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Teamwork Means Creative Solutions for Materials Handling Solutions

November 8, 2018
Cranes and hoists are integral to many manufacturing environments, although often not considered on the front end of an economic development project. As we continue to explore the many strengths of #TeamUpstate, we catch up with Michael Stokes, in sales and development for Materials Handling Solutions (MHS), about how his company supports industrial development. 

How would you describe Materials Handling Solutions?
MHS specializes in the sales and design of overhead materials handling products and systems, and also provides maintenance and service to clients across the Upstate.
We’re a 20-year-old company that moves material through a process. Generally, we move it from an overhead perspective, so rather than conveyance or forklift, we may use a crane. When I walk into a plant, I am always looking up.
We focus on creating solutions, so our best work is with repeat customers; we want to know your process – how and why you do it, what you don’t like about it, what would make it more profitable for you. That understanding goes a long way. We don’t want to sell you an asset, but a profitable piece of equipment.
Ultimately our goal is to create the most profitable, safe environment for our clients, because we want them to bring other vendors and support vendors to the area. In essence, a job well done for one client can build up not just my book of business, but the total economy of the Upstate. We have a higher-level view of what we do for that reason.

Michael Stokes Materials Handling Solutions

How have you seen successful client experiences draw new business to our region?
We want somebody like Gestamp in Union County to have such a good interaction with us and other local vendors that their tooling house will come to the Upstate. If they ask themselves whether it should relocate here or to North Carolina, the answer should be clear. Going above and beyond encourages our end users to bring their smaller, niche market pieces with them.
This makes their work easier, because all the resources their processes require are nearby. Sometimes we find there’s a disconnect and we lose momentum when an entity is owned corporately and decisions are made in Europe or the Midwest. Needs on the ground are difficult to gauge, and if a manager has strong relationships from previous placements, they may bring their own subcontractors. We don’t want someone out of California to do cranes and someone from Washington state handling floor coatings, when the Upstate can take care of all that.
We help our clients make connections with local companies and create strong ties right here. It takes a special relationship to influence business decisions. To take our advice, companies must trust us implicitly. This is where the Upstate SC Alliance comes in for MHS. In our experience, the Alliance has helped us get to that level, to be in a relationship where you can not only meet needs, but also advise.
Sometimes a purchasing manager on the West Coast looks at a spreadsheet and makes the calls. Even when that happens, maintaining relationships here opens up small expansions, maintenance and other long-term needs. You never know what opportunities may arise from even the smallest project, so it’s critical to provide clients the chance to see value in local vendors. The last thing we want is for a new arrival to give a bad report about the technical and professional help available in our region. MHS sees this as a challenge to offer excellent service and to pair our clients with local companies we trust ourselves.
I don’t make recommendations in absolutes. When working with a client, I suggest, “Why don’t you call this engineer I know? Just run it past them and see what they say.” I don’t know the history and dynamics of every business across the Upstate, but framing it as an input-seeking conversation allows them to get advice, direction and possibly a relationship out of the connection. It helps them see new options and realize the depth of our bench.
Often, we see that businesses want to continue doing whatever has worked for them previously, but we see other vendors and options that may prove simpler and more profitable. Having a conversation with an expert is a non-committal, low-key way to search for new solutions.
Does it distract from your day-to-day work to maintain connections with so many Upstate businesses who won’t ever be your clients? What drives you to serve as a matchmaker and keep tabs on local service providers? 
You’ve heard that a rising tide lifts all boats, but if I want to rise above the tide, I must create a product that will take me higher. Our differentiator is an ability to connect. I don’t trade information; I make connections. I don’t pass along pricing or proprietary details, but I do look to give my clients more than the next guy.
The Upstate is growing so quickly that if I did every project here, I’d work my people to death. We have crane companies coming out of Atlanta, Charlotte or Alabama that have zero interest in investing in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. It’s a challenge to convince potential end users why you’re worth eight or nine percent more than those bids, but the truth is they are worth far less than that. The physical solution is all they provide, and their work ends when the invoice comes.
We approach our work from a standpoint of partnership. These folks aren’t coming from Alabama to fix a wire rope that’s broken on a hoist in six months, but MHS will be glad to do that.
With your vision for a collaborative, long-term client relationship, how would you describe your partnerships?
I’ve got customers who call me about electrical contractors, painters, plumbers and carpet installation. I don’t do any of those things, but I value that they look to me for advice. Last week someone called me about a janitorial service, and I don’t offer those services – but it was an easy phone call to find him someone who does. I may get 10 calls out of this client, and only two are about cranes. I know, though, that his trust is why I get those two crane calls; it’s about generating contact.
It used to require seven touches to get an order out of a customer, but that’s doubled. To succeed, you must be in it for the long haul.
As a company, how does MHS view its role in the Upstate business community?
Materials Handling Solutions moves materials through plant; our daily focus is on that, but we drive business for ourselves and our channel partners by serving as a resource. Do clients need pallets in their plant? I may know someone who sells them. Do their forklifts need maintenance? I’ll send them to our guy.
The more I provide, not necessarily through cash benefit to myself via a purchase order, the more customers think of me first. We all approach our work that way. MHS becomes invaluable and builds a relationship on both sides of that referral; these relationships come from a focus on quality, not cost.
In fact, I’d say that’s what the Alliance does. They put you in a room to build relationships focusing on quality. You can go out and get a good price anywhere, but to get quality you have to go look for it. Alliance connections allow us to qualify customers.
Tell us more about the value you have found in your participation with the Upstate SC Alliance.

I see a lot of what the Alliance does as providing resources to our business community on a larger scale. Relationships are prequalified by our interest and involvement in the organization that has brought us together, so I feel comfortable sharing my downstream resources.

Several of us joked recently that the Upstate Alliance abides by our favorite rule: “Don’t send me any knuckleheads.” Through the networking opportunities and panels, I know the connections I’m making there are legitimate; I’m not wasting time, the resource I absolutely can’t replenish.
My company and I can multiply our ability to network by having good network channels and partners. We may have several channel partners who perform the same service or task, but not everyone is a good fit for a particular situation or customer. I can focus my recommendations specifically when I know everyone I’ve connected with at the Alliance is already at a level of quality I can trust.
One example I love to give is when I went to an Alliance-hosted event about Chilean exports. I’m not going to send anything to Chile; I don’t do exports or imports. But I do need to be in the room with the people who are doing that. So, while the Upstate Alliance may not always be topically related to my work, it is always relationally related to me. I always want to stand next to people doing big things in the Upstate, having an impact. That’s a conversation partner I want, and I never fail to find one there.

Materials Handling Solutions quote

I keep an eye out for industry trends, but it is another thing just to stand in the room with the right people. The Alliance is setting up scenarios by which I get to talk to the right people, and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise. Everyone knows why we’re in that room, so it’s already a warm introduction. Pre-qualified relationships allow me to jump right to quantifying – spending more time with someone whose line of work I may not have in my book of business.
I enjoy staying up-to-date on our economic growth, but more than anything I appreciate the Alliance’s help filling in the gaps for me personally. I could never have made these connections on my own, and now my whole network gets to benefit from their services as well. Nobody wants anything until they need it, and this puts us in the room to find out who needs what. I can’t meet a need I don’t know about, and the Alliance allows us to put those pieces together.
The collaborative culture set by the Upstate Alliance sets a tone of, “We all work together because we want new business here.” Once we get a company in our backyard, rather than Georgia or Florida, we can compete for them—but there’s no sense doing that until they’ve expanded here. So we connect from a place of collaboration.
TOPICS: #TeamUpstate, Existing Industry, Global Competitiveness, International, Manufacturing