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Adapting to Ever-Shifting Customer Demands

Hoj Engineering & Sales began more than 50 years ago as an overhead crane company. When Henning Hoj first opened the doors in 1964, he set forth a mission to change the industry. Even then, the company was driven by engineering. Today, brothers Peter Hoj, President, and Tim Hoj, CEO, continue to build on Henning’s legacy. Hoj continues to push the envelope and remains on the leading edge of technology and innovation. The past 50 years have seen Hoj Engineering expand from an overhead crane company to a portfolio that includes overhead cranes, conveyors, docks and doors, racking, storage automation, forklifts, controls and warehouse management software.

“Our product offering is extremely wide,” says Tim Hoj. “We try to offer a deep level of service from engineering systems design. We’re growing by adding sales, people and engineering services. It’s about trying to be more than just another quote. The more engineering-based categories the better from a customer buy-in and integration standpoint. We’re doing control systems or software or things that are affecting their process. If a customer just needs something that they can get from five different companies, it can be difficult to differentiate.”

Finding ways to differentiate from the competition has long been one of Hoj’s strong suits. The company has grown organically through the years, identifying customer needs and adapting to fulfill them.

“My father (Henning) was fiscally conservative and kept earnings in the business to grow the company and expand into other vertical markets,” Tim says. “We added forklifts soon after we opened and then racking. It got pretty broad-categoried early on. Since I took over, our formal consulting division and software division have been our latest additions.”

He continues, “A lot of companies establish a marketplace and then tend to stay in their wheelhouse. I don’t see a lot of companies being progressive and growing. They tend to stay pretty regionally-focused. I think our product offering and our engineering services and consulting are a big differentiator in that respect.”

Evolving Customer Demands
While Hoj has always been a progressive company, its recent focus on software and turnkey systems was dictated by the changing customer demands. Now, more than ever, customers are looking for turnkey services and automation.

“This is a big growth factor in our business,” says Tim. “Customers want solutions that will help them improve and they want a company that can deliver the whole package.”

This change has required companies to rethink their entire sales model and customer approach.

“It’s much more consultative,” Tim says. “There is a shift happening in the sales approach. I have not cracked the code on where it is going, but I have a feeling we need to be careful on how we think we add value in the sales process.”

Recently, the company consolidated its operations into a new building, which will aid in that transformation.

“We wanted to make this building a focus and statement about our future,” Tim says. “We toured many technology companies and wanted to create a work environment that would attract the youngest generation entering the market.”

One of the things that Hoj noticed about these technology companies that they toured was the integration of a very open work environment and floor plan. Gone are the days of everybody having a walled-in, private office.
“We went with a very open floor plan and modern industrial décor, with very few offices and enhanced public spaces meeting room for employees to enjoy in addition to their desk. Everyone in the office has an ergonomic sit-to-stand desk to enhance health. The workspace is an open desk format with no cube walls. We have managers, who been in offices for 20 years, now sitting with coworkers with the ability to share, teach and collaborate. The result is that they like it, and feel like it was the right thing to do for our future.”

The move has allowed Hoj to combine two sales teams, three different service teams, three different parts departments and three accounting groups into one building. The centralization of these divisions has created better balance in workload and an opportunity to share resources.

The search for a new building began more than two years ago, with the construction phase from design to move-in lasting about a year after the property was secured. In addition to attracting the younger generation to this modern office, Hoj also wanted to promote more collaboration.

“We’re getting a lot of cross-selling already, Tim says. “The departments were in different buildings and now that we’re under the same roof, we’ve had a lot of cross-selling success in the first couple of months.”

Culture of Success
Henning’s stated goal upon opening Hoj was to “change the industry.” Today, Hoj’s website promises to, “Make every aspect of your operation ‘faster by design’ and to extend the boundaries of modern material handling and logistics, one customer at a time.”

These are lofty aspirations, to be sure. Ones that could not be achieved without having complete buy-in from the entire company. Hoj’s willingness to adapt and embrace leading-edge technology solutions has contributed to making this goal a reality. But without the right team in place, Hoj would have no way of taking this from vision to execution.

The executive team includes three people who intimately understand and share Henning’s vision for the company. They include his sons, Tim and Peter, as well as Vince Rotta Jr., VP of Crane Engineering. Vince worked alongside Henning, who passed away two years ago. He is 88 years old and remains a very engaged and productive employee.

“We have a great culture, founded on employees with long tenure,” says Tim. “We have a great work family, where people respect each other’s area of contribution and expertise. Our company is built on knowledge, expertise and a hard work ethic. The culture affects each employee-client interaction everyday if they have positive support from the organization.”

Building a strong culture starts right with the recruitment and interview process. It is much easier to find employees who fit the culture you’ve built than try to change employees once they’ve been hired to fit the mold.

“You can’t put enough energy into that process to ensure you get good candidates,” says Tim. “We haven’t adopted lengthy processes or hired a talent recruiter. I think why we’ve been fortunate in hiring is that we try to be very thorough in the disclosure of what the industry is that the candidate is looking at. It doesn’t have the glory of something like pharmaceutical sales. It’s a very different industry. And it requires a lot of hard work. I’m pretty transparent about what the industry is and what the customers can be like, both good and bad.”

That complete disclosure helps candidates understand all of the highs and lows that come with working in the material handling industry.

“I sometimes err on the side of trying to make sure that strong candidates truly are in for this. It takes a long time to learn.”

So what does Hoj look for in a successful candidate?

“We want somebody who has a comfortable, honest personality. We’re not looking for an industry closer, per se. But somebody who has a strong customer-service capacity. That is going to be in it for the long haul and isn’t afraid of hard work. We tend to look at humility, someone that is very comfortable with being a team player. A lot of businesses are built on independent sales people covering different sales territories. We’ve definitely made a shift to be more division, team-oriented. People are working as teams, collaboratively on accounts. It’s been a pretty conscious movement in our business to have not just a salesperson but an engineer and a product person all working on accounts together.”

Like everybody else in the industry, Hoj has been faced with the “skills gap” that is so prevalent in the industry. They have felt the pinch of trying to find technicians and to recruit younger employees. Part of the new business model and building were focused on addressing these issues.

“We felt it was important to push the office environment to be as modern as possible. We felt we could attract younger talent like that. The younger talent wants to work in a fun environment. It’s much more social and balanced. It’s been working well. We’re getting people that really want to work in the business and are excited about approach. We’re getting a lot of college applicants.”

He continues, “It’s important for a dealership to provide their technicians with a very professional opportunity. Electronic data collection in the field. Tablet-based time cards. I think it’s important that somebody has those talents, like working with equipment or people and doing services. They’re going to want to partner up with the most progressive, professional company they can to highlight what their skills are. So I think that the department needs to be as professional and fulfilling as possible for the technician to work in.”

Going Forward
“In many ways, it can appear that the industry hasn’t changed very much,” says Tim. “Many of our solutions have not changed over time. I believe that it is changing quite a bit, however, if your goal is to find better solutions. If you’re working hard to try new technologies and testing processes you can find change that is beneficial. This needs to be a deliberate focus or you risk being outdated in the market place.”

In the last ten years, Hoj has built its consulting division and software product division from the ground up. In the next five years, Hoj expects to have even more integrated technologies with software and hardware solutions.

“More and more products are sourced online, Tim says. “That trend will continue to grow and expand. We have seen a change or loss of commodity type products. We are growing in the highly technical and applied engineering solutions.”

For more than 50 years, Hoj has excelled at keeping its fingers on the pulse of the customer. As customer needs have changed, Hoj has changed to meet them. And the company shows no signs of stopping any time soon.