Barloworld Handling is the largest Hyster lift truck dealer in the United States, with a territory covering Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and portions of Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia. At a company that promotes employee education, David Soyka gets a lesson in how a corporate learning culture graduates to competitive advantage.
There is a significant cost to a customer when one of our machines is out of service,” notes Charlie Jobes, training director for Barloworld Handling, a U.S. dealership of Hyster Company off-highway industrial trucks and warehouse equipment. “When a customer tells you it stands to lose $5,000 for every hour of downtime, you’ve got to be able to do two things. First and foremost, you’ve got to provide dependable equipment. But the nature of this kind of machinery is that it needs to be regularly serviced, and that at some point in the equipment’s lifetime, particularly given the wear and tear it undergoes as part of normal daily operations, something is going to break and need to be fixed. So, it’s equally essential to provide highly knowledgeable and responsive service technicians who can solve problems to get machinery back up and running as quickly as possible. Given the sophistication of the technology, coupled with the rapid pace of innovations, it is imperative to promote a culture of learning in which service technicians receive the intellectual as well as the physical tools they need to do their jobs effectively. No question about it, a well-trained technical service staff that can minimize costly equipment downtime is a significant competitive differentiator.”
Barloworld Handling is part of the Industrial Distribution Division of Barloworld Ltd., an international brand manager that has represented the Hyster lift truck product line internationally since 1949. This comprises everything from counterbalance trucks and advanced warehouse equipment to container handlers and reach stackers, capable of manipulating loads of up to 105,000 pounds. Formerly known as Wrenn Handling and Brungart Equipment, the U.S. branch is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C. and services a territory that covers all or part of 11 southeastern states with 35 service branches and approximately 1,100 employees, of which about 500 are service technicians. In addition to Hyster lift trucks, Barloworld Handling also carries a variety of capacity trailer spotters, aerial work platforms and man-lifts, advance sweepers and scrubbers, large hoist capacity lifts, Rail King rail car movers, and personnel/burden carriers, as well as such supplies as load attachments, batteries and chargers, safety equipment, and racking and storage items. “Our technicians need to know a lot about a range of products. As technology changes, it is absolutely necessary that they be up-to-date in multiple disciplines,” Jobes says. “For example, in a given line, there can be as many as five types of internal combustion engines using different fuel systems, each of which has to be optimized to meet the latest EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requirements for industrial pollution limits. And that’s just a small piece of the kind of extensive knowledge base that has to be constantly updated.”
Developing this knowledge base begins with a one-year apprentice program that combines classroom instruction with supervised fieldwork. “New recruits have to pass a mechanical aptitude test and show competency in basic adult education,” Jobes explains. “They get 14 weeks of classroom training. We find that the type of people inclined to this kind of work are very much tactile learners – they need to push buttons and move the gears and change the parts as opposed to have to read about or to listen to someone explain which buttons to push or how to move the gears and change the parts. Consequently, all of our classroom training emphasizes hands-on experience with the equipment that mimics situations the students will encounter in a typical work environment. Then they go out on the job, but they work under a mentor who makes sure that they ‘get it’ before they graduate to going out entirely on their own.”
The training path is a little different for technicians who have the work experience but are new to the company. “They take a Technician Training Needs Assessment that is comprised of 120 questions, with about 10 to 12 questions devoted to a specific area. That gives us a pretty accurate picture not only of what competencies the new employee already has, but, just as importantly, identifies the deficiencies. So then we develop a training program specific to that individual,” Jobes says.
He adds that the company’s learning culture pays off not only in knowledgeable employees, but employees who are more loyal and dedicated precisely because of the extensive training they receive. “I think people appreciate the time and effort we put in to help people improve their abilities,” Jobes says. “It’s the classic win-win situation; we benefit with better skilled technicians, the customer benefit from more expert service, and the employees benefit with improved job satisfaction and the sense that they’re constantly being challenged and always improving themselves.”
Beyond technical training, the company also emphasizes other professional skills sets. “Appearance is important,” Jobes says. “Our service technicians not only know their stuff, they look and behave in a fully professional manner. They are self-motivated, and have the ability to work in different environments. In addition to knowing the machinery, they have to be up on safety and security issues. And they have to think in terms of providing solutions that address customer-specific needs.”
Equally important to the skills the company tries to build in people’s heads is what tools it puts in their hands. “We will have issued 400 laptops by the end of the year. The advantage is not only the diagnostics software, but that the technician can easily email the manufacturer’s technical service department or some other subject matter expert right from the repair site,” Jobes says. “Also, we provide a full set of 11 cables required to connect diagnostics to not only different kinds of machinery, but different model years. It’s not unusual for a technician to encounter equipment that is 25 years old, sometimes even older, so we make sure they have what they need to work on whatever situation arises.”
Barloworld Handling also has a unique tool allowance program. “We’re competing against other companies to recruit the best talent,” Jobes says. “One incentive we offer is to cover the start-up costs of the tools the technicians need, and if they meet a certain tenure requirement, the tools are theirs to keep.”
Jobes also notes that some 80 percent of the technicians are provided with a van outfitted with commonly needed parts. “The technicians are assigned to a service area and they make calls to respond to customer needs. Since they work almost exclusively on the customer’s site, it saves a lot of time if the technicians can pull a part right off the van instead of having to call a service center and wait for the part to arrive – or worse, tell customers they are going to have to wait until tomorrow until the part comes in to fix his machine.”
This relative independence helps to foster what Jobes terms as an “entrepreneurial spirit. In many cases, the technician is the face of Barloworld Handling to the customer. Consequently, we want them to take ownership of that customer relationship. The customers like it because it helps get things done without a lot of, ‘I’ve got to check with my boss’ kind of issues. And the employees like it because it gives them a greater sense or responsibility. They’re not just working for us, they’re working for the customer as well. And that’s a pretty rewarding situation to know that you have a direct effect on helping someone solve a problem.”
Barloworld Handling uses a mix of proprietary in-house developed training as well as vendor-supplied courseware, including some materials that are delivered via Internet. The company operates 10 training centers, but frequently sends trainers to deliver education on-site to local service centers as a less costly alternative. Jobes notes that since some customers prefer to use their own in-house technicians, it’s equally important to offer the same kinds and levels of training to customers that Barloworld Handling’s own employees receive. “Our motto is that training saves lives, saves time, and save money. Effectively trained service technicians – whether our’s or the customer’s – have a direct impact on bottom-line efficiencies. Equipment that isn’t working right boosts operational costs, damages products, and poses a hazard to workers.”
The final report card on Barloworld Handling: a business trained to succeed makes the honor roll.