Forks in the Road

Aug. 1, 2009
An unusual array of services helps National Lift Truck challenge the recession.

If you're looking for a fork truck — most any kind — or an unusual attachment, fork or seldom-used fork truck, there's a good chance of finding it at National Lift Truck. The Franklin Park, Ill.-based company has nearly 2,000 machines in its rental inventory at its 156,000-square-foot headquarters.

National Lift Truck, which also features a large fleet of aerial work platforms, provides other services as well that go outside the realm of the typical rental company, such as hauling and transporting, buying, selling and rebuilding batteries, and storage and warehouse services on a short-term and long-term basis.

Like many rental companies — and NLT is far more than a rental company — National Lift Truck attempts to be a one-stop shop, with its wide-ranging fork truck and attachment inventory, aerials, batteries, industrial cranes, personnel carriers, industrial scrubbers and sweepers, telehandlers and more. But it's the extra services that make NLT an unusual player on the construction and industrial services scene.

To begin with, there is trucking. NLT has a large fleet of delivery vehicles and hauls to all 48 states, Canada and Mexico. It also holds a long-term lease on 65,000 square feet of heated storage space in a 600,000 square-foot building, with access to more space when needed. It provides long- and short-term maintenance for customers and sophisticated logistics capabilities. And its fork truck inventory includes units ranging up to 150,000 pounds. National Lift Truck has Broderson cranes and a range of gantries, including specialty gantries up to 1,000 tons.

How does this all work together? Jim Dietz, general manager and 20-year NLT veteran explains.

“In Chicago, we've got 1,700 to 1,800 machines and 800 to 900 are fork trucks,” says Dietz. “We've got probably just about any size fork truck somebody wants to get their hands on, all the way up to 150,000 pounds. A lot of rigging people want aerial lifts to set up conveyors, they may want some scissors, they might want some booms, then they might want a 15,000-pound fork truck, a 30,000-pound truck and a 60,000-pound truck. We can bring that together under one roof.

“Our biggest strength is, besides the building here, we've got another building that has 65,000 square feet of storage space for our customers with access to more. If we have an industrial account that has a new line coming in, and they're going to take out all the old machinery while the new machinery is coming in, they'll either bring the equipment to us or they'll hire us to freight it in. We unload it, store it and they hire somebody to come in and do some work on it. Then the rigger comes in and takes the old stuff out with our equipment, puts it on our trucks, brings it to our warehouse, and then takes the new stuff on our trucks with our fork trucks to the new job. We store the old stuff for a fee and then eventually everything is finished off. It could be months, it could be a year and then it goes away. So we could be part of an operation from start to finish.”

A recent deal with customers Hill Mechanical and ARS, which put up a large building near NLT's headquarters, illustrates the dynamic. “It was full of equipment, and it was a just-in-time site,” Dietz says. “You couldn't bring equipment on that job until it was ready to be installed. So we arranged with a heating contractor, a customer of ours, a rigger customer of ours, and a general contractor to bring equipment into our warehouse and store it, do some preparation on it and then take it over to the building to install it. So instead of having the machinery lying around, getting in the way of the electrical contractors, painters and other workers, we stored it for them. So we were able to do some trucking, some unique equipment rental and some storage.”

One manufacturer that lacks a distributor in the Midwest stores equipment at NLT's yard and hires NLT to do its deliveries. “The trucking and storage works hand in hand with equipment sales and rental, and it brings us a little closer to the customer base, especially the contractor,” adds Dietz. “It gets us on to some jobsites and ties us together with the general contractor. It's always been our goal to be that catch-all, to supply a variety of equipment to people, to supply a variety of options for our customers.”

National Lift Truck became a dealer for Clark a few years ago, a change for NLT, which had not been a fork truck dealer in the past. National Lift Trucks' customers include other dealers and rental companies because of its unique equipment offering, carrying so many items that can't be found elsewhere. About a third of NLT's business is done with competitors, particularly re-rentals, which the company has done for 40 years.

“It works because most of them trust us,” Dietz says. “They know we're not going to go and take business from them. Plus we sell a lot of Clarks to other fork truck dealers, people who want what Clark makes that nobody else makes. They can't necessarily own the specialty equipment so we make it available to them. If they need large numbers of units we'll rent to them. If they need service for trucking, if their trucks break down, if they get into a bind and they have 20 orders going out one day and they need extra delivery trucks, they pick up the phone and call somebody that actually hauls the same product around. We can make the moves for them.”

