Industry under Reconstruction

June 1, 2011
Lift truck vendors are consolidating into service and solution providers.

If you’ve been around material handling a long time, the sight of a lift truck may not excite you anymore. Of course, before the last recession some lift truck OEMs did all they could to drum up excitement among customers by highlighting all the bells and whistles with which you could equip your lift truck. They refused to believe that if you could get along without lift trucks, you would—that all you really want is a way to move stuff from point A to point B as quickly, cheaply and safely as possible. If that way happens to be a lift truck, fine. But if there’s another way, you’re all ears.

During the recession, lift truck OEMs and dealers used their ears—and listened very carefully to what you were telling them. Now that the economy seems to be staying healthy and customers like you are starting to get off your wallets, lift truck OEMs and dealers are trying new ways to get you to open them. They’re offering more flexible financing, more responsive service and more operator friendly—and in some cases, operator-independent—options.

As you’ll read in this month’s cover story (Lift Trucks—For Real), lift truck providers have been studying their customers’ businesses more carefully and are planning new product and service offerings accordingly. During my research for the story, Rick Green, director of sales for Nissan Forklift Corporation, told me the lift truck industry is enjoying the results. He reported that the national account segment of the U.S. market started coming back in 2010, evidenced by a 45% increase in retail sales over 2009 in Classes I, IV & V equipment. And it looks like this growth will continue into 2011. The first quarter came in 54% higher than the same period in 2010, he reports. Even mid-size customers are slowly starting to participate in the market. He believes that if fuel prices can stabilize, smaller companies will ease back into the market too, driven in part by the updated Section 179 of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which allows 100% depreciation of material handling equipment received in 2011.

Some of the dealers I've heard from say financing options are becoming more important to customers. Art Kasik, COO of Alta Equipment Company, a Yale dealer serving Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, says his customers want shorter, more flexible contracts. He’s responding with long term rental contracts. Many customers are also reducing the number of lift trucks they’re ordering and supplementing their peak periods with short term rental equipment.

The technical advances customers seem most interested in have to do with metrics—how are their operators and their trucks performing? That’s why more vendors are offering products with telemetry to gauge real time data on operator and equipment performance and collect information on failures.

The big news is, as your needs are changing, so is the lift truck industry. Alan Hammersley, COO of NITCO, a Yale and Hyster dealer serving the Northeast, says you can expect more consolidation among lift truck dealers, with the survivors aiming to be one-stop shops carrying multiple lines. Safety will become an area of service all its own, with training and consultation becoming a richer part of the mix. Of course, to offer those capabilities dealers will need to recruit more talent, and dealer staffing is a big concern, even among top dealerships like Hammersley’s.

“The industry still suffers from our inability to attract younger people,” he says.

So when you’re done reading this issue, pass it along to your local high school’s guidance counselor. Maybe this industry can grab the attention of tomorrow’s career seekers long enough to convince them that making workplaces safer and more productive is a good living.