Knickerbocker Russell Co. Inc.
When customers stop by the main office of construction equipment supplier, Knickerbocker Russell, they’re likely to find executives standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fabricators on the shop floor, cutting steel and sweeping saw dust.
Even vice president Sam Eaton recalls spending a Monday evening welding together metal storage containers to help the mechanical staff meet a tight deadline.
It’s not that Knickerbocker is understaffed; rather, the company wants its employees to be versatile. In many cases, the company encourages versatility by promoting employees from within its workforce. Eaton says most employees start out working in the warehouse before training in the mechanical, parts, purchasing and sales teams. Even though most employees will graduate to one specific team, they still cross-train in all departments of the business.
“Everybody wears more than one hat here,” says Eaton
Take, for instance, the salespeople at Knickerbocker Russell. They do standard sales work like quote job prices and recommend products, but they also help customers troubleshoot. Moreover, they are also the delivery team, driving a fleet of truck and trailers and holding on-site demonstrations of equipment.
“Say you have a customer who wants to strip floors in a building. Our guy already knows what equipment to recommend and how to use it,” Eaton says.
The same attitude pervades Knickerbocker’s offices and warehouses. Eaton says the female office secretary “can do most things the guys can do and will hop in a skid loader and drive off” if need be. Similarly, all of the executives and managers help with day-to-day tasks like sweeping and operating the forklift.
“Almost everybody here is a good forklift operator because they all get a lot of practice at it,” Eaton says.
Many products mean each employee wears many hats
Having a versatile, hardworking crew is essential for the Pittsburgh based company, which sells a range of construction tools and materials.
Knickerbocker’s inventory ranges from everyday supplies like chalk lines and work boots to protective clothing and power tools, all the way up to heavier equipment like road sweepers and multi-ton excavators. It also sells specialty materials like grout, concrete, rebar, hardware and drainage systems, among other products.
With so many products, Eaton says there are times when every employee must know enough to field customer questions to keep up with their sometimes overwhelming sales volume.
Unlike many other companies in the construction industry, Knickerbocker has had the unusual problem of doing too much business for the past two years.
Eaton traces the boom in business back to 2014 when several major natural gas and oil pipelines opened throughout Pennsylvania “We had our regular customers…then all of the sudden we had gas and oil people from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas,” he says.
During the busy period, Knickerbocker Russell was flooded with phone calls and visits from drillers who were unfamiliar with the hilly terrain of the Northeast. Specifically, many drillers needed to switch from pumps intended for a flat landscape to ones that could pump against high elevation.
Because the mechanics, parts employees and salespeople all communicate and cross train in each other’s jobs, Knickerbocker staff was able to field the increased questions that came with the increase in business and deliver pumps to all of its customers, though not without some stress.
“There was a lot more overtime getting things ready for the next day and no down time between customers,” says Eaton. “We handled it but I don’t think that could carry on [indefinitely].”
Now the spike in business has leveled out. “We’re back to where we should be. It’s a healthy growth that we’re experiencing now,” he says.
The same versatility that helped Knickerbocker service its new customers is part of what drew those customers in to begin with. “If somebody needs a piece of rental equipment right now, just about anybody [on the floor] can handle it. Our customers know that and appreciate it,” says Eaton.
Eaton also says the company’s versatility allows it to be a one-stop shop, where products can be sold, assembled and serviced all by Knickerbocker.
Though the company has only nine mechanics, some who specialize in gasoline and diesel equipment and others who specialize in electrical work, Eaton says they all get together to share their knowledge. “We have so much different equipment that all of the mechanics get pretty good [at fixing] everything,” he says.
Similarly, the parts department is staffed by former mechanics, Randy and Hoss, who have a combined 66 years of experience with the company. As a result, they don’t just order parts for the mechanics, but sell directly to customers and deliver products to work sites.
Eaton says having many employees with decades of experience is the key to maintaining such a fluid work structure. “We’ve all worked together for a long period of time, so we know each other well,” Eaton says.
When the company does bring a new employee onboard, they aren’t trained to be versatile so much as they’re infected. “It’s sort of contagious,” Eaton says. “You don’t have to say much at all because it’s just a practice here and everybody knows it.”
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