Dietz points out a variety of units in NLT's massive warehouse. “We keep a lot of specialty stuff around because you never know what you need for a fork truck,” says Dietz. “You don't know if you'll need 36-inch-long forks or 96-inch-long forks, you don't know if you'll need a Class 2 or a Class 4, so we have all these attachments around — different thicknesses; different widths. Most people don't have them, so they call us and we rent them the attachments, or they'll rent the whole truck from us.”

NLT's specialty inventory includes 110,000-pound fork trucks, not typically seen in rental centers. The machine has a counter weight in the back that extends back, enabling the unit to pick up 150,000 pounds, something normally done from the air with a crane.

“This fork truck works inside of a warehouse where a crane would never be able to because you can't get enough stick up in the air to get the capacity you need,” Dietz says. The 110,000-pound unit is used in manufacturing facilities to transport large pieces of machinery within the building or to put it on skids and dollies to tow out of a warehouse. NLT has another fork truck that, with counterweights, can pick up 60,000 pounds and move it, but the unit is only the size of a 30,000-pound truck.

“So you can drive this machine into a really tight area, extend out your counterweight, pick up the load and then lay it down on skates or whatever and you can set back in the counterweight and then drag it out,” explains Dietz. “This machine will get into tight areas, but it will pick up more weight than a 30,000 pound truck. You can remove the counterweights so you can haul it. It just brings a lot of different features to the business. You can rent one of these and then you can rent five small fork trucks, and you can rent aerial lifts and you can rent pallet trucks and we'll help freight it, so it's a complete package instead of the normal ‘I'll deliver 25 19-foot scissorlifts for you at $275.’ It's a unique business model.”

The large inventory can come in handy especially when providing equipment for customers such as McCormick Place, Chicago's convention facility. “The typical company that has fork trucks maybe has five or six 15,000-pound fork trucks, we have 65,” he says. “So we can always take care of somebody who needs a 15,000-pound fork truck.”

National Lift Truck rents short term and long term, including multiple-year rental agreements that include service and maintenance and also sells machines to companies with long-term maintenance agreements. Often the long-term agreements are on fair-market-value leases and the company renews the leases or returns them. Because NLT performed the maintenance it can be confident in getting the machine back in good condition, to sell used or put into its rental fleet.

The company also provides training courses for its customers, operator training in forklifts and aerial work platforms. NLT has a training manager who used to serve on ANSI's board. The company also has an industrial battery business, National Battery of Chicago, and is a dealer for Bulldog Batteries. National Battery sells new batteries and used batteries that it rebuilds.

In addition to its unique inventory, National Lift Truck emphasizes its ability to provide immediate delivery. “A guy will call me at 8 o'clock at night, ‘Can you get me 10 fork trucks?’” says Dietz. “‘Sure, how soon you need them?’ We're known for that.”

Street fightin' man

For National Lift Truck, having this broad breadth of services means a lot during the current recession when traditional rental and sales work is slow. Still the recession has affected all areas of business to the point where general manager Dietz and three sons of the owners' recently went back out on the streets to augment the company's sales efforts. NLT also put some of its office staff into telemarketing or making sales calls to avoid layoffs. “We're finding places for them to be more proactive to help us generate more business instead of cutting them back,” Dietz says.

In addition to the benefits of adding to the sales efforts, Dietz finds the visit of top executives to customers deepens relationships. “They see how much we care about the business,” he says. “When you get an owner or vice president or general manager out talking to customers, then you know more about what's going on in their company. They can talk about their company in a different way.”

Dietz adds that he learns more about the market and his company's relationship to it by being back out on the front lines.

“Having somebody like me go back out on the street will bring me back to the reality of what's going on, and hopefully present our company to our customers in a different light,” he says.

Having the owners' sons visiting has had additional benefits, Dietz adds. “We've got three of the owner's sons going out on the street and talking to customers saying ‘this is my name, I'm part of my business, my dad is an owner, we care about your business,’ ” he says. “They say, ‘I want to go back to our management and say what we have done right, what we are doing wrong, what can we do better?’ When you have top management and the owners' family members listen to the customer, it's easier for the customer to understand there's more to it than just price.”

