How CSI Materials Handling’s strong culture has allowed the small distributor to act big.
By Steve Guglielmo
Bob Wall began his career in the industry working in sales for a distributor in Chicago. He was a very successful salesperson. So successful, in fact, that the company began cutting his sales territory with the explanation, “You’re doing so well that you can continue to make money with a smaller territory.” Finally, Wall had had enough. He decided to start his own distributorship. To his surprise, Chuck Keene, a veteran salesperson at the company, asked if he wanted a partner to start the business together. Wall, who was just 26 at the time, decided to take him up on the offer. In 1969, Container Systems, Inc. was born. Wall and Keene moved into a small shop in Broadview, Illinois.
“They called it Container Systems because, at the time, they pretty much only sold corrugated steel containers to heavy manufacturing,” says Mike Wall, Bob’s son and CSI Materials Handling Owner/President. “And then, in the 1970s, we started to branch out into pallet rack. And once we started down that path, we were selling everything in the storage and handling world. Pallet rack, guard rail, shelving. Little by little we evolved away from corrugated steel containers into everything storage and handling.”
As Container Systems continued to grow, Wall never forgot how he had been treated at his previous employer and vowed to not make the same mistake with his employees. He built a company based on a strong culture that permeated the entire organization and can still be found in every CSI employee today.
“We have sales guys who have been here for 35 years,” says Mike Wall. “We don’t have a lot of turnover. Guys come here and have success and have stayed with us long-term.”
Part of the reason that employees stay at CSI for the long haul is due to the management style that Bob had and that Mike has inherited.
“We are very hands off,” says Mike. “We set them free and leave them alone. We’re not believers in having a meeting every Tuesday at 8:00. We provide all the tools and support that they need and then let them run their own ship. The culture is very much one of independence. You don’t have to come and ask me if we can ship a couple of extra beams because something got screwed up. Just do it. I’m not going to be looking over your shoulder, second-guessing everything.”
Though the company doesn’t have a defined mission statement, it does have several core tenets that it operates on. First and foremost is a culture of integrity and respect.
“Something that my dad always instilled is that we are going to treat you with the utmost respect,” says Mike. “And we’re going to expect you to treat all the other employees with that same respect and that attitude will obviously apply to customers as well.”
He continues, “I think our guys know that they have the crown jewels of the company in their hands every day when they go out there. My dad is one of the most ethical people I’ve ever known. He is just a very straight shooter and we try to be that way with each other and with our customers every day.”
It’s partly due to that attitude of care and respect that CSI has been able to consistently be named as a top distributor for many of its suppliers, even as a relatively small distributor.
“One of the best compliments I ever received was from a supplier, who told me, ‘I think your customers look at you as a much bigger company than you really are,’” Mike says. “‘You project as a bigger company.’”
Recruiting the Next Generation
Mike joined CSI in 1992. After beginning his career in finance at Motorola, he was offered a sales job with the company that would have taken him to southern California.
“When I talked to my dad about it, he told me, ‘If you’re going to go into sales, why don’t you come work for me?’” says Mike. “It was really eye opening. I hadn’t ever considered that that’s what I wanted to do. But I saw what a great life you could have working in this business and I decided to join the company.”
Mike joined the company at 24 in a sales capacity. But he was bound and determined to not be “the owner’s kid.” He wanted to be recognized as a valuable team member in his own right. He was also determined to soak in everything Bob could teach him.
“When you’re 24, you think your parents are wrong about everything,” says Mike. “But I decided I needed to be all in. No matter what my dad said, I vowed to put my blinders on and do what he told me. And as it turns out, he and I have very similar business philosophies. We meshed very well from a teacher-student standpoint.”
Mike worked in sales for 10 years before beginning the buy-out process in 2002. But that desire to keep the legacy that had been built still continues on. And that emphasis on culture is leading to the next generation of employees joining the company in a very similar fashion.
“For the longest time, we had a crew of guys that didn’t retire and didn’t leave,” says Mike. “I never had to worry about recruiting. But you look around and realize we’re all aging and eventually we need to find the next generation. And, fortunately, we’ve done that. And it’s a testament to the company, and the belief that our sales people have in our company, that members of our sales team are recommending to their kids that they join the company. And I think that’s such a compliment to say that you think so highly of your job that you want your kid to have the same one.”
Wall notes that the company places such an emphasis on cultural fit that they have a long hiring process to ensure that the employee will mesh well.
“We are very slow to hire,” he says. “We’ll have guys in for three or four meetings. We’ll have them sit down with one of the sales guys or maybe go on a sales call. We really want to make sure that we’ve got a fit before we hire. Not only do we need to be comfortable, but we want to show them how we operate and make sure they’re comfortable too.”
Today, CSI has 22 employees in three locations. It serves the entire storage and handling industry. And though it is a small to mid-sized distributor, CSI is routinely recognized as one of the top storage and handling distributors in the industry.
“I’ve definitely seen customer demands changing in recent years,” Wall says. “We’re very fortunate to have some big-name companies as customers. And they’re demanding a higher level of technical competence and also asking us to do things that have traditionally been outside of our scope of work. More and more customers are requesting turnkey services where you’re going to turn over to them a fully functioning warehouse. And it’s like a rising tide lifting all boats: it’s causing us and others in the industry to step up their games.”
CSI celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. And though the products that are being offered are different than when Wall and Keene started the company, and customers are more demanding than ever, in many ways the company is indistinguishable from the two-man operation that was founded in Broadview in 1969. And with a staff that buys into that culture from top to bottom, it’s a good bet that that will be the case for the next 50 years as well.