December 20, 2013
material handling update | Lift Trucks

Lift truck dealers ... and a great deal more

Lift truck dealers ... and a great deal more

Think the only thing lift truck dealers do is sell and maintain equipment? Far from it.

By Toby Gooley

Every lift truck manufacturer relies on a network of dealers to represent its interests in specific regions of the country. As you might expect, the dealers' "bread and butter" is equipment sales, leasing, rental, and maintenance. But lift truck dealers today are no longer simply providers of equipment—far from it, in fact.

Just ask Mike Romano, president and CEO of Addison, Ill.-based Associated. Associated is a Raymond dealer, but providing lift truck equipment and related parts and services is just one facet of its mission. The 53-year-old company has refashioned itself as a provider of integrated supply chain solutions that include fleet optimization and labor management programs, as well as systems consulting, design, implementation, and integration, Romano says. As part of that strategy, Associated recently acquired Peach State Integrated Technologies, a company that offers consulting services and automated material handling solutions.

Associated exemplifies an evolving trend in the industry: In addition to supplying lift trucks and related services, dealers are expanding to become equipment and facility designers and integrators. If you think about it, it's really not that much of a stretch. While they may have begun as experts in one area, that doesn't preclude them from becoming knowledgeable about other areas of the distribution center. In today's business environment, moreover, it is really not enough to simply sell and service equipment. Vendors have to understand how their products fit into the entire operation and how all aspects of the facility interact. From there, it's a natural step to assisting customers with the entire facility or operation.

Not every lift truck dealer can—or should—offer every product or service for every customer. But many provide a surprising array of services and solutions—some of which have nothing to do with lift trucks. Here's a brief look at some of the value-added services they provide.

Some of the value-added services and solutions lift truck dealers offer will come as no surprise. Fleet management services, for instance, have been a mainstay for years. If a customer desires, dealers can essentially take over the day-to-day management and operation of the fleet. They also work with customers to measure and analyze lift truck utilization rates, maintenance requirements and costs, operating costs per hour, and many other performance factors. The objective is to identify the optimal fleet size and make-up for a customer's operation, notes Jim Mozer, senior vice president, Crown Equipment Corp. Crown recently moved its InfoLink fleet management system to the cloud, so that the company and its dealers will host customers' forklift fleet and operator management data for them.

Fleet management software (usually provided by the lift truck manufacturer) generates a variety of reports dealers can use to make recommendations to their customers. Just one of many examples is Fleet Track, a Web-based fleet management tool that provides Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America (MCFA) dealers and customers with a comprehensive view of their fleets. Users can view planned maintenance services and all related invoices, generate reports across a number of parameters, analyze spending over a variety of date ranges, and track individual equipment spending and hours, says Devin TePastte, parts marketing supervisor for Rapidparts Inc., a subsidiary of MCFA. (For more examples of fleet management software—along with advice on how to take full advantage of its capabilities—see "Six ways to get more from your fleet management software".)

Many dealers also provide and support wireless asset tracking and management systems, which are available from independent vendors as well as from some lift truck makers. Yale's dealers, for example, can install and monitor the company's Yale Vision wireless asset management system, which provides a tiered offering of wireless monitoring, access, and verifications, says Bill Pfleger, president of Yale Distribution. With basic monitoring, lift truck operations can track such information as hour meter readings, cost of operations, periodic maintenance, fault codes, impacts, operator training, parking brake and seat belt violations, and speed alerts, he explains.

OSHA-compliant operator training is a value-add area where dealers excel. Classes may be offered at the dealer's premises or, if the class and fleet are large enough, at the customer's facility. Classes aren't necessarily just for lift trucks, though. One example: ProLift Industrial Equipment, a Toyota dealer headquartered in Louisville, Ky., also offers safety training for users of aerial lifts and skid-steer equipment as well as for pedestrians working around forklifts. Dealers may also offer "train-the-trainer" courses, which are designed to teach fleet and safety managers how to set up and maintain their own compliance programs. This is complex stuff: The instructor training course offered by Dallas-based Sunbelt Industrial Trucks, a dealer that represents Komatsu, Nissan, TCM, Big Joe, and Flexi, covers 18 separate subjects. Some dealers, such as Crown Equipment's dealer network, also offer lift truck technician training for their customers.

