Building a Customer Experience through Culture

with Mike Vander Zanden, President and CEO, Amerequip Corporation

Patrick and Mike discuss how Amerequip used the recession as an opportunity to refocus and reinvent the company from the inside out. Mike shares his views on developing a strong culture, creating a unique customer experience, and the importance of making emotional connections with employees and customers. Amerequip is a leading designer and manufacturer of accessories and attachments for construction, utility and industrial equipment, lawn and turf-care equipment, and related products for national and international OEMs.


Pat: Mike Vander Zanden, Amerequip. Welcome to Coffee and CEOs.
Mike: You need to reach inside of somebody and connect with them emotionally. You need to grab their heart and hold onto it. And once you have that, then special things happen.
Pat: You guys have been around a long time. Can you give us a little overview of the company? You know, how long you’ve been around, what size you are, what you’re into?
Mike: Sure. Yeah. The company is actually going on 96 years of age right now, but my experience with them is a little over 22 now. We provide a unique solution to OEMs like John Deere, Caterpillar, McNeilus, Mahindra, where we’ll do custom equipment for them. And so, about half of our business is custom equipment that they’ve engineered, designed, and tested, and the other half is product that they haven’t been able to invest in the engineering, and we’ll do that for them, and we’ll do the engineering, testing, manufacturing, paint, and assembly.

Went through a time when we were privately owned. We became an ESOP in 1998, and then again in 2011, really a big transformation when we took the company private again. And really changed really the direction—decided who we wanted to be and what we wanted to be when we grew up.

Pat: Yeah.
Mike: Which was to be a 100-million-dollar company and employ four hundred team members from the local communities by 2020.
Pat: Wow.
Mike: And…
Pat: And you’re doing pretty well on that.
Mike: So we are. We’re well on our way. And if everything goes well and the economy continues to work, by 2018 we actually should have achieved that. And from a board and a very executive, strategic level, we’re starting to focus on 150 million now.
Pat: Outstanding.
Mike: And five hundred plus team members.
Pat: It’s just been an amazing growth story. Because, even though you’ve been around a long time, the recession was almost like a rebirth for you guys, because it forced you to make some tough decisions, correct?
Mike: It did. And so, when we hit the recession, we downsized from two hundred team members down to a hundred, and we really …
Pat: And your revenue went about in half almost, too, didn’t it?
Mike: It did. We dropped down from 38 million down to 20 million, and so we were at a hundred team members. We still really didn’t know—we were floundering. We didn’t understand who our customers were to be. We didn’t understand what our core competencies were. We had a very weak executive and management team at the time. And so, at that point in time, we took a stop, we paused, and we really started the change. And looking at, again, what does that journey look like and how are we going to get there.
Pat: Sure.
Mike: And it really started with our culture and our team, and it started moving from there.
Pat: What led to the decision to start with culture and values?
Mike: It really was just my personal belief that if we were going to turn this around and we were going to become a 100-million-dollar company, we needed a strong team. And my experience with Amerequip in the previous 15 years at that time—we had a culture by default. We had an executive team that was not engaged in the business—they were all very silo oriented, so there was no cooperation amongst the departments and the different parts of the organization.
Pat: Mm-hm.
Mike: And we really struggled, and it was costly.
Pat: Yeah.
Mike: And if I was going to stay there I couldn’t continue to work in an environment like that any longer. And we really took things and really got very tight on how we controlled things. And now, we’ve loosened that up with time because people truly understand …
Pat: People get it. Yeah.
Mike: … and they get it now, but for a long time they didn’t. And we would talk about, you know, how your messages are portrayed. We would talk to people in our customer service group about, “Do you understand, does that person have a spouse, do they have kids, what are their likes and dislikes on the other end of the phone?” And it took a long time for people to realize that that’s important in developing that relationship with the person on the other end of the phone.
Pat: Right.
Mike: And the same thing internally. We had plant managers that didn’t think it was their role to understand and have a relationship with their team members, and to understand what are their, you know, children’s activities involvement, and what do they do on weekends …
Pat: Yeah.
Mike: … and to really be there for these individuals. And I always comment, you need to reach inside of somebody and connect with them emotionally. You need to grab their heart and hold onto it. And once you have that, then special things happen.
Pat: That’s what the best leaders, that’s what the best brands are built on, is establishing an emotional connection. Because we can do … you know, sometimes you revert to process, you know, “Here’s how we do it,” or we revert to just push messaging or something like that. But if you can get that dialogue going and that relationship going, it goes a long way.
Mike: I share with everybody, we don’t do anything special. There’s nothing unique in how we engineer, how we manufacture, paint, and assemble. Thousands of companies around the world do the exact same thing we do. It’s how we package it together and how we create that customer experience and that relationship for our customers.

See more videos with Mike Vander Zanden, President and CEO, Amerequip Corporation

Mike Vander Zanden on Education and Recruitment
Mike Vander Zanden on Employee Onboarding
Mike Vander Zanden on Extreme Customer Service
Mike Vander Zanden on Learning from Walt Disney
Mike Vander Zanden on the Multigenerational Workforce
Mike Vander Zanden on Reinventing the Company
Mike Vander Zanden on Shaking Up Roles
Mike Vander Zanden on Staying Motivated
Mike Vander Zanden on Tailoring the Customer Experience

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Imaginasium helps manufacturing leaders drive profitable growth and change through inside-out marketing—building communication programs that drive culture, draw customers, and deliver a superior customer experience.