The Steve Noeller Story – A Material Handling Autobiography

It’s not too often that young boys grow up saying; I want to sell lift trucks or design distribution centers when I grow up. That was the case for me too. As a young kid all I cared about was my buddies at school and whatever sport was in season. If I wasn’t dreaming of becoming the next Super Bowl MVP, perhaps being a fighter pilot was an alternative choice for me.

Companies on the lookout for successful outside sales people in the business to business world look for energetic self-starters. They want passionate people responsible for their results and able to achieve goals regularly, combined with good listening skills and enthusiastic personalities also. Myself, do a Wikipedia search on generation X traits and characteristics and you might find my picture. Also known as the MTV generation, I can still name all of the original V-Jays from MTV. With both parents working hard jobs, I certainly was a latch key kid. I certainly fit the work hard/play hard motto, and certainly am a work to live rather than live to work kind of person. I can also say that I like a hands off style of management. Those traits seem to fit well with a material handling salesman!

Well, its 1985, high school is over and I did what most good high school students did, off to College at the University of Iowa. From the start I think I changed my major every semester, I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do as a career choice at this point in time. Soon I started working at a full service Sinclair Gas Station which lasted until November 17, 1988. I remember the day as it was the “Great American Smoke out” day. Late that night I was held up at gun point, so I thought it was time for a career change. I landed a new job at Hawkeye Food Systems in the building maintenance department. My material handling career is now kick started. I worked all 7 days every week, but Hawkeye allowed me the flexibility of coming and going during the week to attend classes at the University. Weekdays I took out trash and swept floors, fixed what was broken, and did a variety of warehouse maintenance work. My pallet truck was a Prime Mover 12 volt resistor controlled rider pallet jack. Hawkeye had an old warehouse that used straddle trucks, a Yale, Shrek, Gregory and an Allis Chalmers counterbalanced stand up. The new warehouse was larger and more modern, used Crown Reach Trucks and Prime Mover pallet jacks.

Several times during the week you would get the ability to unload inbound trucks for cash. This was hard work but great cash for work; AKA “lumpers work”. Truck drivers in the late 80’s paid between $100 – $150 cash to have you unload the food onto pallets, 8 tie, 5 high or however the different SKU needed to be hand stacked, it would take 2 guys about 90 minutes for a typical load.

The primary forklift dealer who helped Hawkeye Foods was Liftruck Service Co., more to that later.

On Saturday’s, I scrubbed the whole warehouse with an Advance Walk behind Sweeper/Scrubber. The day was done when the warehouse was clean. Sunday’s were interesting, for three years I unloaded a produce truck inbound from California. My college roommate and I, Jim Belknap (still at HFS, now called US Foods) lumped the trailer and put away 40,000lbs of fresh produce and cleaned the dock when done, typically a 4-5 hour Sunday. I’d say I’ve stacked my share of Bud of California lettuce in my life. In December of 1990, I finally got my Bachelor’s Degree from the U of I, time to get a real job.

My first sales job started in early March of 1991. I went to work as a Driver/Sales Rep or route sales with Paul Jerabek Wholesalers in Cedar Rapids, IA. This was the most typical work hard/play hard job in the world. Everybody loved the guys that brought the beer to them. I slimmed down to 158lbs my first year, lot of hard labor and sweat. My tool was my Valley Craft Two-Wheel Hand Cart.

We sold and distributed Stroh Brewery brands of beer. Old Milwaukee in the early 1990’s was the #4 selling brand in the United States, and Old Milwaukee Light was #8, but also held the distinction of being the fastest growing brand of beer in the US. You loaded your own truck (bottlers tilt on the forklifts to load your bay trucks 16 bay tractor/trailer.) Sold, delivered, merchandised and got paid. Your day was done when all of your customers got their deliveries.

We had 8 routes, one swing driver, one supervisor, one sales manager, 2 office staff, and then the owner. Lean and mean, I missed just one day in 5 years for sick time, I threw my back out on Thanksgiving Day 1993. It was just a different era, we didn’t’ have anybody who could do your job, nobody ever or rarely missed work.

By the mid 1990’s, the Stroh Brewery was making big mistakes. A large sexual harassment lawsuit hit them at their St. Paul, MN brewery. This combined with the Big 2 (Miller and Budweiser) flexing their muscles were the Stroh Brewery’s demise.

Anheiser Busch launched massive national marketing campaigns with Busch and Busch Light popular priced brands while Miller High Life reintroduced Miller as a popular priced beer. At Old Milwaukee we lost tap handles, displays and ads, and cooler space at the convenience stores.

