Industry Report

Material Handlers Follow in Clients’ Footsteps

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As long as companies in the five-county region are expanding and building, the material-handling businesses that supply them will follow closely behind.

“There’s new buildings, existing ones that people are moving into. And that’s creating opportunities for us,” says Bill Petro, owner of Century-Fournier, Youngstown. “Thank goodness construction is good at this point because with GM Lordstown closing, that wasn’t fun. We used to do a lot of business with lower-tier suppliers to Lordstown that’s gone away now.”

Much of the business of the company is focused on tools for loading docks, such as levellers, seals and trailer restraints, Petro says. Since most equipment sold and serviced by Century-Fournier is for industrial use, it tends to be long-lasting, he continues, so clients aren’t constantly replacing older products.

“We’re supplying durable equipment. It’s not a consumable. It’s equipment and when someone has a crane or dock leveler, they don’t really need us after that unless they’re expanding or something needs to be repaired,” he says. “Business growing in the area does help us.”

For businesses that are growing, investment in material-handling equipment can get pricey, says Carl Stitzel, president of Direct Forklift Co. and DEL Lift Rentals, Boardman. Over the 31-year history of Direct Forklift, he says, there have always been calls about renting equipment. But with increasing demand, DEL was launched as a sister company in 2017.

“In the material-handling world, there’s a large cost factor in your initial investment and you’re speculating how often you’re going to use it,” he says. “If their sales slump or they want to try a new division or line, they don’t have to commit $50,000 to a piece of equipment just on the speculation that it’s going to work out. They can rent it on a monthly basis and if it doesn’t work out, they send it back.”

Most rentals are for scissor lifts, Stitzel notes, though DEL also offers aerial lifts and forklifts. For the latter, some clients rent their entire fleet from DEL, as many as 15 vehicles, he says. In those cases, the company is removing maintenance for the machines from its list of responsibilities, which can help offset rental costs.

“We stock a considerable amount of scissor lifts. It’s probably our most-popular thing being rented. Even though we’ve been in the forklift business 30-some years, scissors are our most popular,” he says. “What we’re seeing from the forklift side of the industry is that side is catching up to what people using scissor lifts have figured out already: that it’s better to rent.”

Rentals also factor into the business of Melmor Associates Inc., Niles, says President Lee Johnson, albeit a small one.

“The nature of what we do doesn’t always lend itself to rentals, but what we have done has been good for us, good for the customer,” he says. “If they have a short-term project, rather than capitalizing and making a big expenditure, they can rent. It’s done well for us.”

Popular among Melmor’s offerings is equipment designed to reduce the strains of labor, such as self-dumping hoppers or lift tables that remove the need for workers to bend over to move products. For clients who see their businesses expanding, vertical storage is useful, Johnson adds.

“Storage racks go up rather than out and your vertical space inside a building is cheaper than adding floor space,” he says.

It’s those kinds of items, that people don’t realize fall into the category of material handling. Oftentimes, customers’ lists don’t get very far beyond the machinery offered.

“Some people see material handling all the time and don’t realize they’re looking at it,” says Century Fornier’s Petro “It could be a conveyor routing packages. It could be a workstation that’s feeding parts to a storage area. It can be storage racks or pallets stacked to the sky.”

In Vienna Township, Litco International Inc. specializes in those very pallets. The company manufactures engineered molded-wood pallets that eliminate the need for nails and staples, says vice president Gary Sharon. By the fourth quarter, he expects the company to complete an expansion to offer products made of extruded wood fiber.

“Compression molding and extrusion molding use the same types of fiber that we currently process,” Sharon says. “The extruding lines will also enable us to make a variety of packaging and nonpackaging products. We are currently seeking prospective customers with needs for products and designs that would lend themselves to be produced on the extruding lines.”

Storage solutions are also a popular line, he continues. With Litco’s products being “nestable,” as Sharon calls them, companies with limited space don’t have to clutter their shop floors with traditional pallets that have to be stacked one on top of the other.

“Customers like them because our pallets take up less than half of the space as solid-wood, slat and nailed-wood pallets,” he says. “This market is growing steadily for Litco because of the design.”

While each company occupies its own space within the material-handling industry, all report that business is doing well. 

Both Direct Forklift and DEL Lift Rentals are “well in the double-digit range” for growth, Stitzel says.

And while the industry as a whole has had its ups and downs over the past 20 years, Melmor’s Johnson says that his business today is going steady.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride since 9/11 but we’re doing OK,” he says. “Over the last couple of months, the tariffs have affected us a little, but I don’t know that it’s any more than the normal cyclical nature of business.”

And at Litco, with most of its clientele using the Vienna company’s products to handle their own shipping – either domestically or internationally – business is stable as work continues the new manufacturing site.

“Because of the number of customers we have, and the industry mix, our business tends to be relatively stable and predictable,” Sharon says. “As export conditions change, such as exchange rates and tariffs, we see an expansion and contraction in our sales.”

File photo: Direct Forklift co-owners Carl Stitzel and Dave Braun.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.