Innovate, Improve, Increase: Legacy Companies Find The “I” in Business
Jul 24, 2020 08:54AM
By Kara Schweiss
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Paul Zimmerer, who founded Lindsay Corp. in 1955 around irrigation systems, would probably marvel at the company’s FieldNET Pivot Watch product that was launched last year and allows farmers to remotely monitor their pivot irrigation systems. Surely Zimmerer, who died in 2008, was amazed seeing the company’s flagship product, the Road Zipper System, moving barriers to accommodate traffic flow on busy streets all over the world.
Similarly, it’s easy to imagine the Riekes family, whose glass container business expanded into material handling products in the 1930s, demonstrating a spectrum of warehouse solutions. They might be especially pleased to see Riekes’ new partnership with Tennessee-based Pallet Shuttle Automation providing automated warehouse systems for manufacturers and distributors throughout the Midwest.
Longstanding businesses often look significantly different decades after their onset. Telecommunications company Nokia began as a pulp mill, Avon began selling books rather than cosmetics, American Express started out as a parcel delivery service, and Hasbro’s first sales were textile remnants instead of toys and games.
Adaptation to a changing marketplace is key to success in the long term, said Riekes Vice President Dave Hartnett.
“It’s about innovating. You either improve or you go out of business these days, that’s all there is to it. Or in some cases you get bigger or go out of business,” he said. “We’re a data-driven company, more so every day. The companies that are going to lead in the future are ones who are going to be able to deliver actionable data to customers in a way that allows them to improve their operation.”
Integrating robots and automation into materials handling was a natural evolution embraced by company leadership early on, Riekes President Duncan Murphy said. And they also recognized that expanding to provide support through the life cycle of equipment was good business.
“We are always looking for something innovative that we can do for our customer base,” he said. “Robotics have been part of the industry for decades. But it’s become more sophisticated, and more recently it’s really begun to gain momentum.”
Some of that growth is driven by necessity, Murphy explained, with automation replacing jobs hard to fill because of tedious work, or maximizing existing facilities by using vertical space. Another factor in the surge of automation is a faster return on equipment that’s “become better and less expensive as it’s evolved.”
Lindsay President and CEO Tim Hassinger said the company’s timeline is divided into four different eras, staring with its entrepreneurial roots in the small town of Lindsay, Nebraska (the headquarters moved to Omaha in 2001), and transitioning into national, and then international, growth. “The fourth era, the one we’re in right now, is what we refer to as ‘technology,’” he said, adding, “Our products are really aligned to three key societal needs: we’re producing more food with less water, we’re making roadways safer, and we’re ensuring energy pipelines are reliable and safe.”
Riekes’ partnership with Pallet Shuttle gives clients the means to retrieve loads from storage locations with precision, accuracy, and speed. The system’s benefits include improved inventory tracking, a decreased need for redundant manual labor, and more efficient use of valuable warehouse space. The partnership also represents a growing trend of collaboration, Hartnett said, where everyone benefits.
Murphy said Reikes’ motto is, “‘Innovative Solutions. Unrivaled Service.’ This [goes] back to our 80-plus years of tradition and values…we maintain and build on what has been our foundation for years, taking care of customers. The first half of it, ‘Innovative Solutions,’ is also just as important; the Pallet Shuttle program and partnership is about new ways to do things that break through the barrier.”
Hartnett said, “We’re constantly evolving, but at the end of the day it’s always about solving problems. Whether it’s a very complicated storage problem or an ergonomic problem or an overhead problem, we have a solution for it. We’re always looking for what’s the next thing that’s going to help our customers and make them stronger. Because if we make them stronger, they’ll reward us with more business. That’s how we secure our future.”
Lindsay also grew by recognizing and responding to unmet or insufficiently met needs in the marketplace. For instance, the company’s Road Zipper barrier transfer vehicles—a well-known one is used on the Golden Gate Bridge over the San Francisco Bay—addresses traffic safety and efficiency by making it possible for a two-person crew to change a line of traffic barriers multiple times a day. The company has adapted to consumer demand in its original and continuing sector, irrigation systems, as well.
“The need for technology has definitely evolved and changed. One example is that farmers want more digital tools to help them run their business,” Hassinger said. “The real breakthrough is the simplicity of it…We want our technology to address needs for the end user, whether it’s a farmer or someone on the infrastructure side, and also want it to be simple to use.”
FieldNET products exemplify that ease of use by providing irrigation tools that can be managed via a smartphone or tablet.
“This was a tremendous labor-saving technology that was brought to the market,” Hassinger said. “Based on agronomic factors such as soil type, type of genetics that the farmer is planting, and what the weather forecast is, we’re now able to give the farmer a daily recommendation on when to irrigate, how much to irrigate, and where.”
Innovation can sometimes present risk, Murphy said.
“This is technology-driven, and technology changes fast. I’ve got a couple of ‘boat anchors’ in my warehouse that were wonderful robots or automated vehicles at one time,” he said. “There are investments you end up with that you have to write off.”
However, Murphy emphasized, rapid obsolescence “is the exception.”
As important as technological advancements have been to the growth and longevity of both companies, innovative workforce development has also been instrumental.
“Interestingly enough, we’ve seen a real benefit of this during COVID-19. We’re better at change management, we’re more agile at making decisions and we have better teamwork; collaboration across the company has become a strength as a result of our foundation for growth,” Hassigner said.
“We have relatively low turnover and we try to promote from within,” Murphy said, explaining that creating opportunities for professional growth and building a strong leadership team positioned the company to not only respond well to recent events, but also for the future.
Because evolution is the one constant in business.
This article was printed in the August/September 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.