Like a flip of the switch, our beer volumes dropped like a lead balloon. I left Jerabek Wholesalers and my Valley Craft two wheel cart in 1996 after 5 really fun years. Paul Jerabek Wholesalers was out of business by the turn of the new Millennium.

The next chapter of my career is an interesting but short one. I spent one year as a DSR (driver sales rep) with Conway Central Express or CCX. Today they are known as Conway Transportation and part of the larger company, XPO Logistics, a big player in the supply chain. Our local Cedar Rapids branch (XCR) was connected to regional cross dock locations of Des Moines, IA, Quad Cities, IL, Aurora, IL, Des Plaines, IL, Gary, IN, and Minneapolis, MN. While on the docks, you hoped to get on a Toyota 5 Series, cushion tire forklift. Those were the good ones, young guys like me ended up on an old junk Komatsu diesel most times.

Do you ever wonder how your freight can get damaged? Spend a night at a large re-ship cross dock, you will leave wondering how any freight can ship and NOT be damaged. Some cross docks have over 200 dock doors, 50-70 drivers from within a 5 hour drive, all showing up by 11:00 p.m. breakdown trailers from each driver pulling “pups”, 2 – 28’ trailers and taking their own local freight back home.

CCX was the 2nd most profitable LTL (less than truckload) freight carrier in 1996 based out of Ann Arbor, MI. After a year I can tell you I was an expert forklift operator, you really learn how to handle all kinds of freight with the tires of an LP forklift but I was done with no seniority and working crazy hours driving a really big semi-truck.

By the spring of 1997, I had answered an ad from Liftruck Service Company looking for an outside sales rep for an Eastern Iowa territory. LTS was the Crown and Nissan forklift dealer and also the Yuasa-Exide motive power dealer based in Davenport, IA.

I was given 4 days of application training by my new boss, Bill Moomey. Bill had been at Prime Mover for 25 years (now the Raymond plant in Muscatine, IA) and was brought on to help generate better Crown sales in Iowa and Western Illinois. I was also trained at the Crown factory.

They have a 1 week product training school and I also went through Crown DPS Class, or Dimensions of Professional Selling. I went on plenty of ride-alongs. One with the Crown Regional Sales Manager; Ron Wade was my first. He went on to work for Lift Stak and Stor, eventually my major competitor. My second Crown RSM was Robert Montgomery; he is now running a Crown factory branch in the Carolinas. Early success came to me with Crown sales. Iowa Glass was buying 12 stock pickers per year and Hawkeye Foods was always buying trucks for Iowa City and Danville, IL. Cedar Rapids Gazette bought 20 new trucks for their new press location – Exide batteries, NEO Data in Clarion, IA and ADM Animal Health in Des Moines was where I sold Crown TSP Turret trucks.

In my second year, I was given a Major Account role, was working the whole state and in W. Illinois. I sold some new Crown sit down reach trucks that year to Experion in Mt. Pleasant, IA and also Firestone in Des Moines, IA, replacing an old Raymond sit down reach design that was like a dinosaur. I was starting to win battles against the Raymond rep, Jay Miller, at places like the Gazette, Centro, Crystal Cold Storage, and Amana, to name a few. Then one day at a Des Moines material handling show at Vets Memorial, I met Jay Miller from Allied Handling, The Raymond dealer in Iowa.

I started with Allied Handling on February 1, 1999 after Jay Miller and Dave LeMaster promised better days for me. Allied Handling’s competitive advantage was their service department. LTS/Crown struggled in this area. Allied Handling had a Service Manager that also acted as their Branch Manager, Brian Dawson. They had great technicians and were very hard to unseat in accounts where Allied provided service. After about a couple of months, I was being sued on a breach of a non-compete agreement that I had signed when joining the Crown dealer. “It’s not worth the weight of the paper it’s written on”, was what I heard, but on July 1, 1999, a judge in Linn County, IA enforced a 1 year sentence on me; I could not sell or call on any customer for 1 year that was located within LTS Company’s area of coverage.

What to do? My new friend, Jay Miller, was up in Minnesota acting as Sales Manager, trying to get a new Raymond dealer going in the state, so I went to help him sell in Minnesota. As 1999 wore down and a new millennium broke in, I was a kid in a candy store. In a great economy and big market in the Twin Cities, sales for me were great. Onan (Cummins Power Generation) bought VNA and Drexel was out.

Department 56 was a great new DC in Rogers, MN and I even sold a SMARTi installation. (Systems Management and Recording Tool with intellidrive) It was telematics before its time and no, it really never worked right, but we sold it anyway.