National Lift Truck was founded in 1956 by William Perry Dubose Sr., who still, although officially retired and in his late 80s, spends time at the company headquarters fixing up old Model T's and, sometimes, fork trucks. His sons Perry Jr. and Jeff Paul now share ownership and continue to take active roles in managing the company. Other family members own related businesses — Nissan Lifttrucks of Memphis and National Lift of Arkansas.

“Most of the people in the business are relatives or old family friends, especially the managers,” says Dietz. “I'm the only one that didn't grow up with them or is not a family member. And they probably put more people in business into this town than I've seen anybody do.” One of the companies NLT helped get started is aerial rental specialist Lizzy Lift, founded by two of founder Dubose's daughters. Lizzy Lift is independent of NLT, although Lizzy rents space from NLT and sometimes re-rents equipment from it or hires its delivery trucks.

The two-location Arkansas operation is strong in rental to other dealers. Memphis, which also has two locations, is more of a sales company that does some rentals, and ownership has hopes of growing the rental business in both of those states and establishing more branches. “We think our growth will come from that area,” says Dietz. “You'll probably see those four locations get bigger and bigger, where Chicago may be more limited because labor costs are so high here.”

NLT opened a 10,000-square-foot facility on the south side of Chicago in 2007, a small building but right on the expressway, giving it great visibility, helping the company cover the vast metropolitan area of Chicago and extend its service into northern Indiana. The company eventually plans to open a branch in Indiana to expand into its industrial market and represent Clark in the state.

Tag-team sales

National Lift Truck sales efforts function almost as a sort of tag team. A sales person has a territory like most rental companies do, and each sales rep sells the whole gamut of services NLT offers — equipment sales both new and used (including international), rentals, service, parts storage, batteries and hauling, concentrating on fork trucks, aerial work platforms or cranes. But if a customer's needs require a particular specialization, NLT's team approach takes over.

“We will run a guy behind him that is considered a specialist who will go in and help them with the more detailed sales,” says Dietz. “We'll send a service manager who will help with sales for service, we'll have a fork truck specialist that goes out and talks to the customer about Clark fork trucks and then we have an aerial guy that has 20 years of aerial lift experience. Salesmen are there to establish the need and if they can handle it, fine. But if it gets to be competitive, or a lot of specialized knowledge is needed, we'll follow it up with a specialist.”

A recent trend National Lift Truck has pursued has been dealer-managed major accounts, where National Lift Truck will handle the service for a company that has multiple locations because the manufacturer lacks the manpower or ability to handle the service end. So NLT will handle the service, warranty and parts needs for the customer at its spread-out locations, representing the manufacturer.

The future for National Lift Truck probably will lead to an expansion into Indiana as well as other growth, particularly in Arkansas and Tennessee. But first things first and obviously survival through the current recession is the primary concern. The company has an interest in possible expansion into additional lines of equipment, particularly earthmoving items such as skid-steer loaders to expand its “one-stop” product offering.

But for NLT, like many in the industry in 2009, surviving the recession comes first.

The Fire in Memphis

Not only has 2009 been a major challenge for National Lift Truck because of current business conditions, but the company endured a major fire in the Memphis location of Nissan Forktrucks that caused more than $1.3 million in damages. The fire started from one truck where a cable coming from a battery compartment rubbed against a metal c-clamp and wore down the protection of the cable, causing a spark that turned into a smoldering that turned into a fire that burned up the truck. The damages — a number of brand new fork trucks, $360,000 in parts damage, a total of about $600,000 in equipment and parts and the rest on the building — are not even including lost business.

“It was just one semi that caught on fire, the rest was smoke, soot and heat damage,” says Dietz. “The fire melted the plastic 200 feet away.” The company had to bring in metal inspectors to make sure metal fabrication wasn't bent or destroyed. The entire building was virtually covered with soot.

Dietz marvels at the way Nissan Forktruck's employees found the energy and drive to keep the business operating in the aftermath of the severe blaze.

“The work they do is hard enough when business is normal, but when you have half your building destroyed, don't have all your equipment, don't have parts and have trouble getting them out in a timely fashion but customers are still demanding it, I'm amazed how they kept the business going,” he adds.