Morrison Industrial Equipment is turning 60
Family-owned company has grown from five employees to nearly 500.
When Al and Mary Morrison opened a forklift truck distribution business here in 1953, they sold one their very first day. But it wasn’t to a manufacturer: It was to an onion farmer from Grant. In hindsight, that unusual sale proved to be a good omen for the next six decades.
Today, the business the Morrisons founded with their three sons, Morrison Industrial Equipment Co., has 13 locations in two states and about 400 employees. The third-generation family-owned and family-focused company will celebrate its 60th year in business later this month at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
In reality, the business is larger than the equipment company because its parent firm, Morrison Industrial Co., is made up of nine related companies with employees in 17 states and 22 locations. Seven of those facilities are here in the Metro Grand Rapids area.
A native of Indiana, Al Morrison was an engineer and sales manager for Clark Lift Trucks who convinced retailers like Sears and Montgomery Ward to feature his products on their floors. After succeeding in doing that, he decided it was time for he and Mary to open a dealership, and they chose to do that in Grand Rapids.
“They came here because of the diversification of the businesses of West Michigan, because of the conservative values of West Michigan and the work ethic of West Michigan. They liked it here, even though they had opportunities to be in a big metropolitan area,” said Roger Troost, president, CEO and part owner of Morrison who has been with the firm for 39 years.
Morrison Industrial sells and leases a complete line of Caterpillar and Mitsubishi lift trucks, Advance and Factory Cat floor-cleaning equipment, and plant vehicles, tuggers and stock pickers from Taylor-Dunn, Cushman and others. The company is based in Grand Rapids, but it has 10 other locations in Michigan, including Muskegon, Holland and Greenville, and two in northern Indiana.
Troost pointed out that one key to the company’s longevity has been the service side of Morrison’s business.
“We’ve loved to be in the service business so we’re different than a lot of distributors, who are more about selling the equipment than the parts-and-service side. Morrison always has had a lot more interest in the parts-and-service part of the business than in the sale of equipment,” he said.
“The Morrison family has always felt if you take care of the customer, they’re going to reward you with the equipment business, versus selling the equipment first and then scrambling to try to take the parts-and-service business.”
Troost said another reason Morrison has lasted for six decades is that management has consistently reinvested in the firm by adding branches in order to be close to its customers. One example of that was when the firm decided to sell Caterpillar trucks.
Caterpillar had a wider distribution pattern than Clark and also was a strong brand in northern Indiana, which is where Morrison wanted to go. At first the company was going to open a branch in Niles, Mich., to service that market so it wouldn’t have to register as an Indiana company.
But, instead, the company landed in Elkhart, home of its then-largest competitor. Ten years later, Morrison added a branch in South Bend, just 20 miles from Elkhart. Troost said some were puzzled by the firm’s move to South Bend.
“Our competitors would ask why would you open another location that’s only 20 miles apart? Well, the markets are different, and you can really capture more of the business by being local,” he explained.
Today, Morrison is thriving in both northern Indiana markets. “It’s like being in Greenville, Holland, Traverse City, and in Mason outside of Lansing. It’s just that we want to be closer to our customers,” Troost said.
Following that business philosophy, however, has left Morrison with a higher cost structure than its competitors. But Troost said that’s fine, for two reasons. First, again, it keeps Morrison close to its customers. Second, it keeps the company’s employees close to each other, and Troost said that gives Morrison a “family feel.”
“One of the interesting things about Morrison is, when we’re at a dinner, spouses know spouses. So I’m saying we have a lot of camaraderie. To me, that makes a huge difference. When we get a (new) employee, we’re not just getting an employee, we’re also getting a spouse,” he said.
“We’re also big on training — we’ve always had a technician trainer. So helping employees grow and develop has always been a huge deal for us as a company,” he added. “We have to be more efficient. We have to be more productive, and you do that by educating your employees.”
As for the company’s future, Troost sees more opportunity on the service side of the business.
“To me, the competitor for the service side of our business is really the company that’s going to hire its own technicians to do the work. So we have to figure out how we’re more efficient and more productive than when a company hires somebody for $15 an hour and pays them fringe benefits and maybe costs them $22 an hour,” he said.
“If our labor rates are $75 an hour, we have to be more efficient, more productive than what that (competitor) company can be. And we’ve been able to prove to a lot of customers that we are able to do that,” he added.
“It’s going to be a very bright future and you’re going to see it be a family business. I don’t see that changing.”