At the end of 1999 and having lived in hotels and extended stay hotels, I hated my living experience in Minnesota. Over the holiday, I searched and found a furnished apartment in downtown Minneapolis. I wasn’t happy about paying rent on top of a house payment for a house that I wasn’t using in Cedar Rapids, but I wanted to make the most of my next 6 months and the hotel life wasn’t going to cut it. By now another Sales Manager, Dan Bergren, was in place in Minnesota and we started selling beyond the lift truck. Dan taught me a lot in a short time. We sold deeper into customers like CNS (Breathe Rite), building everything inside their new Eden Prairie DC, sold an Eskay-Daifuku mini load system to Graco, lots of high tech picking technology to Simon Delivers (now Coborn’s Delivers) and an engineering study to PM Holdings in Windom, MN. (How did that turn out?)

By the summer of 2000, my year of non-compete in Iowa is over and back home I go to do the job I was hired to do. To say we dominated the marketplace for the next few years in Iowa is an understatement. We hit 70% market share in our key Class II market share (narrow aisle) one year. Converting former Crown users to Raymond was also underway. My former employer, Hawkeye Food Systems, finally bought Raymond in Iowa City and a new warehouse full of trucks for a new Fairmont, MN location. Amana bought 2 EASi Reach Trucks as well as Crystal Cold. Old loyal Raymond users stayed loyal; Blooming Prairie, Martin Brothers, and CDS in both Wilton and Tipton were expanding and moving into VNA (very narrow aisle). Life was good, safe to say, our major competitor in Iowa wasn’t even Crown, it was Hupp Electric, the Toyota dealer.

Fast forward to June 2002, I lost a close personal friend to a motorcycle accidental death. Kevin Reiter was only 28! My dealer Principle and CFO came to see me in the Quad Cities, wondering what is up. Another re-organization and they wanted me to be the Sales Manager, with a relocation package to move me back to Minnesota! The time was right for me this time, so on July 1, 2002, I started my position that I hold today; Sales Manager, overseeing Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa.

The first few years were rough going. Target was massively expanding their Distribution Center network, and buying only Crown. Associated has only been the Raymond Dealer since 1997, and they were struggling. I was the 4th Sales Manager in 5 years.

Our market share in Minnesota was only 13% in the key, Class II arena when the expectation back in this era was 38%. I got to take phone calls from Jim Malvaso and Jim Bennett from Raymond as well as my boss at the time, Dave LeMaster; “Hennepin County is one of the Top 5 Counties in the US of concern.” What did I get myself into! The only thing that got me through 2002 was my beloved Iowa Hawkeye football team was 8-0; Big Ten Champs and a BCS trip to the Orange Bowl with my buddies was a good way to finish 2002!

Things were pretty much no fun for a few years. There was a lot of staff turnover and to get my mind off of work at night, I started a new hobby; running. This was a great way to exorcise the demons. I also changed the way I managed my staff. I really started much more of a Field Sales Management approach, helping out on calls and developing business. Things started turning around for us in Minnesota. Iowa had its ups and downs, but for the most part was still the main game in town. In February, 2006, we won the Ecolab business, thanks to my new relationship and friendship with Scott Wheeler who came to Ecolab from Edy’s Ice Cream out of Fort Wayne, IN. It’s a good thing I knew all about the late 70’s New York Yankees because Scott was a huge fan. The Yankees were always the nemesis of my beloved Kansas City Royals from 1976-1978. Scott and I talked a lot of baseball and enjoyed a few games in the not so nice Metrodome.

In between 2005 and 2007, I went on Raymond factory visits with customers on 7 different occasions. Traveling on the Raymond corporate jet was a really cool experience for an aviation enthusiast like me. I even knew where the CEO kept his private scotch bottle; good thing scotch isn’t my thing.

As it turns out, 2007 was quite a busy year on a lot of fronts. On New Years Eve 2006, I had my first date with Michele, who eventually became my wife. We were married on April 21, 2009 and still reside in Savage, MN today.

Also in 2007, about 1 week before my 40th birthday, I completed my first full marathon when I ran Grandma’s Marathon from Two Harbor’s, MN to Duluth along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

2007 hits and the economy starts tanking, the second economic downturn in my career. The post 9-11 downturn was quick to recover, and I succeeded during that time. This one was no different. New equipment sells fell 43% in 2008, but we had our best year ever during this span. Winning the Thomson-Reuters business in February 2008 helped pave the way during tough times.

It’s a good thing to have strong sales members when one of the biggest economic set-backs sets in. You really understand just how competitive our industry is during these times. Instead of the traditional 1 or 2 major competitors involved with your deals, it wasn’t unusual to see 5 or 6 people bidding on a typical 4 lift truck deal. So when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I am happy to say that neither the post 9.11 downturn nor the economic re-sets of 2007 and 2008 had a real major impact to us. We did lean up our staff, competed hard and survived into the recovery period where business led us into the record levels we are recording today.