There are a host of other lift truck-specific "extras" offered by dealers. These vary from one dealer to another, but some examples include labor management programs, fleet insurance, tire-usage analysis, and educational seminars, videos, and webcasts.

All those value-added services might not sound surprising, since they directly relate to lift trucks. But many dealers have also ventured deep into nontraditional territory. Essentially, lift truck dealers say, if it has to do with warehousing, they can help.

Some large dealers specify, sell, and support complementary material handling products, such as racking, shelving, battery handling equipment, conveyors, carousels, pick-to-light systems, floor cleaning equipment and supplies, and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). Those that do so usually have a specialized sales staff and typically employ material handling engineers. They will also bring in outside experts when needed. ProLift Industrial Equipment, for example, offers automation services for equipment like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and AS/RS. For such assignments, the company partners with a qualified systems integrator and a software vendor as needed. "We can bring subject experts to the customer," says Chris Frazee, ProLift's vice president, sales.

ProLift has also ventured off the beaten path when it comes to the products it offers. A relatively new and fast-growing area for the dealer is energy products, including energy-efficient fans, lighting, high-speed doors, and air curtains. "We hired an engineer to focus on energy products," Frazee says. "Often, we are selling to an engineering department, so it's helpful to address their technical concerns."

You might not think of turning to a lift truck dealer for facility layout and systems design, but it's becoming increasingly common for them to provide these services. All of the lift truck manufacturers we spoke with said some or all of their dealers offer facility design services and consulting, and that they have appropriate expertise in-house. As the Associated-Peach State merger suggests, this represents a big growth area for large, multifaceted dealers.

The lift truck business is built on relationships, so this type of assignment frequently grows out of an existing relationship, Frazee says. A customer that plans to renovate a warehouse or DC or build a new one may prefer to work with a dealer that is already familiar with its business and can develop an integrated solution that incorporates storage, automation, and lift trucks, he observes.

Why do so many lift truck dealers choose to offer "nontraditional" products and services? Certainly, it helps them expand their business if they can bid on the entire project, not just the forklift purchase, says Crown Equipment's Mozer. But it also strengthens the relationship dealers have with their customers, reinforcing the dealers' role as "trusted advisers," he adds.

Nontraditional "extras" are a natural outgrowth of the lift truck dealers' culture of service, says Yale's Pfleger. "Our dealers do more than just sell 'iron.' They provide additional value to the customer, and we feel customers appreciate that and want to continue to do business with lift truck brands and dealers that provide value and move their business forward," he says. Furthermore, this commitment to service sets dealers apart from the competition that may just provide the product.

Associated's Romano views the question from an evolutionary standpoint. "Throughout the years, our customers' needs have continuously evolved, which has required us to search for unique solutions," he says. Many customers view the purchase of lift trucks and related products as a tactical—rather than a strategic—decision, a change in perception that has contributed to the commoditization of the lift truck industry, he continues. "Therefore, in order to remain a valued partner in our customer's supply chain, we had to enhance our approach to the market and provide our customers with long-term strategic solutions that will help them operate at a high efficiency level."

What about the customers? How do they benefit from purchasing nontraditional products from a lift truck dealer, as opposed to a traditional vendor or consultant? "Having a one-source provider helps ensure that everything works well together without negatively impacting productivity levels and warehouse flow," Mozer says. "We can tell customers, based on their operations, what forklifts would work best in their environment. ... We can also work with customers to figure out the best layout and racking and shelving systems to install. It's about ensuring the customer gets the maximum efficiency and performance possible with the fleet and the facility they have."

Ultimately, says MCFA's Devin TePastte, it's about reliability and trust over the long term. "A customer's decision to purchase a forklift extends beyond how well a piece of equipment initially fits into a fleet," he says. "Customers want to know that dealers will assist them long past their initial purchase with proactive and technology-driven solutions to benefit their entire material handling operations."

Senior Editor David Maloney contributed to this article.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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