Growing Successfully

Air Lift Company

airlift


Air Lift has been developing market-leading suspension products since 1949. After landing its first patent for an original product in 1950, Air Lift continued to innovate offerings and the company grew steadily over the decades. Today, Air Lift’s products are engineered to fit more than 540 different vehicles and are sold all around the globe.
~
After more than half a century in business, Air Lift shows no sign of slowing down; the company has doubled over the last four and half years. Business in Focus sat down with President Kevin Mehigh to follow up on last year’s article and learn about the remarkable growth that the team has achieved.

The expansion
When Air Lift moved into its current building in 2001, the structure measured 30,000 square feet—a reasonable expansion from the company’s previous location, which was just 14,400 square feet. Nine years later, the team predicted that they would need more space in the near future and added an additional 20,000 square feet to the building. “We did it before we saw the growth,” Mr. Mehigh remembers. “We actually did it in the downturn of the economy, anticipating growth because of our investments.”

Despite the less than optimal timing, the build-out soon proved necessary. In fact, growth continued at such a rapid pace that the company ran out of space again, leading to a 40,000 square foot addition in 2015.

Mr. Mehigh says that the expansion benefits the company—and more importantly, the customers—in a number of ways. “The first thing it did was allow us to meet an increased demand in our sales. Obviously, with sales growth you are building, packing, and shipping more product out the door. It allowed us to expand and create dedicated [areas] and become more efficient at how we are shipping out product.” This led, in turn, to high levels of timely order fulfillment—a necessity in today’s demanding world of Internet sales.

The company is more organized and streamlined than ever before. “Everything is always exactly where it is supposed to be, so you are not looking for stuff. [We now have] a very neat and organized facility that is more efficient than it was in the past.”

The improvements have had a positive impact on employees, as well as on customers and the bottom line. Staff members have taken full advantage of the additional space, organizing themselves into sports-themed manufacturing cells, adding a personal touch to the work environment and boosting morale. “We are from Michigan, so we have the Michigan Wolverines, Spartan Country, Tiger Town, Redwings Country. [The employees] created that on their own. The management team had nothing to do with it.”

Getting it done
Air Lift’s number one secret for growth and success is its people, Mr. Mehigh says. “We truly believe our people and our culture differentiate us from our competition.” The team has a rigorous hiring process to ensure that Air Lift only employs top-notch talent who will uphold the company culture. “There is really no substitute to having the right people on the bus in the right seats,” Mr. Mehigh explains, referencing business consultant and author Jim Collins’ take on the subject.

“We call it top grading when we hire people. [You don’t just hire] the first candidate; you go through a very thorough process. We actually do psychological evaluations for employees. We do a pretty deep dive when we hire new employees. Because how much time and money does a bad hire cost you?”

With the right employees in place, Air Lift’s commitment to customer satisfaction is much easier to achieve. “We pride ourselves on having best in industry customer service. The feedback we get back from the industry is that we are a very user-friendly company to do business with. People want to do business with us and, when they don’t, we want to find out why and we want to fix it.”

Notably, Air Lift makes it a point to answer customer calls with a real, live person—not a machine. “It is very frustrating when you call someone up and you can’t talk to an actual person. We always answer the phone.” Getting product to the customer quickly is equally important. Mr. Mehigh says that the introduction of ecommerce a decade ago pushed shipping expectations to a new level, and Air Lift has made it a priority to keep up. “We have always had very high order fulfillment. If you place an order with us before 3:00 est. [that is] under a certain limit, it will ship the same day. Our operations team does a phenomenal job at that.”

A successful marketing campaign has also helped drive the company forward. “We are very sales- and marketing-led. We try to do what the market wants, not what we like internally or what our engineering team likes. We conducted a lot of marketing research, so we had more of a rifle approach to marketing than a shotgun approach.”

A fighting spirit helps as well. “It is really just being very tenacious, diligent, trying to make sure that we were measuring what is important in the business and not letting those measurements—the results of what we do—drop off.”

Company culture
Air Lift boasts a strong company culture built on four guiding principles: respect, integrity, continuous improvement and customer focus. These principles are the driving force behind the company’s daily operations, and integral to its long-term success. “The guiding principles [are] the filter for all of our decision-making,” Mr. Mehigh explains. For example, before shipping a product, the team will always ask, ‘does it meet our continuous improvement and does it meet the customer requirements?’

Integrity and respect not only come into play when dealing with customers, but also when dealing with employees. This commitment has led to high levels of employee satisfaction across all areas of the company. “If you keep your employees happy, they keep your customers happy,” Mr. Mehigh points out. “Employees have to be happy, they have to be engaged, and they have to have a sense of belonging. And if they don’t they are not as productive.”

From vendors, to customers, to employees, people are at the center of all that Air Lift does. “Our vision is to be known as the suspension company that helps create better lives.” To live up to this vision, the team encourages employees to give it their all and make a lasting impact. “We are all caretakers of the company and we are all going to come and go. When you leave, what is your legacy? What did you leave behind? What difference did you make?”

In fact, the team holds a voluntary vision meeting every other Friday to reinforce the company culture and guiding principles. “I haven’t talked to a lot of companies that have a vision meeting every other Friday, because we are pulling people off the floor, out of their areas, which costs us money. But we think it is so important to reinforce that vision and let people share their feelings about the vision and how well we are doing.”

Air Lift plans to maintain its vision long into the future, keeping the company moving forward successfully. “We want to make sure that we are continually improving,” Mr. Mehigh reiterates. “This continued improvement will likely lead to continued growth. Our financial goals are to double the company revenue again in the next four to five years.”

May 26, 2017, 10:55 AM EDT

The Automated Future

The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) is a leading global advocate for advancing the entire ecosystem of automation technologies and services. A3 serves as an umbrella organization for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the AIA – Advancing Vision + Imaging and the Motion Control and Motor Association (MCMA).