Adding Value for Generations
Through long-term relationships with customers, suppliers and employees, this one-time local equipment distributor has grown into a major, international, systems integrator.
By Clyde E. Witt, executive editor
Each year the editors of Material Handling Management solicit names of Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association (MHEDA) members who demonstrate exceptional skill and enterprise in adding value to clients’ businesses. From this list we select one company that we feel best exemplifies the term value added. This year’s winner is Bastian Material Handling LLC (BMH) of Indianapolis.
Bill Bastian II stands at the helm of a $50 million enterprise that only vaguely resembles the material handling equipment business started three generations ago by his grandfather, Elgan Stark, in 1952. When William A. Bastian Sr. purchased the business from Stark, many of the products sold today were not even found in science fiction. Now, as then, the company’s original slogan, "If It Rolls — We Supply It," still serves the company well.
"Material handling today is a completely different kind of business," says Bastian II, president and a Harvard MBA grad. "Yet it’s basically much the same: Serving your customers and hiring good people are still the keys to success."
Bastian II says the simple explanation for what his company does is to help other companies fulfill their business plans. "Our expertise happens to be in material handling and information technologies that are associated with that," he explains.
The company’s base of clients has grown to about 8,000, 80 percent of which are repeat customers. Bastian II recognizes that his primary job is keeping the company on an even keel, but one senses he’d rather be tinkering in the basement, working on a customer’s sortation problem or discussing the complexities of information handling versus material handling.
BMH’s sparkling facilities on the north side of Indianapolis reflect what a growing number of other material handling distributors have become. Gone is the large warehouse filled with an inventory of equipment. It’s been replaced by a 350-page capabilities catalog. The catalog displays a dazzling array of material handling equipment, to be sure. But it goes beyond the hardware side of material handling to describe each element of a project and explain how the pieces fit together. The catalog could serve as the textbook for Material Handling 101 in any college.
Making it happen
Along with offering customers its own brand of software, BMH also has its own line of light-directed orderpicking products. Sometimes material handling solutions cannot be found in a catalog; that’s when creativity comes into play and value is added to the customer’s project.
In the basement of the BMH building is a short run of conveyor and an experimental sorter with some experimental diverters. Stepping to the controls of the experimental layout, Bastian II is quick to demonstrate the challenge he is facing. He says, "Our customer is in the drug store supply business and order fulfillment for him is batches of small, odd-shaped items."
He explains how this array of belts and diverters (designed with special sweeps), as well as unconventional angles for diverting, have to be tried before his company can go to the customer with a solution. It’s not just selling hardware anymore.
At the same time, in another corner of the crowded room, employees prepare an exhibit for ProMat, the premiere material handling show. Exhibiting at trade shows is something rarely done by material handling equipment distributors. BMH is not the first company to do so, but it’s certainly on the leading edge. Business and competition for distributors have become global, and the response from the distributor must be the same to survive.
The capabilities of BMH are far reaching. Depending on the customer’s level of need, BMH can do statistical analysis of inventory data as well as material for analysis. The information can be presented in simulation or three-dimensional computer-aided design layouts. The complete control system architecture for radio frequency data collection, orderpicking and sortation, along with real-time information management is offered. In addition, BMH offers its customers project management along with the installation and final testing and training.
Heading in the right direction
Bastian II is convinced that systems integration and information management are the future of material handling. Creating and engineering modular designs of material handling systems have replaced the piecemeal approach to solving a customer’s problems.
For the past 10 years, BMH has been well positioned as the wave of growth to serve e-commerce began to swell. Combining his interest in computers with his earlier education in aerospace engineering, Bastian II and his engineers have been able to convince many companies that well-planned logistics can be a competitive advantage.
"Systems to serve e-commerce will continue to dominate our business," says Bastian II. "And the information systems, along with advances in controls, will make it all happen."
To be sure the company would be able to meet the demands of its customers, BMH purchased ASAP Automation about four years ago. The Louisville-based company specializes in software and control products for manufacturing and distribution.
Now the engineers at BMH have a wide array of tools for material handling projects. Light-directed picking, radio frequency solutions and carousel picking modules are only part of the available arsenal.
Another recent venture into the software development business has been BMH’s creation (along with ASAP Automation) of a wholly owned software development company, AAI India Private Ltd., in Bangalore, India.
"We have many opportunities within the company," says Bastian II, "but it [AAI India] serves as an additional resource for ASAP."
Whether it’s a multimillion dollar software project or a six-dollar caster, BMH is ready to serve its customers’ needs.
"We represent about 300 lines of material handling equipment," he says, "and really view our suppliers as extensions of our own company." Many of BMH’s projects involve conveyor. In 2000, BMH was the top distributor for Hytrol conveyor.
Keys to success
For Bastian II, success is a three-legged stool. He says success is when technology and strategy come together in the minds of the people.
"Technology is not always the answer," says Bastian II. "Sometimes there are simple answers to a problem that you discover networking with peers or benchmarking."
About one-half of the company’s 110 employees are engineers in various disciplines. The company has projects all over the U.S. with regional offices in St. Louis; Cincinnati; Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and elsewhere.
Because of the complexity of many of today’s material handling problems, Bastian II likes to take a team-approach to finding the best solution. "We’ll bring in the suppliers’ engineers to offer even more expertise,’’ he says.
He frequently holds strategy meetings to review advances in equipment, new technologies and communications systems.
Bastian II says the future for material handling, distributors in particular, will remain strong. "Many companies, our clients, are focusing on core competencies," he says. "These companies want to outsource the material handling function as those functions get more complicated." MHM