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A Family Business in the Motor City

Integrity Lift provides material handling solutions through communication, execution and Integrity.
By Steve Guglielmo

The summer of 2009 in Detroit, Michigan, was hardly the ideal economic climate for a startup company, especially a startup in the material handling industry. Detroit was one of the most heavily impacted cities by the Great Recession. However, for Jeff and Susan Carnahan, it proved to be the perfect moment to strike out on their own and fill a niche that the city was sorely missing. And so, on June 1, 2009, Integrity Lift Services was born.

Integrity had very humble beginnings, starting with only four employees, Jeff and Susan (CEO and Owner) and two technicians, in a small building in Livonia, Michigan.

“We were just the little engine that could,” says Jeff. “That’s what I always call us. Our thought was that if we could make it then, in 2009 and 2010 in this industry and this economy, it would get better and easier and it did.”

Over the next 9 years that little engine that could thought they could and thought they could and eventually chugged their way to a turnkey forklift dealership that has grown from 4 employees to 48 today. However, while the company has increased its employee base by 10 fold, as well as its product catalog, they still operate with the same core values as the day it was founded.

Beginning their company in one of the hardest hit cities at the height of the Recession, while difficult at the start, has also proven to be beneficial for the dealership in the long run.

“I always hear the older generation talk about the Depression,” says Jeff. “People that came through it learned to value all of the money they had and never take it for granted. That’s what we have learned too. Still today, we’ll look back and say we’ve got to be careful, watch our blindside and watch the economy. We’ve always got to be prepared because things can happen in the blink of an eye. We saw it from October 2008 to June 2009. Things changed so quickly and you can only get small so fast. We don’t stay small for that reason, but we’re still very conservative because of that era.”

The fact that the company weathered the storm of the Recession has ensured that when Integrity does opt to scale up, it’s always carefully considered and strategically planned and executed.

Becoming a One Stop Shop
The company’s evolution from four employees to turnkey dealer didn’t happen overnight. It has happened in stages and has grown out of necessity.

“In 2009 we were four people. We had the two technicians, so we had the service component and some used equipment,” says Jeff. “We grew into the rental aspect of things eventually. The two most recent things we’ve done are that we got into the tire business with a mobile press truck, and then we picked up the HELI forklift line. That’s all within the last year and a half.”

A trend that has emerged across the material handling industry is the desire of customers for a one-stop-shop. Integrity has seen that within their own customer base and has adapted to fit the bill.

“Customers don’t want to have to call multiple suppliers,” he says. “In the past, there has always been the tire guy in any city. And then there was the forklift guy. Now it’s kind of where the forklift guy needs to be the tire guy. People don’t want to cut two PO’s. They want to deal with one person. So we’re a full service dealer now, all brands, all makes, all models, aerial equipment, scrubber sweepers. We do it all.”

As the company has grown to become that full service dealer, has had to grow its employee base as well. This has been a juggling act, as part of the company’s success is that it’s a small family-owned and operated business. The company has had to keep that small company vibe while also growing to be large enough to handle the larger customer-base. And for an extra challenge, they’ve had to grow their technician base in an industry starving for new technician in the automotive capital of the world.

“It’s been a challenge,” Jeff says. “But we’ve been fortunate. Our name in the city has become very good. Mechanics have started coming to us from some of the bigger companies. A common thing we heard is that they felt like just a number at the bigger companies. They wanted to feel like they had a voice and could make a difference. Today we have 14 road technicians and each one brings their own flavor to the job. We have guys who specialize in certain brand products but they all help each other. The culture is that they all talk to each other continually. It’s been amazing how much they cooperate with each other. We’ve been lucky to find people willing to do that.”

Strong Culture
That culture of cooperation extends beyond the road techs throughout the entire company. The company’s mission statement says that, “Integrity Lift provides material handling solutions through communication, execution and Integrity.” As a family-owned business, that culture starts right at the top and shows through at every level of the organization.

“It sounds a little corny but it’s really our customer service,” says Jeff when asked about how the company has been able to grow as quickly as it has. “I was a National Accounts Manager at an OEM, so I’ve seen a lot of big dealerships in my time. And one of the problems with the bigger dealerships is that they start to lose the ability to service each customer as thoroughly as they used to. My theory was always that if we can keep the right size and we stay involved by bringing the right culture to the company, customers will come. That’s always been our driver.”

While they service the forklift industry, the Carnahan’s have always considered themselves first and foremost in the people business.

“If you grow people and give them the tools they need and an environment where they are encouraged to make decisions on an every-day basis without the fear of getting in trouble, they can thrive. No decision is a wrong decision. If you make a mistake, we can learn from it but don’t be afraid to make a decision.”

Adapting to the New Normal
As customers have increasingly turned to the Internet as their first stop in the buying process, Integrity has taken their customer-centric focus online.

“As the younger generation have taken leadership roles, it’s really important to have a strong presence online,” Jeff says. “Their first stop is Facebook or Instagram or Google. Our business is kind of old school but we’ve had to become a lot more tech savvy in the last 5 or 6 years.”

The Carnahan’s have two kids, their son Taylor and daughter Rebecca, who work for Integrity and have been integral in strengthening the company’s website and social media presence. But even within the website the emphasis on strong customer service remains. The website has a contact button that guarantees a response within one hour or less.

“We pride ourselves on that response time,” Jeff says. “When you click on that button there’s an email that goes out to all four family members. And we can respond, literally within minutes, 24 hours per day. And it’s a huge advantage. Some companies, it’s one or two days. I’ve gone online to try to get quotes in my day-to-day life and never gotten a response. So people are very impressed with how fast we respond. Customer service is free. It doesn’t cost anything other than carrying our phones around. And I think it’s an advantage that customers start to feel that customer-service and family-owned service from the second they reach out to us.”

Going Forward
Looking over the next five years, Jeff expects a paradigm shift within the industry, as the need for younger service techs continues.

“I think we’ll continue to grow, especially on the equipment and rental side,” he says. “I think it’s going to be harder and harder to get mechanics in the next 5 to 10 years, which is a challenge we’re all facing. So I think our niche in the future will be more on the product side of things.”

Like most MHEDA members, Integrity has an older technician force, many of whom will reach retirement age around the same time.

“In the next 10 years we’re going to see an exodus in mechanics and if there aren’t young folks coming up who want to turn wrenches and do the jobs, it’s going to be harder to replace them. I think the CFT program that MHEDA is implementing with local colleges is brilliant. It’s necessary. Getting in front of people at the college level and letting them know what a lucrative career it is a great first step.”

As with everything else that has happened since June 2009, the next step in Integrity’s growth will be well-planned and done with an eye on providing best in class service.