Plank Enterprises is a second generation family-owned holding company comprised of four businesses that provide material handling products and services to industrial and commercial customers. David Soyka reports on how this Wisconsin company delivers a variety of finishing touches with ‘Made-In-The-USA’ quality.
“As a small company, we have the advantage of being extremely flexible to respond to economic downturns in ways that create opportunities for us. The materials handling solutions provided by our various business divisions help our customers safely operate more cost-efficiently, which becomes even more highly valued when general business conditions are tight,” Mike Ottum, president of Plank Enterprises, notes. “Also, as a holding company, our strategy is to develop a diversified portfolio of businesses and products/services that address a range of commercial and industrial niches. One major advantage of that strategy is that while we might be experiencing a slowdown in some markets, it will be counterbalanced by an upturn in other markets.”
The origin of Plank Enterprises goes back to 1981 when Leon Plank first set up shop with a total of three employees to manufacture fluorescent lights and commercial lighting for use in the finishing industry. By 1984, what was then called LPI had doubled to six employees when it also started making lifting equipment and work platforms.”
“The core industry was finishing, and the lighting and lifting lines complemented one another in providing equipment that improved safety for working under hazardous conditions,” Ottum says. “But we had expanded to offer these products for other commercial and industrial applications besides finishing. In 1999, we changed format, so to speak, and established Plank Enterprises, Inc. as a holding company, renamed the lighting division as LDPI, Inc. and the lifting business as LPI, Inc. We also spun out as a separate business Pro-Cise Machine & Tool, as a designer and contract manufacturer of precision components and machining for various manufacturing processes.”
Pro-Cise specializes in thermoform tooling design and production, but also provides services related to injection molds, CAM (computer assisted manufacturing) programming, product design, prototyping, mold and tooling repair, engraving, blow molding, tooling and reverse engineering through digitizing and scanning. Essentially, it “farms out” the same expertise it uses internally tosupport the LDPI and LPI business lines.
LDPI’s product line covers a wide spectrum of lighting applications, including use in wet, harsh, hazardous and clean room environments as well as the specialized line of paint/powder booth fixtures the company first made its name in. In addition to general incandescent and fluorescent lighting for everyday work tasks, LDPI makes environmental-specific explosion-proof and vapor/dust proof lighting.
LPI manufactures personnel lifts, aerial lifts, scissor lifts and work platforms for a variety of industrial environments. A new custom work platform is designed to load flatbed trailers to provide both a fall prevention system and work area for staging the packing materials used in constructing product shipping crates. Typically, lifts are custom built for the specific application. “We can work with the customer to design the lift application, or deliver a finished product in response to the customer’s specifications,” Ottum says.
He adds, “There is a synergy between the lifting applications and effective lighting, particularly in hazardous conditions, so frequently we’re providing a turnkey solution that combines the expertise of the two divisions. In the finishing industry in particular, we are unique in being able to provide both a combined lighting and lifting solution, with all the cost and efficiency advantages of one-stop shopping that go with that. At the same time, the divisions do have their own separate customer bases and provide products and services independent of one another.”
Another related Plank enterprise started up in 2003, when LPI initiated catalog sales of material handling equipment and industrial supplies. “Two years later we spun the catalog function out of LPI and incorporated it as a separate entity that is now known as Badger Industrial Supply and Equipment, LLC,” Ottum says.
Today, Plank Enterprises is under second generation family ownership, with all of its various businesses housed under one roof in a 70,000-square-foot facility in Eau Claire, Wis. “That’s another advantage we have,” Ottum explains. “We have the flexibility to move personnel around where we need them, when we need them there. That reduces our labor costs by eliminating time and expense to retrain personnel or hire and train new workers to accommodate fluctuations in demand.”
Plank has grown from its days of a six-person shop to employ 105. “One of our competitive differentiators is the quality of our people,” points out Natasha Plank-Ottum, executive vice president. “We have a highly skilled workforce, many of whom have spent their careers with us with as much as 35 years of industry experience. The combination of loyalty, experience and teamwork that is the culture of a small company such as ours isn’t something as easily cultivated by a large manufacturer.”
She emphasizes, “Our employees are one of our biggest assets. Consequently, we have numerous initiatives designed to retain and maintain a quality workforce. For example, we have an employee health and wellness program; we’re also extremely flexible in accommodating individual scheduling needs. Our employees mean a lot to us, and we seek to help them properly balance work and family commitments in any practical way possible. I think as a family-run company, we’re particularly receptive to this.”