Lift Atlanta’s “old school” philosophies continue to endure.
By Steve Guglielmo
Lift Atlanta, Inc. (Decatur, GA) is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015. And while the products, the people and the industry have all changed drastically since 1975, the same principles that the company was founded on have carried it through to today. One of those core tenets is loyalty. It has been a defining characteristic of Lift Atlanta since Founder and CEO Mitchell Milovich opened the doors in September of 1975. Mitchell, who served as president of MHEDA in 1985, understood the importance of loyalty in all facets of the business and he made it a mission to impart that value to all of his employees.
Today, that legacy is carried on by Mitchell’s son and Lift Atlanta President Mark Milovich. Mark, who is serving as president of MHEDA in 2015, describes Lift Atlanta as “old school.”
“We do many things today that are just unheard of in our industry but used to be the norm back in the day,” says Milovich. “We have very simple old school philosophies at our company.”
Culture is paramount at Lift Atlanta and loyalty is the backbone of that culture. Loyalty to customers, loyalty to suppliers and loyalty to employees.
Growing Up Old School
Prior to opening Lift Atlanta, Mitch Milovich was the Southeast Regional Manager for Baker Material Handling. He had expressed a desire to own and operate his own dealership and in 1975 the opportunity to purchase the Atlanta branch office of a Baker dealer came available. Mitch was able to purchase the assets of this branch and officially opened Lift Atlanta, Inc. on September 1, 1975.
When Lift Atlanta opened its doors, Mark was only six years old. He has literally grown with the company.
“When I was 17, I started working summers and school holidays at the company,” Mark says. “I started in the parts warehouse and then moved into the service and install departments of our dock division. Over the years I’ve worked in every aspect of the branch, including accounting and inside sales.”
In 1977, Linde Material Handling acquired Baker Material Handling. Linde and Lift Atlanta have been inexorably linked since Mitchell founded the company. Mark even spent 10 months working directly for Linde in Aschaffenburg, Germany, before returning to Georgia to become the branch manager of Lift Atlanta’s Augusta office in 1993. In 2001, Mark was named President of Lift Atlanta.
“In the 1980’s when it was popular to expand into the Allied segments of the industry, we followed suit,” says Milovich. “At one point, we had 70 employees and were involved in docks, shelving, modular offices, rack, conveyor – all of it.”
During the 90’s, however, the company began to rethink that expansion and diversification strategy.
“We took a hard look at ourselves and thought, ‘We are a forklift company,’” Milovich says. “We were getting away from what we did best. So we began to phase out or Allied business and get back to being a forklift dealer. We went back to the girl we came to the dance with.”
During the last recession, the industry again turned to diversification as a way to expand revenues.
“We did the opposite,” says Milovich. “Instead of adding to our product and service offerings, we contracted to what we did best. We asked ourselves, ‘When the economy returns, are we going to want to continue to be in these new products and services?’ The answer was no, so we pressed on with what we knew.”
By 2009, revenues had dropped 54%, but the company was able to weather the storm and emerged from the recession stronger than ever before.
“We are today what we were when we started in 1975,” Milovich says. “A simple forklift dealership with the desire to do things right by the customer and make a profit. We would rather do a few things very well than do many things just okay.”
Lift Atlanta’s resistance to diversification is not its only “old school” quality. The company’s mission statement is to “Represent the finest equipment and services in the material handling industry and provide our customers with honest, cost-effective solutions that will increase their productivity and efficiency while decreasing their overall cost of ownership of material handling equipment.”
Since its inception, that has meant selling Baker and then Linde forklifts.
“When we started, most dealers were single-line distributors, meaning they only carried one brand of lift truck,” says Milovich. “Since dealers have had to become multi-brand, the OEM-Distributor relationship is not the same. The loyalty is gone.”
Lift Atlanta represents just two forklift brands. In Atlanta, the company solely represents Linde. In Augusta, Linde and Clark.
“People ask us, ‘How can you survive with just one or two lines,’” Milovich says. “With 40 years of experience selling Baker/Linde, we just know how to be successful with one brand. We don’t want to have more than two main brands because it clouds the picture. If you have multiple brands, how does the sales rep know what to sell?”
He continues, “One of our goals is for the OEMs that we represent to say, ‘Lift Atlanta is the best dealer we have.’ I don’t necessarily mean in terms of sales volume. Open and honest communication with the OEM is the key to a mutually beneficial relationship. Proverbs 27:17 says, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so does man sharpen his fellow man.’ A dealer is only as good as his manufacturer and a manufacturer only as good as his dealer network.”
That concept of loyalty extends to parts as well.
“We stay loyal to our own as much as we can,” says Milovich. “We could get parts from various sources but we’re a dealer and we support the OEM. We represent the most expensive lift truck in the industry. But the concept we sell is lowest cost of ownership. To maintain that, we stay competitive in parts and service and we look first and foremost to the OEM for that support.”
For Lift Atlanta, profits are much more important than market share.
“We are profit driven”, Milovich says. “From Day 1, it has been ingrained in me that we have to make a profit in ALL aspects of our business. When market share is placed above profits on a list of priorities, that to us is a recipe for disaster- and sooner or later, it will come back to haunt you. Lift trucks should not be the commodity that our industry has allowed them, more so created them, to become. We don’t have to win every deal, but we do need to be profitable on the deals we do win. For us, and the culture we built, selling equipment at next-to-nothing margins does not build sustainability. Like I said, we represent the most expensive lift truck in the industry, but we trust in that product and its features and benefits and have spent 40 years successfully representing it without having to scrape by on low margins just to increase market share.”
The concept of “take care of our own” extends well beyond the OEM relationship for Mark and the rest of the Lift Atlanta team. To sell the lowest cost of ownership, the company needs to ensure that they are there for their customers well beyond the initial sale.
“We do not aggressively pursue competitive PMs or service work,” Milovich says. “Our customer service representatives’ main responsibility is to ensure that our customers are satisfied with doing business with Lift Atlanta. We would rather spend our time and energy making sure the people who have purchased with us stay with us than trying to win service work from an account running other brands. Because while we’re trying to win that service work, another dealer is going to service our customers.”
The company’s stated goal is that when competition tries to win service work from a Lift Atlanta customer that that customer says, “We are very satisfied with Lift Atlanta. For Milovich and his team, that has taken precedence over volume of PMs that can be signed up.
“For us it makes sense to first and foremost take care of the people that have taken care of us,” Milovich says. “Today a lot of dealers lose sight of that.”
According to Lee Iacocca, “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product and profits. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.”
Being a family company, Lift Atlanta has instilled a family atmosphere and a close-knit community within the company’s 41 employees.
“Lift Atlanta is where it is today because of our people,” Milovich says.
Not counting Mitch or Mark, four employees have worked for the company for more than 30 years. A full 24% of employees have been with the company for more than 20 years.
“Our people genuinely care about this company. For many, it’s not just a place of employment. They get together outside of the office and their families have grown up together,” Milovich says.
With three sons of his own, Milovich understands that there are moments in a child’s life that you can never get back.
“You spend more time at your job than you do at home, so not only do you have to enjoy where you work but there has to be a little latitude,” he says. “When kids are growing up and they’re involved in sports and school plays, they only do that once and as a parent you can’t miss those things. We don’t want our employees to miss those opportunities. And I think because of that, our employees feel respected. They want to be here.”
Just as Mark grew up with the Lift Atlanta family, he wants his employees’ kids to have that same experience.
2015 promises to be a big year for both Lift Atlanta and MHEDA. In President Mark Milovich, they have an old-school, steady hand to guide them.