Alta Equipment Expands Horizon

Wed March 04, 2020 - Midwest Edition #5
Craig Mongeau - CEG Editor in Chief


Ryan Greenawalt serves as chairman and CEO of Alta Equipment Group Inc.
Ryan Greenawalt serves as chairman and CEO of Alta Equipment Group Inc.
Ryan Greenawalt serves as chairman and CEO of Alta Equipment Group Inc.
Alta Equipment’s headquarters is in Livonia, Mich.

Over the past 35 years, Alta Equipment has established itself as one of the country's top construction and industrial equipment dealers.

The Michigan-based company has done so by focusing its efforts on providing the best service for its customers in the Midwest. From its first day in operation, Alta also recognized hiring skilled technicians and salespeople, would also be key to its success.

From one store in Detroit, where Alta operated a Yale Forklift dealership in 1984, company founder Steve Greenawalt and his team slowly began to create a branch infrastructure across Michigan. Later, Greenawalt and his son, Ryan, decisively accelerated Alta's growth by identifying and acquiring other promising dealerships that offered a range of industrial and construction equipment.

Over the past 11 years, the company has orchestrated another 18 acquisitions and expanded to 43 locations across Michigan, Illinois, New England, New York and Florida. With approximately 1,400 employees, Alta is recognized as one of the U.S.'s largest, full-service industrial and construction equipment dealers in the business. Through its branch network, the company sells, rents and provides parts and service support for several categories of specialized equipment, including lift trucks and aerial work platforms, cranes, earthmoving equipment and other various mobile machinery.

Today, Ryan Greenawalt serves as chairman and CEO of Alta Equipment Group Inc. After picking up the mantle from his father, Ryan continued the firm's ambitious growth. On Feb. 18, Greenawalt rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the first day that Alta began trading as a publicly-traded company.

Shortly afterward, Greenawalt sat down for a discussion with CEG about just how Alta grew into a powerhouse dealership for both industrial and construction equipment.

CEG: Let's start from the beginning. How did it come about that your dad, Steve, founded Alta Equipment in 1984?

RG: My father came from the industry, first from the sales and ultimately from the marketing side when he was a manager at Yale, when it was owned by Eaton Corp. We started in the business when my father left Eaton to acquire a factory-owned dealership while the Yale forklift manufacturing business was being sole to the new owners.

Once my father acquired Yale—Michigan, he started to understand that the dealership business is all about product support and service — that dealers make their money on supporting the product, not in selling the new machines. From there, he started concentrating on building Alta's service infrastructure with a philosophy of being closer to the customer. He saw the value in not having customers wait any longer than necessary to keep their equipment up and running.

So, he built a branch infrastructure throughout the state of Michigan. From 1984 until 2008, our core business was Yale lift trucks. In the beginning, Alta had the eastern half of the state, but in 1995 we bought out Lake Shore Material Handling in Muskegon, which allowed us to expand throughout the state of Michigan.

CEG: Now, when did you become involved with your father's business?

RG: Of course, I grew up around the company and after graduating from the University of Michigan, I entered the business in 1996. I went back to get my MBA at Michigan State a little later and when I came back in 2000, I began wearing a variety of different hats at Alta. That includes working in sales, systems and running the rental business for a time. In 2002, I decided I wanted to gain some experience away from the company, so I pursued a career in wealth management for about seven years.

CEG: What brought you back once more to Michigan and Alta Equipment?

RG: Well, I had spent all that time away in San Francisco and the catalyst for coming back into the company was the 2008 financial crisis. In a lot of ways, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire because I returned to Detroit in December 2008 only to see, a couple months later, two of our biggest customers, General Motors and Chrysler, in bankruptcy, which set off a wave of distress in the automotive sector. And, at that time, about 30 percent of our business was tied to automotive. I returned to the business at a time when the economy was a threat to not only the company, but also the state of Michigan in the form of a contracting manufacturing base and a loss of population.

