Like many people when they were in their early twenties, Al Funk in 1964 was at a crossroads in his life: what to do with his life?
“I was fresh out of the army,” said Funk, who recently retired as Modern Equipment Sales & Rentals’ president, ending a long, successful career in the construction equipment industry. “I was actually applying to be a Philadelphia fireman when I found out from a friend who was working in the accounting department at LB Smith that there was an opening in shipping and receiving in the parts department.”
At 29th and Montgomery in Philadelphia, a 40-year career in the industry began inauspiciously with virtually no knowledge of the construction industry or its equipment. But that would soon change.
Two years later, Funk began working in LB Smith’s service department as a mechanic’s helper; then he worked his way up from second-class to first-class mechanic and a road man. Here there was a little bit of experience from which to draw.
“I worked in an auto body shop during high school,” he said, “but they just brought me in as a mechanic’s helper and I just started to learn from that process. I wasn’t a mechanic’s helper for very long when I got promoted ultimately to a road man. I had a service truck tooled out and equipped and traveled around to repair machinery.”
After gleaning what knowledge and experience he could from his time with LB Smith, Funk took a mechanic’s position with Elliott & Frantz in King of Prussia, PA. A year later he moved on to Furnival Machinery in Philadelphia, working in the company’s service department. Then nine months later, he joined Davis Machinery in King of Prussia as a service manager in 1970.
“Davis was a crane dealer,” began Funk. “They were an American hoist dealer and they had Cleveland trenchers and Bros rollers. It was a natural for me at Davis because I was introduced to Euclid and Manitowoc cranes while I was with LB Smith. It was at Davis when I began specializing in cranes.”
It was while working for Davis Machinery that Funk became involved with sales. “Davis was a small dealership and my big break came when I applied to be a salesman there and to my surprise they gave me the opportunity,” he said.
Funk began representing Link-Belt cranes, Cleveland trenchers and Allis-Chalmers stationary generators for the Philadelphia and Delaware County markets and soon discovered that he had a knack for it. “I found out I could make a living talking and I never knew that was possible,” he joked.
Funk worked at Davis for approximately 10 years when another opportunity came his way in 1978 in the form of Rig & Crane, a spin-off of Davis based in Norristown, PA. There, Funk was sales manager handling Link-Belt crane rentals.
In 1980, however, Funk determined that he gained enough experience and confidence to go into business for himself when he founded a brokerage company, buying and selling used cranes, called AGF Equipment. “They were the initials of my name,” he said. “I partnered deals with Hank Cunningham of Cunningham cranes, and he and I would travel up and down the East Coast and into Canada and would look for cranes to resell and/or to buy and resell.
“The business was out of my home. It was a risk, but I thought it was a great opportunity to find out what I could do on my own. It was challenging to work by yourself and try to make a living off the street.
“What brought it to a halt was when interest rates hit 21 percent,” Funk admitted. “Then I worked for a company called Tri-State Rentals in Norristown. Dennis O’Neill, owner of the company, brought me in as vice president to manage the sales people and to help grow the business. They [Tri-State] were in the aerial work platform business and that introduced me to it, including the manufacturers such as Fabtek and MEC.”
This was no desk job, though. Funk made it a priority to still get out and meet with customers.
“I always made sure that I never strayed too far from the customers. My whole career up to that point — and later on — I tried to stay as close as I could to customers.”
In 1983, Modern Equipment became interested in the aerial work platform business and attempted to purchase Tri-State Rentals. Although that did not happen, Funk became interested in Modern and became the company’s field sales manager and he immediately began building up Modern’s aerial work platform business.
“I really liked the aerial work platform business because it was a very “now” business compared to cranes, which was a slower process in the sales and for getting the rentals,” said Funk. “It really was the early days of the aerial work platform business and pioneering a product to replace scaffolding and other means of getting people in the air to complete work. We were actually educating contractors on the uses and benefits of aerial work platforms besides renting them and it became more of a day-to-day rental business compared to a sales business that evolved later on into a sales business.”
Funk had done so well at his job with Modern that he earned promotions almost immediately. “Actually, incredibly, it was in 1986. I became president of Modern Hi-Lift Equipment Company,” said Funk. “We developed the company from the early days of just trying to get some sales and rentals and developed a company called the Modern Hi-Lift Equipment Company. Modern had another division called Modern Rentals. That business was growing alongside of Modern Hi-Lift. Then eventually we merged Modern Rentals and Modern Hi-Lift together.”
