select group of individuals got the burgeoning association off the ground and established a precedent that remains a hallmark of MHEDA — insightful, professional leadership from volunteers dedicated to improving the material handling industry.
Robert Braun exemplified that spirit. In one of his first speeches as MHEDA president, he said, “We should bear in mind that there are many categories in the material handling business. We don’t want the association to be dominated by the forklift truck dealers. We need all of you.” Throughout its history, MHEDA has lived by these words, ensuring that programs and offerings meet the needs of all segments of the industry. Members run the gamut from storage and handling, engineered systems, industrial trucks and general lines.
The breadth of the industry is one of the things that make material handling unique. Norman Cahners, former publisher of Modern Materials Handling magazine, alluded to this point in his keynote address at the first Convention in 1955. “Your business is unlike any other business,” he said. “Who will teach you, except people in your own business? People like yourself, people who have solved your problems.” Even today, the chance to learn from other members is a popular answer when members are asked to describe the most valuable aspect of MHEDA membership.
Meeting Member Needs
Spurred by early initiatives such as a Cost of Doing Business survey, catalog program, rental rates survey and group insurance, the association quickly grew, surpassing 200 members by the end of the 1950s. Continued focus on benchmarking and statistical reports and manufacturer-distributor relationships made MHEDA membership more than just a perk; it was soon a necessity for many. Word continued to spread about the value of MHEDA, and membership remained on the rise throughout the 1960s.
Many of those same programs are still around in some form today. This is because of the striking resemblance of the key issues facing material handling distributors in 1954 to those of 2014. Margin compression, manufacturer-distributor relationships, labor costs, recruiting problems and changing technology were some of the issues noted by material handling distributors when they decided to form their association in 1954. Sound familiar?
No matter the challenge faced by members, MHEDA has always been there to respond. The beauty of MHEDA, according to 2011 MHEDA President Chuck Frank, president of AHS, Inc. (Cincinnati, OH), has always been that its value is different to each member. “MHEDA provides best-in-class speakers, webinars and training courses to assist its members. The Convention is a great resource to surround yourself with your peers and other professionals providing new and fresh ideas,” he said. “One of our biggest challenges recently has been doing all we can to strengthen and retain our core team members. MHEDA continually challenges its members with the importance of hiring and retaining top performers.”
Of all the programs MHEDA developed to address member concerns, none has been as important as Convention. Since 1955, every year except one has seen MHEDA members gather face-to-face to network with industry leaders, share business advice and learn about new products from manufacturers (due to association financial constraints, no meeting was held in 1956). In addition to the valuable business that takes place at MHEDA Conventions, attendees also find time to relax and have fun. Thanks to speeches by famous athletes and politicians, rousing golf tournaments, entertaining galas and more, MHEDA Convention attendees have consistently rated Convention as one of the association’s most valuable benefits. In May 2014, MHEDA returns to one of its most popular destinations, Orlando, FL, for the annual Convention & Exhibitors’ Showcase.
In recent years, the networking that takes place at Convention has been expanded throughout the year. The creation of the MHEDA-NET program in 2004 gives members a chance to meet in small groups all year to discuss industry best practices in a controlled, non-competitive setting. MHEDA-NET participants have the opportunity to share ideas and experiences with others in similar businesses and gain clarity on issues specific to their business. Since its inception, MHEDA-NET has become among the association’s most popular programs. As of November 2013, 31 MHEDA-NET groups comprising more than 230 members are in existence, with more forming all the time.
The Next Generation
There are countless other cases like MHEDA-NET that demonstrate MHEDA’s ability to cater to the needs of its members. A good example took place in the 1970s. The industry and association continued to pick up steam, but the pioneers who had founded the industry were reaching retirement age. In response, MHEDA established the Young Executives program in 1974 to train a group of young managers under the age of 40 from around the industry. The Young Executives attended conferences and received training from experienced members of the industry to learn how to run a material handling business. Many of these Young Executives went on to lead their own companies and become mentors to the next generation of material handling leaders.
By 2006, those Young Executives and their peers were in the same position their predecessors had been 30 years earlier, and it was time for them to look toward the future. This time around, MHEDA coined the phrase “Edgers” to describe that generation of individuals who were on the edge of leadership. MHEDA developed a new, Internet-based publication aimed at the workplace’s young professionals. Called MHEDA Edge, the first issue described an Edger as: “those individuals who are going to be our companies’ next group of leaders.” In that issue, 2006 MHEDA President John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling (East Longmeadow, MA), said, “An Edger is someone who is passionate about contributing to the success of the organization. Edgers are crucial to the future success of our businesses and the association. My goal as President is to effectively approach and engage our Edgers by leveraging technology and addressing the different expectations inherent in the younger generation. It is the responsibility of all MHEDA members to encourage Edger involvement. By ensuring their success, we will, in turn, strengthen our own businesses and our industry.”
Though “Edgers” were later rebranded as Emerging Leaders, this concept helped usher in a new era. Technology was transforming the industry, and not just in new, more efficient products and features. The way businesses were run and the way distributors communicated with their suppliers and their customers were also changing as the Internet became more commonplace.
The trend toward digitization is still affecting the industry today. As 2012 MHEDA President Richard Donnelly, executive vice president at Gregory Poole Equipment Company (Raleigh, NC), described, “Emerging technology has had a major impact on the distribution business. Manufacturers and distributors need to stay current on new technology trends that will help them reduce and improve efficiency in managing their business.”
