In 2016, Conveyor Solutions, Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) will celebrate its 20th Anniversary. The company has grown considerably since its founding. For 20 years, its core principles remain the same and have not only carried Conveyor Solutions through its first 20 years, but have it primed to grow even larger going forward.
At the heart of the company’s success is a forward-thinking willingness to change and evolve with the times. Before President Scott Lee co-founded the company in 1996, he had worked in a Fortune 500 company while going to school to get his MBA.
"I knew within three months that this wasn’t the job for me," says Lee. "I couldn’t foster and grow in that environment."
Lee stayed with the company until he finished his MBA and then went to work for a small distributor in the material handling industry.
"I knew within a year that this was something that I had to be involved with at an ownership level," he says. "Twenty years ago, we were a very black and blue industry. The industry was slow to adapt and incorporate new technologies. The opportunities for someone just out of college with a degree in engineering and an MBA to come in and implement technology and networks and computers, were excellent. I really felt like I was getting in on the ground floor and I knew I needed to own something of my own."
So, just after July 4, 1996, Lee and co-founder Joe Tholl started Conveyor Solutions in a room in Joe’s house.
"When we first started the company, we were focusing primarily on conveyor systems," says Lee. "We were handling projects from cradle to grave, meaning from concept, design, drawings, engineering, installation, start up, and service. We were truly a conveyor systems integrator, just at a small level, focusing mainly on the conveyor itself."
Expansion and Evolution
There were three major drivers that led Conveyor Solutions to expand its scope from solely conveyor systems to the full product offering they have today. Those three factors were: customers, vendors and technology.
"When you develop relationships with customers, you tend to grow with them," says Lee. "They expand in the number of products they’d like to purchase from you, the services they need, and they also request that you grow with them geographically. The system integration business allows you to expand outside of your geographic territory with your products and services much easier than you would with the constraints in the industrial truck side of the business."
Vendors also played a vital role in Conveyor Solutions’ growth. Since the beginning, Hytrol has been the company’s number one vendor and partner.
"We’ve built our organization around that product line and relationship," Lee says.
He explains how key vendor relationships, like the one that the company has with Hytrol, were a growth engine.
"If you’re proactively working on strengthening that relationship and having success, they want to grow through the channels and relationships you’ve established. So, if they’ve got some areas that are underdeveloped, rather than trying to develop new vendor relationships, they’d prefer to sell and grow through the people they already know and trust. We’ve grown with many of our vendors in volume, offering more of their products, and expanded with them geographically. It truly is a win-win for the entire channel."
The final growth-driver is technology. Conveyor Solutions has always been on the cutting-edge in trying new things and searching for ways to increase efficiency.
"Technology has allowed us to grow and expand in ways we couldn’t have done 20 years ago," Lee says. "It’s the thing that has changed our business the most, hands down. The days of doing drawings by hand on paper, running blue prints with acetone machines, sending drawings in the mail, faxing things, all of those manual tasks we used to do as part of our business no longer exist. We’re leveraging technology to do all of those things at a much lower cost and significantly faster. That one word, technology, has really turned our industry upside down. And those who didn’t adapt are either going out of business or are already are."
That willingness to try new things has been a constant over the company’s 20 years history and is, arguably, the trait that has allowed the company to grow from two men in a back room to 30 employees and 7 branches.
"I felt like we got out ahead of the curve because we embraced both technology and change. It’s now part of our culture. It’s not easy but we do it. Being that technology continues to double every year, it has allowed us to be ahead of the curve and ahead of maybe some others in accepting that change because we aren’t fighting it."
The willingness to try new technologies internally has been a huge part of the company’s success but arguably an even bigger part is the ability to adapt when the market is changed by technology. The single greatest business advancement in the last 20 years has been the change from niche curiosity to ubiquitous tool of the Internet.
"The Internet has commoditized a lot of the products and even some of the services that we used to offer and bring to market," says Lee. "But more importantly, it has educated our clients. The majority of our clients are educated on our products and services long before we ever talk to them for the very first time. More than 80 percent of them already know about our offerings before they even pick up the phone. So we better be prepared to tell them what else we can do beyond the basics to differentiate ourselves from the competition and to add value to their business. If we can’t do those two things, you might as well just buy it on the Internet."
Recently, Conveyor Solutions changed its mission statement.
