In the mid 70’s, I was selling school supplies, toys, and gifts, to drug stores and variety stores in small towns in Arkansas. My average sale was between $75 and $150 and working on a 10% commission, I had to make a lot of sales calls to provide enough money to support my new family. In 1979, I decided to go into business for myself and I wanted to sell larger ticket items to the industries of Arkansas. I went to a couple of larger warehouse and manufacturing facilities in Little Rock and asked them what they were buying. I kept hearing them mention pallet racking, shelving, and containers. Since Google wasn’t available at the time, I would go to the library and look through Sweeps for phone numbers of manufacturers of these types of products. I was able to pick up some lines to rep and I was ready to get started.
My dad fought in World War II and our family was always very patriotic, so the name American Material Handling was an easy choice to name the company. As a bonus, American started with an “A” which landed me at the top of phone book listing. American Material Handling had a total of 5 employees to start. There were three of us in sales. We also had a secretary (that’s what they used to be called) and a warehouse manager. Our first warehouse was about 2,500 square feet. We had two offices and a bathroom but we grew out of that space very fast. By the end of 1979, we had over 6,000 square feet and a contract installation crew. AMH was the only stocking distributor in Arkansas for Lyon and Interlake.
In the early 80s, we moved into a 15,000sq ft warehouse and had sales branches in Shreveport, Dallas, Houston, and Memphis. We put together 3 ring binder catalogs with the products we offered and direct shipped most of the products to our customers. Pallet racking and shelving still made up the majority of our sales, and it really helped that we had exclusive agreements with Lyon and Interlake.
In 1987, business really slowed down. The economy was struggling. I am sure most of you remember Black Friday, but the stock market was the least of my worries. Manufacturers were no longer giving dealers exclusive territories and that made it that much more difficult in a slow market. I had to close down all of the branches, except Memphis, and was back to only having 5 employees and wasn’t sure how long I could keep the business going. Sadly, some of my customers were going out of business or downsizing, too. This created a demand for two things that changed American Material Handling into the company it is today. When my customers would go out of business or downsize, they would have equipment that they needed to sell. The companies that survived still needed to buy equipment but were much more price sensitive. It was at this time that American Material Handling got into the used equipment business.
There were very few companies that bought and sold used warehouse equipment in the late 80s and early 90s so AMH started to grow again. We moved into a larger warehouse that had 8 acres, which is where we keep most of our used material. About 50% of our sales was in used pallet racking and shelving so even as the economy improved we noticed that many of our customers still wanted to save money. Because we stocked it, customers could come and pick it up immediately which was also an advantage. By the end of the 90s, used equipment made up almost 90% of our business. My son, Josh, started working for me and we opened a 300,000sq ft warehouse in Memphis. We also hired Jay Carman as a young salesman fresh out of college and immediately our Memphis business took off as the Dot com boom was in full swing.
As always, just when you think you have everything figured out, the economy teaches you a lesson. The Dot Com bubble burst in 2001. However, this market was very different than 1987. There was so much excess in the Dot Com industry, used pallet racking was everywhere. In fact, a lot of it was brand new and never used. All this supply, incredibly low steel prices, and a slow economy made business tough. After 9/11, it almost stopped all together. We sold our Memphis location. My son got into investment banking and Jay moved back to our home office in North Little Rock. That was a very tough time for AMH and our customers, but it was also the proudest I have ever been about the name I had chosen for our company. In some ways, I think the name might have been what helped us survive during that time.
Just as America quickly recovered in 2002, American Material Handling also recovered. With Josh gone, I still needed someone selling in Memphis and I hired my daughter Jana in 2002. It is always good to be able to count on family, and Jana created a lot of energy (and sales) for the company over the next several years. In 2004, AMH bought the old Georgia Pacific facility in North Little Rock which gave us plenty of room to grow with 150,000 square feet and 120 acres. Over the next several years we saw steady growth and survived the 2007 financial crisis which wasn’t nearly as difficult as 1987 and 2001. After thirty years, I guess AMH finally got a little better at navigating through tough times.
My daughter retired to raise a family in 2008 but the American Material Handling family has grown to over 40 outstanding men and women in the last ten years. There was a time when customers were all AMH needed to be successful but now there is no way we could survive without the hard work and commitment of our AMH team.
With all the changes that American Material Handling has gone through, I find it fascinating that pallet racking and shelving look and function the same as they did 40 years ago. There probably aren’t too many companies that can say that about their main products. In fact, most of the equipment we sell hasn’t changed much from the days we were selling it out of a three-ringed binder. I would have to say the biggest change in the industry relates to E-commerce. Because our customers are having to quickly adapt to overnight and direct to customer shipping, they expect faster and better service from us as well. We stock more inventory, do all our refurbishing in house, and even have our own trucks to accommodate faster shipping. I hear about automation all the time, but I don’t see that much. I guess I am old fashioned, but I still think people will always beat machines and I hope I don’t ever see the day that robots take the place of hard workers.
I think the future is very bright for American Material Handling, our industry, and the customers we service. I realize that AMH requires an energy and focus that I can no longer give full time and 40 years seemed like a good time to announce a succession plan. My son Josh and “like a son” Jay are going to be taking over operations and I can’t wait to see what they can accomplish at the controls. I know the company is in great hands. Of course, I will still be around. AMH, our employees, and our customers are way too important to ever fully walk away from.
From the bottom of heart, I want to thank everyone that helped make my small business dream come true. I hope I’ve been as good to you as you all have been to me.