Home >> Inside MHEDA >> MHEDA At 60


MHEDA EVP Liz Richards and President Scott Hennie reflect on MHEDA’s watershed moments
By Steve Guglielmo

“I’ve heard members say if you’re in the material handling industry and you’re not a MHEDA member, you’re really missing a valuable opportunity,” says MHEDA Executive Vice President Liz Richards.

MHEDA was founded 60 years ago, on October 10, 1954, when a small group of distributors in an up-and-coming material handling industry met at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago to form what would become the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association. In the 60 years since that fateful meeting, the Association and industry have undergone radical transformations. And while the original founders may not have predicted every twist and turn the industry has taken since then, they did a masterful job of building a foundation for the Association that would allow it to grow and thrive.

“They say that sound principles and sound values are timeless,” says 2014 MHEDA President Scott Hennie. “If you look back at what these gentlemen put together as the principles and values for MHEDA, they still hold true today and will probably still hold true as MHEDA continues to grow.”

Strong Leadership and Strategic Planning

From the beginning, MHEDA realized that networking with industry peers was paramount

From the beginning, MHEDA realized that networking with industry peers was paramount

One of the hallmarks of MHEDA over the past 60 years has been the visionary and progressive ideas of its leadership. Today, the MHEDA Board of Directors is made up of 17 distributor executives who will each serve at least two years on the Board and can spend up to 11 years serving the Association.

“A lot of associations sometimes really struggle to find board members to serve,” says Richards. “We are so fortunate that we have more than we can possibly add to the board. When you have that kind of enthusiasm and excitement about serving on a board that is going to take up a lot of your time and requires you to spend not only your time but financial resources to get involved, I think that’s a pretty good testament to the value that they see coming out of the Association.”

Hennie adds, “Every subsequent group of leaders that have come through, the Association is better off than when that person came on the board. It just keeps getting better and better because of the foresight of not only the MHEDA staff but of the board members that work through their years of service with MHEDA.”

An example of that foresight came in 1995, when former MHEDA President Tim Hilton first came onto the MHEDA Board of Directors.

“Tim came onto the board the same year that I did, in 1995. We were in a big state of transition at that point,” says Richards. “He noticed that we didn’t have a real consistent planning process and he kind of interjected the need for that.”

That suggestion led to one of the most important advancements in MHEDA’s history. Though the Association didn’t have an adequate computer software program for the undertaking in 1995, the idea was born and started to take shape.

“We started to look at our database and our ability to really analyze our environment both internally and externally,” Richards says. “One of the first things we did in 1997 was begin that process and figure out what it would take for us to move down that path. Tim became president in 2000 and at that point we had installed a new association management software and began to uncover how the Association was serving the membership from a demographic and industry segment perspective. It was really a process that took about three years.”

The board and staff spent those three years really making this process their own.

“It wasn’t a consultant telling us how to strategically plan and it wasn’t an off the shelf program. It was something brought to us by a member who had a similar process in his own organization and it became this living, breathing thing that we adhere to and tweak as needed year after year,” Richards says. “It’s probably the biggest milestone that we’ve achieved in the past 20 years.”

MHEDA’s strategic planning process allowed the MHEDA staff and board to really uncover and define some of the biggest challenges that MHEDA members are facing. This has led to the establishment of Association staples like the Critical Impact Factors that are honed and released every year by the Board and MBOA, MHEDA-NET, Emerging Leaders Programs, MHEDA University and the establishment of the Manufacturers Board of Advisors in 1998.


When asked what the most important benefit of MHEDA membership is, the most popular answers are MHEDA’s educational and networking opportunities. Aspects of both came from the establishment of the strategic planning process.

Specifically, MHEDA-NET was born almost out of necessity.

“MHEDA-NET was very specifically an idea that came right out of something we saw happening with the Association,” Richards says. “We saw members flocking to YPO forums and they were getting involved in these forum groups. We saw that as a potential threat to their involvement with MHEDA and so we developed our own version of these forum groups that are specific to our members. Today, we have more than 200 members involved in MHEDA-NET and hear from several of them, ‘This is the most valuable part of my participation in the Association.’”

But MHEDA-NET is not the only networking forum that the Association provides. Many members value the networking that the annual Convention provides as much as the education. The Association has also started instituting Regional Networking Programs at MHEDA member facilities around the country as an opportunity for regional networking.

“MHEDA creates an environment that fosters relationship building,” Hennie says. “I really believe that the biggest strength that MHEDA brings to the industry is the networking opportunities. Business is still based on relationships and the stronger the relationship, the stronger the trust between companies, whether it be a manufacturer and a distributor or two distributors.”

Richards adds, “The whole idea of being able to network with others who may have faced a similar issue or challenge and then learning from that person, to me, is such a great value of being involved in an association like this. It’s all about best practices and what you have learned and how you can share that with others just to make the industry stronger and better.”