It was then that Funk became president of sales and Larry Norton became president of operations. A few years later, Norton retired and Funk became president of Modern Equipment Sales & Rentals, a role in which he was highly successful.
During this time, Funk also became president of the Delaware Valley Association of Equipment Distributors (DVAED). In late 2004, however, he decided it was time for one more promotion — to retirement.
In this new role, the first responsibility he wants to tackle is traveling with his family, while as he puts it, “I still have some time left.
“Right now I have a motor home so we’re going to travel around some and maybe I’ll play a little golf here and there,” Funk said. “We’re going to Florida and next year we’re going to travel across the country. We’ll head out to Oregon and through the Dakotas and then go up to British Columbia and then drop down to the southern end of the country and come back that way. All this takes time and it’s nice at this stage of my life to have the time to do this with my family.”
Traveling (and planning for it), however, was not always his forte. A story he recounted (and one that is occasionally told at Construction Equipment Guide (CEG) with some merriment), is the time that Funk was charged with the responsibility of procuring lodging while he and other DVAED members attended the Association of Equipment Distributors’ (AED) convention in Anaheim, CA. Funk, looking for a good deal on a hotel, found one and all seemed okay. Well, except when all arrived to discover that the hotel was 30 mi. away from the show.
“I told everybody that the hotel was close,” he lamented. “It wound up not quite being ocean-front property and we ended up spending more money on cabs to get us to the show than if I had just gotten us a place to stay where it was going to cost us ’more money.’ Ed McKeon at CEG likes to rib me to this day for supposedly ’helping everybody out.’”
Funk’s double-duty as DVAED president and its travel agent ended that day. He remained the association’s president but was relieved of his duties as travel agent shortly thereafter.
Funk shouldn’t have a lodging problem with motor home while traveling this time, but he will be looking in his rear-view mirror from time to time.
“I’ll still think about all the people at Modern and I’ll keep in touch with them, everybody — the people in the industry, the people I worked with. We became friends and a lot of customers became friends and the co-workers at Modern became friends and became part of my life.”
It’s these sentiments that so often set the construction industry apart with many other industries. Funk explained: “I have other friends in other industries who have retired and they’ve just walked away, there’s no looking back. This business is different than a lot of others.
“A friend at the DVAED called me the other day to wish me well. And I’ve received so many other phone calls from people. It’s always been a great industry as far as the people were concerned. The people seem to be a little more down to earth in this profession. There’s even a close-knit relationship with competitors. There’s mutual respect for one another.”
While the camaraderie Funk discussed was a constant in his career, there were many changes that spanned his 40 years in the industry. Funk explained: “The biggest change that I saw in the industry was the dealerships going from exclusive contracts and non-exclusive contracts, while at the time, I thought that would devalue the dealership and create a free-for-all but in some cases that didn’t happen. Many dealers knew how to add value back and understood that that’s important to the customer. You needed to realize — and many did — that the customer is important, not necessarily the manufacturer you represented.”
Consolidation of dealerships was another big change Funk commented on.
“At first it was another devaluation issue of the monster trying to kill the private dealerships, but mostly they [big rental firms] found out that they attacked the marketplace with low prices, but they didn’t offer value and I think it’s caught up with them. It’s not necessarily the price, but it’s the value of the deal and the value of the support. It still comes down to a relationship issue between the sales people, the sales management and the customer that’s important and in doing what you say you’re going to do. If you continue to have a focus on meaning what you say and say what you mean and do it with your customer, you’re going to survive and do well.”
As Funk makes his exit from the industry he loved so much, he thought of its future and offered some advice to young people who might be leaning toward making a career in this industry.
“I would tell anyone to do it. I think it’s still an exciting business,” he said. “I think the products and their applications are interesting to learn; it’s fun to learn how to apply a crane or to learn how to sell an asphalt roller and understand all the mixes, understand concrete equipment and understand the needs and desires that the contractor has and what his needs are. Once you learn that and get the trust and faith of a customer, you’re going to continue to do well. It just makes you feel good that you understand what they need and you can supply that need by your understanding.”