Van Lott Celebrates 70th Year in Business in Southeast

Tue December 24, 2002 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

Van “Vandy” Lott III alluded to an old John Wayne movie, “Fighting Seabees,” as he talked recently about the founding and success of Van Lott Inc.

The 1944 movie, featuring The Duke, showed Allis-Chalmers bulldozer operators in military construction units doing their part to win World War II.

Lott’s allusion to the movie is an apt one. It ties together the particular brand of equipment, Allis-Chalmers, that launched Van Lott Inc. in 1932, and the status of the company as the United States fights another war, albeit a different kind.

“To carry out our mission effectively,” reads a mission statement on the company’s Web site, “we must serve the legitimate inter-related needs of… (among other principles) our nation, by recognizing and embracing our duties and responsibilities as an industrial citizen and by working for the best interest of our country in peace and war.”

Such a declaration of corporate responsibility is refreshing. It is posted on the Internet and is a quiet counterpoint to the recent national scandal about irresponsible corporate behavior.

Yet Lott has stated that the company, now 70 years old, simply is interested in going about business the right way. “I don’t think that we ever have written down a philosophy,” he said.

Rather, he added, Van Lott Inc. wants “to serve the customers with only the finest quality products, parts and service that can be found.”

That might not be a philosophy, but it is a business standard that has produced a far-flung customer base in North and South Carolina.

Van Lott Sr. founded the company in Columbia. A variety of partnerships and company names ensued in the Depression years that followed, but Van D. Lott and his family always had controlling interest. Lott Sr. was president until his death in 1967, when his son, Douglas, succeeded him.

Douglas Lott’s brother, Van Lott Jr., then took over the helm until 1991, when he became the firm’s chief executive officer. Then Van Lott III, who had worked with the firm in one capacity or another since he was 12 years old, moved into the presidency.

“We’re dealing with a third generation of customers in some companies,” Lott said of the company’s seven decades of history. “I hope that could be attributed to providing the best quality products, parts and service.”

The product line always has offered quality brands, but the actual lineup has evolved as equipment companies and contractor needs have evolved through successive decades.

Commercial Allis-Chalmers crawler tractors were the mainstay of the company in the beginning, with the logging industry of the region particularly clamoring for the HD5 and HD7 units. Allis engineers introduced such features as sealed rollers and power steering.

But Allis-Chalmers was taken over by an Italian firm, Fiat, in 1974. In 1992, the company known as Fiat-Allis ended its North American sales and its long relationship with Lott Inc.

However, Lott Inc. had by then become the authorized John Deere equipment distributor in parts of the Carolinas. That professional partnership has grown to where today Deere equipment constitutes 85-90 percent of the company’s business, Lott noted.

A full array of John Deere machinery is offered at Lott Inc. dealerships in West Columbia, Simpsonville and Aynor, SC, and Asheville, NC.

Earlier generations of Lott Inc. customers wouldn’t have associated the company with John Deere at all, of course. In the early days, dragline machines produced in Illinois by Northwest Shovel were a popular item. “We sold all we could get of Northwest,” Lott recalled of that period.

However, availability and supplies for that particular line of machinery became a problem and Lott switched to Bucyrus Erie in 1950. The Bucyrus Erie line was extremely popular and became a Lott leader until the company ended production in 1984. The firm also sold for more than four decades the Jaeger Machine line of concrete mixers, water pumps and air compressors.

Other once-offered equipment lines include Blaw-Knox asphalt pavers, Broce rollers, Kobelco and Lorrain.

Today, John Deere is the equipment distributor’s main line of equipment. But auxiliary equipment lines include Gomaco concrete pavers, which were first offered in 1978, Dynapac rollers (1984), Trailer King trailers (1985), and Timberjack logging equipment (2001).

The company president was asked if he and the firm’s other executives have a vision of what the next seven decades hold for the company. Lott said they can’t see that far. “It is exceedingly difficult to plan for 70 years down the road,” he said.

What he does see is more of the same — change. And he sees it coming at an “ever-accelerating rate” as new construction technologies and new engineering models rush headlong into the 21st century.

Looking back on the company’s first 70 years, Lott cited one particular difference that occurred in the industry. He calls it the “biggest single change” he has seen in the 28 years of his involvement: Customers renting equipment instead of buying it.

“Rental is everything,” he said. “There is so much more rental, as opposed to what it was formerly when hardly anything was rented.”

Equipment sales continue, of course, but increasingly even equipment purchased is first rented by the eventual buyer. Lott doesn’t see the trend slowing any time soon. He said he attributes the popularity of renting equipment to the machines becoming larger and more sophisticated, necessarily carrying larger price tags.

He also noted that renting heavy equipment instead of buying it shifts some of the economic risk to the dealer from the contractor, an understandable business strategy.

The impact of this change on dealers like Lott Inc. is evident to anyone who drives by a dealership. “It forces us to carry a much larger inventory,” Lott said.

On the other hand, he added, modern equipment is much more reliable, compared to earlier generations of machines. That reliability effectively eliminates some of the risk of operating rental equipment yards.

“Today, the machines are so dependable that you have a tremendous sense of good feeling when you send them out,” Lott said. “You know they are going to perform very well.”

Key Lott Inc. executives include Charles Brooks, vice president of finance and administration; Marshall Allen, controller; Richard Yancey, sales manager; Michael Dooley, product support manager; and Charles McMurray, corporate secretary and credit manager.

Administrators of the company dealership are Gene May in Asheville at 101 Bruce Road; Willie Norwood in Simpsonville at 116 Corporate Drive; and Gerrel McDowell in Aynor at 4900 E. Hwy. 501. Lott oversees the home dealership at 3464 Sunset Blvd. in West Columbia.

In all, the company employs about 90 people, including its certified customer support advisors.

For more information, call 803/794-9340.