How Jefferds Corporation has thrived for more than 70 years
For more than 70 years, Jefferds Corporation (St. Albans, West Virginia) has managed to straddle the line between good, old-fashioned business sense and leading edge insight and innovation. The successful combination of the two has propelled the business from a oneman operation to a Corporation with more than 300 employees and 10 branches in two states.
Jefferds Corporation, originally Jefferds and Moore, was founded in 1947 by Joe Jefferds. Joe was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army during World War II. After the war, Joe returned home to West Virginia to work for his father’s pharmaceutical company. The company was interested in mechanizing the warehouse and so contacted a representative from Rapids Standard Company, later Rapistan, to discuss how to go about that process. Joe was a mechanical engineer with a degree from MIT, so he was intimately involved with the warehousing project. The representative suggested to Joe that, with his background, he should get involved with the then infant business of materials handling. Soon after, in 1947, Joe left his father’s company to start Jefferds and Moore and began calling on customers and plants in the West Virginia area.
“Initially, the company was primarily involved with engineered products,” says Jefferds President/CEO Richard Sinclair. “They worked with conveyors, hoists, cranes, monorails and other things like that.”
In the early 1950s, however, Jefferds became an Automatic Transportation forklift dealer, a company that was the precursor to Yale. Adding this forklift line was a shift for a company that had previously been solely involved with engineered systems equipment.
“In the late 1950s, a Clark franchise in West Virginia became available and he bought it, which required a structural change in the company,” says Sinclair. “Instead of being a oneman show, now the company needed mechanics, parts and support personnel. And he inherited some of that, with the people that came from the franchise that he acquired. But over the course of time, the company supplemented that and continued to add branches.”
This was a watershed moment for Jefferds. Not only did it mark the company’s first real foray outside of engineered systems, it also set the tone for future acquisitions and expansions. Throughout the next several decades, Jefferds opened several other branches. In the early 60s, the company added a branch in Parkersburg, WV. In 1975, the company added a Clarksburg location.
Meanwhile, the company also began to expand outside of West Virginia. Two years after acquiring the Clark dealership in West Virginia, Jefferds purchased another Clark dealership in Roanoke, Virginia. Over the course of time, Jefferds added branches in Lynchburg, Staunton and Chilhowie.
Sinclair Joins Jefferds
As Joe Jefferds was opening branches in two states, Richard Sinclair, also a veteran, was working for a telephone company in Virginia. Sinclair had married Joe’s oldest daughter, and the couple had one child with a second on the way, when his telephone job required a three-year rotation in New York City. Joe presented Richard with an opportunity to change careers and move to Charleston, WV, to work for Jefferds, where he has lived and worked ever since.
“He was, in addition to being the founder, just this great mentor,” says Sinclair. “He kept giving me more responsibility. Sometimes I would make mistakes, but when I did he would always make it into a teaching experience.” In 1991, Joe moved into a “semiretirement” and appointed Richard as President of the company, though he continued to be actively involved with the company until he passed away in 2005.
“He was gracious enough to back away and let me do what I needed to do in order to be in charge, yet he was always there as an enormous resource, if and when I wanted to use him as a sounding board,” says Sinclair. “He continued to be the chairman of the company and run board meetings until his death.”
A Team Effort
A hallmark of Jefferds’ time with company, continued by Sinclair, is the freedom to do your job without the fear of being micro-managed.
“I think he was smart enough to try to hire talented people and give them the feeling that they had a chunk of the business, and he let them run that chunk until such time as he didn’t think it was being run properly,” says Sinclair. “The best analogy I can think of is that he was like the conductor of the symphony. He’s up there waving his wand, and as long as everybody is making good music and the team is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, everybody is fine. But if the drummer gets out of whack or the cellist is off, then he honed in on that, in a constructive fashion, to help them understand what they weren’t doing correctly.”
He continues, “His theory was, if he thought enough of somebody to hire them in the first place, then he had an obligation to work with them. Not necessarily to mold them into exactly the same image as him, but that he owed them the opportunity to work with them and to assure that they could do it. If, eventually, it got to the point that it just wasn’t a good marriage, then it was time to get a divorce. But that happened very rarely.”
In fact, Sinclair estimates that in all his time with the company, he’s only fired four people.
“I’d love to say that I was super innovative, and it’s not that I’ve completely copied what he did, but he had a great footprint and I’d have been a fool to abandon it all.”
Sinclair runs the company in conjunction with Joe’s son, Pete, who serves as the Chief Financial Officer and Chairman of the Board. The company is large enough that each man handles his own chunk and then they use each other to bounce ideas around.
To this day, Jefferds continues to grow and thrive, in large part due to the company culture that was cultivated under Joe Jefferds and continued under Richard Sinclair and the Jefferds team.
