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Customization Is More Fun

January 15, 2011

Customization Is More Fun

Autoquip Corporation carves out a niche by providing specially designed lifts.

Shortly after its establishment in the automobile lifting business in 1947, Autoquip Corporation saw another burgeoning market where its products would have a purpose-the material handling industry. There weren't a lot of players in this new market, and Autoquip's management astutely recognized the ability to grow in an emerging industry.

It was a wise decision. Today, Autoquip has four major product groupings: dock products, in-plant products, freight lift products and custom products. Custom products come from all three of the other groups. It's the custom division where Autoquip really has been making its mark since the late 1990s, when the company made a conscious decision to differentiate itself and focus strongly on customization. "We decided not to follow the masses. Yes, it has been more challenging, but also more fun," says Director of Engineering Mike Adel, who has been with the company for 15 years. "There weren't a lot of other manufacturers making noise in the world of customized lifts.

The strategy is paying off handsomely, as Autoquip experienced its three largest shipment months ever in May, June and July 2008. "Our greatest strength is the ability to bring all our products to bear on any solution," Adel says. His sentiments are echoed by Sales & Marketing Manager Louis Coleman, who adds, "There is a great demand for do-it-my-way products. Our finished product may not start from scratch, but it is different than a standard lift table."

Customization works for Autoquip because of its strong tradition of engineering quality, as well as the investment the company has made over the last few years to maintain that tradition. The company's headquarters in Guthrie, Oklahoma, features a manufacturing facility designed specifically to accommodate specialized products. "Our process is very flexible. It's not meant to stamp out products. It's meant to stamp out whatever comes our way," Coleman says. A push toward lean manufacturing in recent years has kept the facility operating at peak efficiency.

Working With Distributors

Because of its focus on customization, partnering with Autoquip can be a boon for distributors. "The bottom line is, does the product do what the customers need it to do? That's important because these aren't low margin products in catalogs. The customer is willing to pay for getting what they want. Selling custom products is a value-add for distributors because they're not competing with everyone else for a commodity item." Coleman says.

As an example, Adel points to a project done for a generator manufacturer. The distributor on the project brought Autoquip in from the beginning, to be sure that everyone knew precisely what the end-user needed. "It was as good of a partnership as we've had, where all three-the enduser, dealer and Autoquip-sat at a table and hammered out a solution," Coleman recalls. "With the distributor's installation and assistance, we put in a system and it is working great."

Stories like this are commonplace at Autoquip, which prides itself on partnership with its nationwide network of hundreds of distributors. "Partnership is the key word, underlined, exclamation point," says Coleman. "It takes a lot of trust from the distributor to form a partnership, but there's a lot of benefit derived when all parties involved can have a high comfort level. From a dealer's standpoint, it's a win-win-win."

While other suppliers may be unwilling to offer a solution for a unique customer application, Autoquip wants to be known as "the answer men," says Coleman. "We never say no. Our dealers want to know they can go back to their customer with multiple options for potential solutions." In order to provide an answer every time, Autoquip relies on dealer salespeople to understand exactly what the requirements are. From a design standpoint, Adel relies on distributors as his eyes and ears in the field. Distributors who are well-versed in and totally understand the customer's application are paramount. "A distributor can't just send me a list of specifications. They need to be able to tell me what the customer is trying to do," Adel says.

The partnership is a two-way street, as Autoquip helps enhance salespeople's product knowledge and skills to know what to look for by offering periodic training schools. Autoquip specialists train the dealers in what questions to ask customers so Autoquip can provide them specific solutions. "There's been a lot of clamor to get into our last couple of programs and they've been very successful. Distributors are realizing that this is a viable area where money can be made," Coleman adds.

Diverse Customer Base

Autoquip's strategy gives it the opportunity to work with customers in a multitude of industries, from woodworking to manufacturing to aerospace and more. As Adel reiterates, "In the material handling industry, there's been a push toward commoditization. But there is definitely a market for people who want their own product."

He understands the temptation to get involved with high-volume, cookie-cutter sales. "The dollar figures always look really good, but there just isn't margin there to be competitive. My advice to dealers is to follow the money and be a little more sophisticated."

It's a good tip. By following its own advice, Autoquip is poised to lift the fortunes of distributors and customers alike.

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