"We used to have a three-paragraph-long mission statement that tried to be everything to everybody," says Lee. "We took those three paragraphs and whittled it down to one sentence. ‘Building relationships one solution at a time.’ That’s what we focus on is solutions. It’s in our name. We bring products and services as needed to provide a solution for our customers."
He continues, "From day one, we’ve always been a turnkey services group. Whether we’re a two person show or 30 people, we’ve always handled projects in this manner. It’s just the breadth of services we’re able to offer now are much grander. However, unlike the early days, one person no longer handles the project from start to finish. Now we have a team of people, each one focusing on their unique abilities, by working as a team and focusing on their specific responsibilities along the way."
In 20 years, that breadth of products and services has grown to include: conveyor solutions, lifting and ergonomic solutions, bulk and each picking/storage, mezzanines, enclosures, safety products, and a complete offering from the on-staff service and planned maintenance crews.
Part of being an effective solutions provider is having employees who buy into the company’s vision and culture. And there is nothing more paramount at Conveyor Solutions than culture.
"Culture is unbelievably important to me," says Lee. "It’s immeasurable how important it is."
It’s so important that the company has an actual "culture committee" devoted solely to honing and improving a strong corporate culture.
"We have six major parts of our business," Lee says. "Finance, sales, human relations, service, engineering and systems/corporate accounts. Each of these departments can nominate a representative to be on the culture committee each year. I’ve never been on the committee and we ask the management staff to minimize their involvement as well. The committee is primarily made up of employees from each of our major business segments."
For 2016, the culture committee has been tasked with determining how Conveyor Solutions will promote and celebrate its 20th anniversary.
"We will be celebrating our anniversary throughout the year, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the culture committee comes up with," Lee says.
The culture committee is one step toward having a strong company culture but Lee understands that for a truly strong culture, everybody has to buy in and it can’t be a mandate from management. It has to be a strong and pervasive atmosphere that everybody can feel.
"We use a blend of Caliper, Strengths Finder, and Kolbe to personality test everyone at some point," says Lee. "But beyond that testing, I don’t do any of the interviewing until the final candidates have been chosen. We think it’s important that the people who are going to be working with these candidates day in and day out do the recommending. It’s about more than skills, you have to fit in with what our vision and culture."
He continues, "The thing that makes me most proud is when I walk by a conference room and I hear a team of people which have proactively got together and decided that there are process that needs to be changed. It may have been causing them or the customer undo pain and was impacting the service level. They take it upon themselves to fix it, make it better, and ease their pain so that they can serve the customer better. That’s a clear example of the culture at Conveyor Solutions. It’s not top-down driven. Our employees are constantly striving to self-improve."
An emphasis on service is not new for Conveyor Solutions. Well over a decade ago, The MHEDA Journal profiled the company in a feature called "Service, Service, Service."
"We haven’t changed," says Lee. "Our customers know that you can always reach any one of us on our cell phones. We’re not the kind of company who turns our phones off late Friday afternoon. It doesn’t cost a lot to service your clients at that level and it’s really helped us grow."
In the past 20 years, Conveyor Solutions has found a formula that works. They embrace change, foster a tremendous culture and above all, service their customer. Those core tenets have gotten them this far and will continue to carry them for years to come. But it’s a company that has never been afraid to change and try new things. Over the next several years, the company will undergo some changes to make them leaner and meaner.
"About three months ago, we decided that we’re going to go through a refocusing effort," says Lee. "We decided that we’re going to weed out some of our underperforming services and products and really focus on the ones that we excel at and we have a passion for. It’s the General Electric philosophy. If you’re not first or second, get out. We’re going to focus over the next five years on being a leader in those industries where we excel and move out of the ones where we don’t. That’s the blessing of being in the material handling industry. It’s so vast that you can be in so many vertical business segments. However, you can’t be great at all of them.
Another area in which Conveyor Solutions plans to expand is through acquisitions.
"In the past five years we have done a couple of small asset acquisitions," says Lee. "We are currently looking at multiple larger opportunities which would expand our geographic footprint as well as our overall staff capabilities."
The company also has plans to add to existing resources in house and reduce subcontracting work. Lee hopes to have both of those things done by the end of 2016.
Overall, Conveyor Solutions has done a masterful job preserving the things that have worked in their business while being flexible enough to pounce on the new opportunities that have presented themselves in the past 20 years. The combination of consistency and willingness to change has made the company an industry leader and from the sounds of things, they’re just getting started.
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