My marching orders, then, were to look for growth opportunities and new verticals where we might be able to leverage our branch infrastructure to sell more types of products and service more types of products.

CEG: What steps did you take?

RG: In trying to understand the local marketplace, we learned that Volvo owned the distribution here in Michigan, which at that time was Wolverine Tractor & Equipment. I called Volvo and started the dialogue with them to buy the dealership directly from the factory. That type of action had started our business in 1984 and we thought that might be Alta's entry into the construction market. We were able to complete that acquisition directly from Volvo at the end of 2009.

The economic downturn forced every manufacturer to rationalize their strategies around how to bring their products to market. Historically, our Yale dealership competed in the marketplace with Hyster dealers, representing essentially identical product. We were excited when Hyster-Yale Group started allowing and ultimately encouraging, a consolidation of the two competing sales channels. Alta was one of the first dealers to jump at that opportunity. So, at the same time we were expanding into the heavy equipment business with the Volvo dealership in Michigan, we wanted to be one of those consolidators for Hyster-Yale. That led us to acquire Mid-State Industrial Services, the Hyster dealer in the western half of Michigan. Shortly thereafter, we bought the assets of United Lift Trucks and Aurora Lift-Truck Services, both in the Chicago market. Each had a healthy customer following and we worked to make certain there was a critical mass of product support and skilled technicians to take on that market.

CEG: With those transactions in late 2009, then, Alta had made four new acquisitions in less than 30 days, correct?

RG: That's right, and it was a big thing for Alta because it expanded us out of Michigan for the first time and allowed us to venture into the northern Indiana and Chicagoland markets. Shortly thereafter, we added two more Illinois companies, Tech Material Handling and Galaxy Lift, as another way to bolster our footprint in the market and gain another group of skilled workers.

From the time I re-joined the company until today, we have done a total of 18 acquisitions, half of which have been consolidations of the dealer network for our two major OEM partners, Hyster-Yale on the industrial side and Volvo on the construction side. The other half of the acquisitions have been independent service companies and smaller competitors that gave us an opportunity to bring in more infrastructure to better serve the market.

CEG: Besides your penchant for making astute acquisitions, what other moves have you generated to grow Alta Equipment?

RG: We brought in Rob Chiles to be the president of our construction business in Michigan eight years ago. He really helped us professionalize that business and understand some of the nuances of how heavy equipment and industrial equipment are different. His leadership has helped us compete head-to-head with the bigger players in the state and we've been able to carve out a very healthy market share in Michigan. Now we are one of the higher performing Volvo dealers in the country and that has given us more opportunity. As a result, in 2017 we came to an agreement with my father to buy him out, along with the other limited partners in the business. We did a recapitalization of the company with Goldman Sachs and I became the sole owner of Alta. That allowed us to take the next step in our growth trajectory. From there, we took on the Volvo business in Illinois and last spring closed on NITCO, which took us to the material handling and construction market in New England. Earlier this year, we acquired Liftech Equipment, which is a Hyster-Yale and JCB dealership in upstate New York and Vermont.

Going forward, we want to focus on trying to have both of our Industrial and Construction verticals within our entire footprint. Our goal is to be a consolidator in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest and have the product portfolio well aligned in all the territories where we operate.

CEG: You had a busy first week in February, because at the same time you bought the Liftech dealerships in the North, Alta Equipment also entered the Florida market via the acquisition of Flagler Construction Equipment, a Volvo CE dealer in that state and portions of Georgia. What made it attractive to expand your business into a totally new and different marketplace?

RG: For one thing, obviously, it is not a seasonal market — it's a four-season market, quite different from what we have in the North. And, it's a place where the population is growing and that presents a tremendous opportunity for us to continue to drive results for Volvo, as well as bring some of our OEM relationships from the Michigan and Illinois markets that they don't yet have at Flagler. Our goal is to build a portfolio of ancillary products that Florida contractors also need.