To say all that we have accomplished is all my doing would not be correct at all. I have a great team around me. Gary Stitz started with Allied Handling about a year after I did. To say he has won some great customers over the years is an understatement. My favorite story with Gary is the Pure Fishing story. He asked me to join him for a Friday appointment with a new Operations Manager. This fellow came from Wal-Mart and for an hour told us how great Crown was. I shook Gary’s hand in the parking lot after our meeting for my 4 hour drive home and said “Good luck winning this deal” And, like so many others, he won! Pure Fishing is still a Raymond customer today.

Andy Volz has had some great E & D success at John Deere and in recent years converted Flexsteel, a Crown user, to Raymond furniture pickers.

Dave Minikus, our longest tenured rep who has been with Associated since 1997, had a lot of early success at accounts like Sysco which never had Raymond and now has over 100 trucks in Mounds View, MN.

When Dick Knuth was nearing retirement, I had to source his replacement. I recruited a Caterpillar National Account Rep named Bob Anderson for 18 months. After stalking Bob long enough he left Citi Capital Leasing and has taken our National Accounts efforts to a whole new level. Many multiple truck (200+) years wasn’t all, he has sold i-warehouse, fleet management, tons of motive power solutions, and some engineering and design solutions to his customers.

Newest staff members include Ryan LaFerriere and Jason Sheplee, each with their own material handling backgrounds. Ryan was our Used Equipment/Rental Manager for 7 years. Jason cut his teeth as a kid in his families’ material handling business. You can check out Ryan’s work at Polaris in Vermillion, SD; $1.2 million in rack! Check out the Rogers/Otsego area and chances are they are Jason’s customers; this is one of the hottest industrial areas in the Twin Cities.

As good as 2014/2015 was, it wasn’t without setbacks. Dick Knuth went fully into retirement and I lost Doug Larsen, Steve Wurst, and Andy Volz. Doug has proceeded to go into management and is now a Regional Warehouse Specialist with NACCO and Mr. Wurst is now selling Yale equipment. I lured Andy back after a short hiatus.

It’s 2016 and where do we go from here? Onward and hopefully upward is the direction. I still keep my Class A unrestricted CDL up to date, complete with hazmat double, triple endorsements, just so I know what is there for me if I don’t succeed in material handling sales!

It really is amazing to understand how huge the material handling industry really is. From all of the forklift dealers that exist, sales and service centers of all kinds in an industry that sells hundreds of thousands of forklifts each year to start with. Then add all of the small items from a wheel chock or trailer stands to ergonomic lifts, this industry gets really big really fast when you think about it. Then involve all of the consulting firms, automation people and implementation of professional services, massive becomes an understatement.

This industry is very mature, just look at how long some of these companies have been in business. It is also full of companies claiming to be pioneers, innovators, and my favorite you see mentioned all of the time; “an industry leader”!

The best companies will surround themselves with the best professionals that are in our industry. Give them the right tools and support to succeed, and I still believe people buy from people (B2B). Those with the best energized companies will strive moving forward.

As for us, coming off of a year where nearly 1,000 Raymond trucks were purchased out of our division, Engineering & Design solutions had strong results, telematics, fleet management and large Allied product sales, the sky can only be the limit.

This “create your own material handling career story” came from our marketing group right at the end of 2015. While marketing is always asking for stories from staff, this one I wanted to write as I knew my story was somewhat unique and fun, although crazy at times.

As I board a plane for Los Angeles on December 30, 2015, I drafted out my story, something to do on a 3 hour flight. Fact of the matter is 2015 was the best year ever both in my material handling career and also with the things I follow passionately. See back in 1985, my freshmen year at Iowa, their football team was really good, ranked #1 for 5 weeks. I was at the #1 Iowa v. #2 Michigan game, still my all-time best when Rob Houghtlin kicked a last second field goals, Iowa 12, Michigan 10. Jim Harbaugh was the Michigan quarterback, Chuck Long for Iowa. This year Iowa started 12-0, and went back to the Rose Bowl, first time since 1991. The 1985 and 2015 team both lost the Rose Bowl, shucks.

Prior to football, my Kansas City Royals won the World Series over the NY Mets in 5 games. Last World Series title prior, 1985. I remember watching game 7 in 1985 from my dorm room, eating a $5.00 Domino’s pizza. It feels a lot like 1985 all over again.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 30 years to have this much fun at work and at play again!

Steve Noeller