MHEDA responded with more Web-based education, social media activity, a revamped website and new media outlets. “WikiMHEDA,” a glossary of material handling terminology, was launched in 2009, and The MHEDA Journal website (www.themhedajournal.org) transformed its look and format in 2010. Companies became active promoting themselves on social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, the association first introduced Poken, a networking and collaboration software, at Convention.
Time will tell how prominent and successful some of these initiatives become, but they all demonstrate MHEDA’s willingness to adapt to new technologies and proactively confront changes to the business environment. Such foresight and flexibility have always been hallmarks of the association, evidenced by comments from Robert Braun at the first Convention, “This association will in effect stabilize the material handling industry. Through our problems, and we are going to have many problems, we are going to have some answers. We want them to be the right answers.”
Led in part by the original Young Executives, MHEDA and its members charged into the 1980s. Membership peaked in 1982 at more than 800 companies, and attendance at the 1980 Convention exceeded 1,000. Also in 1980, the association purchased a building for its headquarters in Vernon Hills, Ill., after leasing space in Chicago for years. The move provided cost savings and helped validate the association as a stable entity. The Vernon Hills location remains the association’s home today.
Although membership would eventually decline, the industry was becoming a global force. In 1984, MHEDA held its first International Industry Exchange. Material handlers from the United States, Canada and The Netherlands gathered in London, England, for seminars, plant tours and social events. Globalization helped many in the industry expand their sales and brought new competition into the market. The advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s continued to change the landscape of global business. By the 2000s, globalization was an industry standard, and the oncoming threat of overseas imports became a significant issue. The MHEDA Journal tackled this subject regularly during this timeframe, and discussions about the topic helped suppliers and distributors manage the changing business landscape.
After riding high through much of the 1990s, MHEDA faced a tumultuous economic landscape for much of the 2000s and 2010s. The industry, like so many others, went into a tailspin following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, catastrophic events from which it took years to recover. After a brief uptick in the middle of the decade, the industry took another nosedive following the 2008 stock market crash. Fortunately, the MHEDA Board foresaw the downturn and took measures to help the membership prepare by creating programs on the aftermarket, used equipment and budgeting.
One of the most popular ideas that helped the industry survive during economic uncertainty was the push toward environmental sustainability. As debate raged politically about climate change, a commitment to green operations began to take shape for businesses across the global landscape. MHEDA and its members were at the front of this charge, from making improvements in equipment to maximize energy efficiencies to posting Convention materials online instead of printing them. Member companies pushed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) services, encouraged operational changes such as running equipment only when in use, utilized more biodegradable materials, increased focus on used equipment and parts recycling, and shifted lift truck engines to run more on electricity rather than internal combustion.
The ability to accurately predict industry trends and changes is the result of a rigid strategic planning process, which the MHEDA board implemented in the early 2000s. Each year, the board develops a list of “Critical Impact Factors” that will become the priorities for the upcoming months. Based on the Critical Impact Factors, educational resources are developed to help educate members on the current changes and trends in the industry. Some examples of MHEDA programs resulting from Critical Impact Factors include the Emerging Leaders Conference, safety and social media webinars, sales training and Parts and Service conferences discussing new technologies in distributor operations.
Despite the growth in revenues and prominence during the last several decades, the material handling industry is something of a mystery to outsiders. In an effort to combat this lack of understanding, MHEDA started a new committee in 2004. The vision of the Industry Advocacy Committee was “to serve as an advocate of the material handling industry by conveying its strategic value to all stakeholders.” To that end, Industry Advocacy initiatives included joining the College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE) and bringing industrial distribution and supply chain logistics students to Convention beginning the following year. It’s also part of the reason why in 2007 MHEDA got involved in the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) to support disaster recovery by engaging industry to address the unmet needs of relief organizations, communities and people. In 2011, MHEDA changed its mission of Industry Advocacy to Member Advocacy.
While the Industry Advocacy initiatives had some success in creating awareness, raising the industry profile remains an issue. “We still remain invisible to many people outside our industry. What do you say when asked what you do? It is hard to describe,” said Duncan Murphy, president of Riekes Equipment Company (Omaha, NE) and 2009 MHEDA president. “At the same time, after attending a college career fair and seeing the light of intelligence and interest in the eyes of graduates soon to enter the workforce, I ask myself how we can spread the word better. This is imperative for salespeople, administration and technicians.”
One way MHEDA has brought prestige to the industry is through its Most Valuable Partner (MVP) program, which is designed to help MHEDA distributors brand and recognize their performance excellence to customers, employees and suppliers. According to the MHEDA website, “Distributors who attain MVP status have demonstrated their commitment to business excellence, professionalism and good stewardship.” As of November 2013, 24 MHEDA distributors have reached the level of MVP.
Eyeing the Next 60
Through it all, MHEDA endures, as committed to its membership as ever. It took perseverance, but the experiences gained over 60 years helped the association guide members through tough times. As the industry continues its recovery, MHEDA is positioned to grow and thrive once again. Trends to watch include a shift from regional to localized distribution centers, increased focus on safety, and continued efforts to shift away from internal combustion trucks. Duncan Murphy summed up an industry in transition, saying, “We are in the idea business more than the equipment business.”
No matter what the future holds, technology will continue to advance, and new faces will come and go. MHEDA at 60 remains at the forefront of the material handling industry, fulfilling its mission to “further improve the proficiency of material handling distributors in order that they continue to be the most effective and efficient conduit to the marketplace and to be a resource to all industry stakeholders.”
Even as it reaches its diamond anniversary, MHEDA remains a pillar. Some things never change.