CEG: Let's turn to some of the products that are now being rented, sold and serviced by these new markets. First up, what are the strengths of carrying the Volvo CE line?

RG: Well, to begin with, Volvo makes an incredible product. They really have it figured out on an engineering side as regards to the outstanding safety, ergonomics and fuel efficiency of their equipment. At Alta, we are a market leader among our peers, but we are getting a higher share for Volvo because contractors see the value that the life cycle costs of owning a Volvo are giving them, plus working with a dealer who can support them. It's a great value proposition.

CEG: What makes Hyster-Yale such a strong product line to carry?

RG: On the lift-trucks side, Hyster-Yale is a market leader here in the United States. They are focused on product innovation, such as robotics and autonomy. In addition, they are the only lift-truck OEM that owns their own fuel cell business, something that will become increasingly important as everyone works to reduce their carbon footprint. We also have a very cohesive dealer network that works well together to support some of the largest Fortune 100 companies. And, we are very proud of Hyster-Yale because it is known as a premier product. One of the reasons for Alta going public is we believe that Hyster-Yale will continue to promote consolidation and that they want to maintain well capitalized and professionally run dealerships.

CEG: How does acquiring the JCB construction equipment dealerships in the Northeast benefit Alta Equipment?

RG: JCB is an evolving part of the business. When we bought NITCO last year we acquired an award-winning JCB dealer that has enjoyed some of the strongest product share in North America. We want to create a deeper customer base and bring more products to bear in order to build up that business. As we grow, we will start to really bolster the infrastructure in the Northeast so that we are delivering the same level of service and have the same capabilities there that we have here in the Midwest and in Florida.

CEG: Let's say I'm a contractor that does business with one of your dealerships. How does your company's growth affect me and my business? Does that better position me to succeed at my job?

RG: Yes, because of the range of products and services we can offer. When you look at us relative to our competitors, they tend to be regional players that are in one or the other of the businesses. I won't suggest we are the only heavy equipment company that is also in the lift-truck business, but there are very few peers that are in both to the degree that we are. Our business coming out of our recent transactions is about 50 percent heavy equipment and 50 percent material handling machines. With that breadth of service, we can be a total one-stop shop for our customers. We have found that if we can provide more services to our customers, we create a deeper customer relationship — something more symbiotic. That is an exciting model.

The same customer who needs a wheel loader to handle an application in a Northern steel mill also needs a big forklift and other products that we provide. Then, on the rental side we can offer the short-term commodity-related rental equipment that contractors need to succeed. I think we can do just about everything the national equipment rental houses can and we have some capabilities that they do not because we provide factory-trained technicians and an available OEM parts supply. As far as specialty products or heavy equipment, like articulated haulers and large excavators, we can put them out on rent and offer a very flexible model for how the customer can use our equipment. If it makes more sense for a contractor to own a machine or obtain it on an operating lease, we help them source that.

CEG: You mentioned earlier that Alta Equipment's business is about 50/50 heavy equipment to material handling equipment. Do you have a similar ratio of service personnel to salespeople within your total operation?

RG: Currently, we are very focused on our ratio of mechanics to other employees. We certainly want to be at 50 percent for each segment but are not quite there today. It's a little easier to have that more equal percentage on the industrial or material handling part of the business than on the construction side.

While the OEMs and their engineers are experts at what they do, they still rely on their dealers to support the product in the field. They know we are good at it and to keep their business, we have placed an emphasis on recruiting, developing and retaining people for the skilled trades within our service business. The problem, though, is there are not enough people coming into the trades today.

CEG: Well, that dovetails into our next set of questions about technical workforce development. That, as you just acknowledged, is a pervasive problem in your industry. Are there efforts under way by Alta to spur and inspire interest into these fields so you will have an ample supply of good technicians?