“I think culture is everything,” Sinclair says. “It didn’t just happen overnight, but a lot of it came about because he was the guy that he was and we have embraced that. It’s difficult, I will say, to engender that same culture in a brand new operation. We’ve started some new operations and haven’t always been able to replicate it. But we’ve sure as heck tried. And when we haven’t been able to replicate it, we’ve basically sold off those operations, because I think culture is sort of central to our success.”
As Sinclair notes, with his symphony analogy, it isn’t just the conductor that is responsible for the music. You need to have talented musicians, who are able to work together, to bring out the beauty in the symphony.
“The real business we’re in is the people business,” Sinclair says. “We’ve got to continue to be able to attract and retain talented people.”
Jefferds, like all forklift dealers can attest, has had increased difficulty finding qualified forklift technicians, something that Sinclair blames, in part, on the rise of the Internet and computers.
“If you have a mechanical aptitude, you can be a computer technician and not get grease under your fingernails,” he says. “Many of the people that we used to get, we can’t get them anymore. We used to find people who were just out working on their pickup truck. It’s harder to find those people today.”
Jefferds has a full-time trainer to get the people they can attract up to speed on the equipment. One way that Jefferds has found success in recruiting technicians is to look for returning military veterans.
“The military has a great training program,” says Sinclair. “They have to fix helicopters and tanks and all different types of equipment. And many of those guys are entering the service out of high school. They don’t have those skills. They had to be trained. And so, when they get out, they are already trained by the military. And in addition to being well-trained, we’ve found returning military to be reliable. They show up on time and they’re competent. I would say we have at least a dozen and probably more exmilitary people on our staff.”
All 300 people across all 10 branches of the company take the culture that was begun by Joe Jefferds seriously. A strong company culture requires buyin throughout the company. And with that strong culture comes a strong work ethic and the ability to forge strong relationships with customers. The company’s mission statement, which hangs in every facility, ends, in big bolded letters, with the sentence, “Our goal is to do it right the first time, on time, every time.”
The industry-wide trend toward “one stop shop” dealerships has been very beneficial to Jefferds Corporation, who has been a turnkey dealership for decades.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Sinclair. “West Virginia is a small state. If we were to rely on just selling lift trucks, we would be a very small player. So, we had to have this broad cross-section of products in order to develop any size. And the reason that size is important is that you want to be big enough to have a benefit structure, if you will, to not just hire employees but to retain them, because in the retention is the learning process that they know how to do what it is you want them to do in order to take care of the customer. Whether that’s selling the customer something or servicing and maintaining the equipment so that we can retain the relationship with the customer. And that has led into where customers are today, that want turnkey operations. We’re capable of doing that, and I think customers appreciate that we can. We’ve been pretty lucky at getting people and getting them to be part of a culture and getting them to stay.”
Having the right musicians is a third of the equation, and the right instruments, another third. But the missing ingredient in any famous symphony is the engaged audience.
“I think the key to business, or at least to our business, is that it’s all about relationships,” Sinclair says. “Joe Jefferds had a gift for gab. He was a very intelligent guy, but he would go out and meet people and engage them. He was smart enough to help them solve their problems. And everybody has got problems. I don’t think that fundamental tenant of business has really changed. It still is a relationshipdriven experience. And if we have got good, talented people that can go out and develop relationships with customers, customers who are eventually going to have one problem or another, our people can utilize that relationship to help solve those problems.”
Here, again, is where having a strong culture from root to branch, empowers Jefferds’ employees to take the long view, instead of the quick solution.
“It’s not really about selling things,” Sinclair says. “Sometimes the best solution is actually not to sell something. We’ve actually told customers to not buy if it’s what makes the most sense. The customer might be able to shift a truck from one division to another if it’s not getting much use. And that only strengthens the relationship. We’re not in it for today. We’re in it for the long haul from the get go. And that’s how we’ve gotten to be 70 years old.”
The Next 70 Years
As Jefferds celebrates a milestone anniversary in 2017, the company is well-positioned for the future. The company opened branches in Richmond and Chesapeake, Virginia, last year and expects to open a brick and mortar facility in Winchester, VA, in 2018.
“My expectation is that we will continue to grow those three operations and continue to grow the company. We’re not de-emphasizing what we’re doing in West Virginia or what we have traditionally done in our core markets in Virginia; it’s just that those three new markets are bigger in size and potential than the entire footprint that we have historically served. If we could get a good toehold in those markets, we’d be in very good shape.”
To date, 2017 is up 35% over the first four months of 2016. This can be attributed, in part, to the perceived more business-friendliness of the new administration.
“Business people perceive that there will be some tax structure changes, less regulations and things that are favorable to the business environment. As a result, spending is up, investment is up and we are the beneficiaries to a large degree.”
With the right musicians, the right instruments, and an engaged audience who has trusted the Jefferds team for more than 70 years, the company is poised to continue to make beautiful music for generations to come.