Addition of Manufacturers

“Bringing the manufacturers into the Association in a very active role has been very significant,” Hennie says. “With the advent of the MBOA in 1998, I think you can really see where the manufacturers and distributors are working together on projects and on their businesses. I think it has helped strengthen the relationships and helped to close that chasm that existed to a higher degree before.”

When MHEDA was founded it was founded primarily as a dealer organization. Over the years, the Association has taken steps to be more inclusive of manufacturers, culminating in the formation of the Manufacturers Board of Advisors.

“We really weren’t tapping into the suppliers for advice and guidance,” says Richards. “The fact that they sell through distributors made this a great opportunity to be more inclusive. We wanted to give them the opportunity to hear from distributors and what challenges the dealers were facing. And the fact that we were able to harness that with the formation of the MBOA has brought a new perspective to our Association. In a big way, the manufacturers are a huge reason for MHEDA’s success, not only with the Exhibitors’ Showcase, but also with sponsorships and advertising and how far that goes to help MHEDA grow stronger.”

That support goes well beyond the manufacturers’ monetary contributions as well. Suppliers are a huge source of member recruitment for MHEDA.

“I think it speaks volumes when several of the manufacturer members of MHEDA are not only telling their dealer network that they should be a part of this Association but are even subsidizing in some way their distributors’ membership. Whether that’s helping them with the DiSC Reports or in some cases subsidizing their dues, it speaks volumes to the value of the association not only to the distributor but to the manufacturer and end-user,” Hennie says.


Former MHEDA Presidents Tim Hilton and Ken MacDonald

Former MHEDA Presidents Tim Hilton and Ken MacDonald

Along with the networking opportunities that MHEDA affords, the other most popular programs that the Association has are education and benchmarking. One of the cornerstones of the Association is consistent improvement among members and it’s no coincidence that when dealer recognition lists come out every year, more than 80% of them are populated by MHEDA member distributors.

“I think one of the best things that we’ve been able to do most recently is to really dive deeper  into our member organizations,” Richards says. “Years ago, it was known primarily as an organization for the dealer principal.  Now we’ve made a concerted effort to reach into a member’s organization and make sure that everybody within that organization knows about the various resources available to them through MHEDA.”

One of the reasons for MHEDA’s success in doing that is their early adoption of cutting edge technology.

“Even early on when the buzzword was ‘distance learning,’ we were one of the first associations to go down that path with more teleconferences and eventually webinars,” Richards says.

Those webinars and teleconferences were the forerunners to today’s MHEDA University, an online educational portal that makes learning interactive and on-demand.

“When I look at what we’re doing today with the video conferencing and the recordings and some of the social media stuff that we’ve been doing, it has really served us well in getting the MHEDA message so much deeper into the organization and into the industry.”

Hennie adds, “With the way the younger generation wants to learn and wants to use their time and do things on their terms, I think we will look back on the transformation of MHEDA University as a huge watershed moment.”


So many of MHEDA’s changes over the past 60 years have dealt with outreach. Our industry is often described as being “hidden in plain sight,” and MHEDA is working to make both the Association and the industry less hidden.

In addition to the outreach to the manufacturing side of the business and beyond the C-Suite of distributors, MHEDA has made a concerted effort to reach out to the younger generation to promote the material handling industry as a viable career path.
Some ways that MHEDA has done that are through the formation of the Career Resource Center on mheda.org and the creation of an embeddable video promoting material handling. Other ways include MHEDA’s co-sponsorship of Classroom Day at ProMat and MODEX and hosting of college students at the annual MHEDA Convention.

But the last frontier of outreach that MHEDA has recently started promoting is to the end-user, MHEDA member customers. With that in mind, MHEDA created the Most Valuable Partner Program in 2011.

Says Richards, “One of the goals of the MVP program was to brand MHEDA among the end-user community. Members, at a very grass roots level, are able to do that when they promote the fact that not only are they a member of MHEDA, but a Most Valuable Partner. Then they explain the criteria they had to go through in order to achieve MVP status.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to improve and be better,” says Hennie. “From a distributor member’s standpoint, I think one of the things that I’m seeing happening with the Association, and it will be a huge benefit to all of the distributors, is an outreach to our end-users about who MHEDA is and what MHEDA means and why they should be doing business with a MHEDA company. We’ve talked at Board Meetings and if we can get customers to write into their specs or put into their RFQ’s, or ask when you first meet them, ‘Are you a member of MHEDA?’ then we’ve really put meaning into being a MHEDA member and what the Association is going to give back to the individual members.”

Going Forward

MHEDA has evolved in unimaginable ways in the last 60 years and is just hitting their stride today. The table is set for 60 more years of growth and innovation.

“We’re always looking to the future,” Richards says. “That’s one of the reasons why MHEDA has become so much stronger and so much more progressive. We’re constantly looking ahead. What’s coming down the road and how can we help our members to address it?”