RG: Absolutely. There are a couple initiatives we have going. For one, each of our branch managers are given a mandate to develop training programs in cooperation with local trade and vocational schools. As an example, we have a building literally next door to our corporate headquarters where we showed a sampling of some of those programs. Schoolcraft College in metro Detroit leased the facility and we are helping them develop a curriculum for lift-trucks, maintenance and hydraulic repair. Again, it's very symbiotic. We can supply equipment for their students to learn on and, obviously, we have a vested interest in trying to place those trained people coming out of the program. Similarly, in our Detroit facility, we have a partnership with the Detroit Training Center. We built classroom space and a shop floor in the facility for them. There, they are training drivers on heavy haul equipment and operators on construction and industrial equipment. Additionally, we've helped them develop both a Diesel Engine Maintenance Program and a Diesel Engine Repair Program which, clearly, has a lot of relevance to our industry.

It's integral to our culture that we want to be the preferred employer in this business, and, to that end, we have been thoughtful and deliberate in creating a work environment that is welcoming for people who want to work. As it turns out, the best source of recruiting is our own people. When you take good care of the people you have, they often bring in their peers from the industry. Capital is no longer a bottleneck for Alta Equipment. Our only bottleneck is our ability to find the talent, so it is a corporate-wide effort to always be looking for good people, especially on the skill-trade side.

CEG: What do you think are the barriers keeping young people from getting into this industry? Also, what can you do to get folks interested? Many young people think they cannot go to college, while others get locked into getting a four-year degree, but they don't think about two-year technical college training. It seems that parents, too, have gotten away from encouraging their kids to think about a technical education. Do you think this another obstacle the industry needs to overcome?

RG: Yes, well one thing that we need to change is the notion that service technician jobs are just dirty or greasy work. In fact, the first thing a technician does is diagnose the machine and nine times out of 10, he does so by plugging a laptop into it.

Everyone needs to understand that there is a lot of innovation happening on the material handling side with all the electro-mobility being developed and perfected such as lithium batteries, IMS batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells. The equipment for both the industrial and construction markets is getting more sophisticated, meaning the technical expertise to repair the equipment is becoming an even higher-level skill. As a result, a lot of our mechanics do have either two-year or four-year degrees. Young people should not think that because they have a college degree that they must sit behind a desk. What we offer in the technical service industry are well paid jobs and a stable career that can provide for your family.

They also need to see that there is an upward mobility within the industry. Some of our very best salespeople at Alta came through the ranks of the service department. For example, one of our group presidents, who runs a major piece of the business, started here with a wrench in his hand. We just need to get the message out to young people that there is a career path in this business.

CEG: What do you see on the horizon for Alta Equipment? As a company that has deftly built itself through wise business practices and shrewd acquisitions, do you have any other potential merger opportunities or growth strategies that you could discuss?

RG: Obviously, I can't name names, but we maintain a robust pipeline of acquisitions. One thing that I would highlight, though, is the territorial expansion is probably going to be targeted to the North. We've been asked if we want to go more heavily to the South and, of course, we just expanded to Florida. It is an exciting market for a lot of reasons, especially on the heavy equipment side, but I think our expansion of territory is more likely to remain focused on the Upper Midwest and be contiguous with the territories we already occupy. We've got the Great Lakes region and now the Northeast, so I think our strategy will concentrate on trying to fill in the middle between those two regions in the North.

CEG: So, perhaps Pennsylvania and Ohio?

RG: Potentially.

But what we envision in the long run for Alta is we can double the business over the next couple years through a blend of acquisitions and the organic opportunity to bring more of our products into some of these new markets. We want to keep up what we have been doing. Even before our recent additions of Flagler and Liftech, we had grown the business tenfold in 10 years.

CEG: Finally, is there anything else you want our readers to know about Alta Equipment?

RG: I am very proud of the fact we operate from a set of guiding principles that are embedded within our company's DNA — they are the biggest levers for our success. And the essential one is making customers for life. We really try to give them a "wow" experience and show them how much they mean to us. I'm proud of what we've developed and, as I said earlier, I want Alta to be that preferred employer for people in this industry and continue to provide the exceptional level of service that our customers expect. CEG