Ed Brown, CEO at Topper Industrial Sage interviewed by Danny Gonzales of Industrial Sage.

February 24, 2020 Fork Truck Free Info 197 Views

Original Video HERE:

Danny:

Well good morning, and welcome to another episode of IndustrialSage. This is the Executive Series and today, I have a very special guest. I have Ed Brown, who is the President of Topper Industrial. Ed, thank you so much for joining me today on this episode of IndustrialSage.

Ed:

Good morning, Danny, thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to this.

Danny:

I’m looking forward to it as well. We were just chatting before we started, you’re saying it’s a very warm and balmy 20-ish degrees in Milwaukee. Is that right?

Ed:

It is, and we got a little snow, but I know I’m jealous, we wish we were somewhere where it was warmer, but it’s a good place to live.

Danny:

The Midwest is great, I love it up there, especially, there’s a lot of great winter sports and the summers are just absolutely beautiful up there. So for those who aren’t familiar with Topper, real quick, if you could just give me a quick, little synopsis of Topper Industrial, who you guys are, what you do and then we’ll dive into a little bit more about you.

Ed:

Oh, no problem at all. As you mentioned, Topper Industrial is located in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. We’re about 15 miles south of Milwaukee. We’ve been in this location since we started the company in 1994. We started out, my background, I’m an engineer. Went to The University of Wisconsin, which I’m very proud of. We started out, as a young guy, I was really involved in welding and metal fabricating. So, I started a business that, we primarily built material handling racks. And what I mean by that, we would be welding up racks for Harley-Davidson, to ship engines from their assembly plant in Milwaukee to New York, Pennsylvania. We would build engine racks. It’s a structural, steel device that you would put a finished product on. Normally pretty durable and we would then ship that to various customers. Chrysler, in their earlier days, became a very big customer. They had a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has long been closed, but it was a huge stepping stone in that Chrysler had become a major customer for us and they have been ever since and they still are. There’s some things about, that later on, we can brag about, maybe in a little bit if we have time.

But, an interesting thing happened in 1999. I got a call from a Chrysler plant indicating they wanted to switch from fork truck delivery system to a cart delivery system. First time I’ve heard of it. When I got the call, I thought it was odd, I’d never heard of such a thing. But it was the first time I heard the term lean, which of course I’ve learned to embrace and I’m a big supporter of lean. We did do that project, Danny. It isn’t quite the system we have today, but in the process, it launched what Topper Industrial is today. We primarily today, design and build material handling delivery carts. In most cases, the delivery system consists of a tugger. We’re just starting to break into AGVs, we’ve done a few of those programs, where the carts make the delivery, but instead of a fork truck delivering one pallet of parts to replace parts in an assembly line; we now will pull five, six, seven carts. And in the process, they pick up empties. The primary, most common system is, a cart is filled with some parts, can be a motorcycle assembly line, could be a car assembly line, could be anything, or even a workstation. Well, we deliver the parts to the workstation in a cart, the operator works out of that cart. When the cart is empty, we replenish it with a new cart.

When you are looking at cart delivery, which is what it is today, it’s called fork truck free now. Cart delivery’s kind of lost, it’s been lost and the term now is fork truck free. And that’s not actually, truly accurate, but the reason is, fork trucks are inefficient, fork trucks are dangerous. I’m not sure if you or your audience know this but, every single day in the United States, 100 people are severely hurt by a fork truck, everyday. It’ll happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow. So, the primary goal from the safety side of it, is to keep the fork truck away from people. From a productivity and lean style, we like the delivery of the carts because it eliminates waste and you’re much more productive. I’m going to take a break because I feel like I’m rambling, Danny.

Danny:

No, it’s all good.

Ed:

Maybe we could, okay, so today Topper is a fairly good size cart manufacturer and designer. And we’ve built carts for everything under the sun, from rocket boosters to feathers and everything in between.

Danny:

That is anything and everything in between. So, I kind of want to go back for a second. You mentioned you graduated from The University of Wisconsin, said you’re very proud of that. How did you jump into taking that entrepreneurial spirit? Did you start the business right then? What did that look like and how did you eventually go into starting your own company?

Ed:

Well Danny, I’ve never had an opportunity to do this. I’m going to take advantage of you a little bit and brag about something that happened.

Danny:

Please, yeah.

Ed:

When I was a senior in high school, I was kind of a maverick. I was afraid of sciences and math and I took all shop courses. I had this wonderful teacher, his name was Greg Pecora, and he never got credit for this. He was my English teacher and I wasn’t going to pass English and get a diploma in high school. He made me a deal, he said, “If you get a part in the high school play, I’ll give you a passing grade.” Even though I didn’t do one single book report. And I lived up to the deal, I got the part. I actually didn’t think…I got my high school diploma because of this guy.

Sometime afterwards, a friend of mine was in the hospital. I had not gone to college, I was working as a car mechanic. I went to the hospital and Greg Pecora was there. He had, I think his appendix, I don’t remember what the symptoms were, but he really insisted I tried going to college. He had me take an ACT test, which I did horrible and I thought I still could never was capable of going to college. Well, after I got my ACT test, I showed it to him. He actually pulled some strings at The University of Whitewater, which is a local college that he got me to go to on a program, and of course when I got there, I was a different guy. I don’t sit in the back anymore, I sat in the front and I did well. And I transferred to Wisconsin, which is where I ultimately got, but there was a high school English teacher, and I never got time– and he died. And of course, I thanked him many times for helping me do that.

Well, when I got out of college, I was working for my next door neighbor. When I was a kid, about 10, 11 years old, he taught me how to weld. He had a big influence on my life, so I actually went to work for him. In the earlier days, our company, and we’re talking a long time ago, believe it or not, built television towers, which was the only product when I joined the company. I’m the guy who met with, then what was called, believe it or not, American Motors, which Chrysler bought and we started building racks for American Motors and Chrysler. We then merged with another company and we became a minority partner in that company. It did not work well, after 10 years we split up. But in that process, I had discovered that we had a niche for material handling devices. Today we do conveyors, and gravity conveyors, and carts and all kinds of things. So, we left that company and I started this company and it was in 1994. All I went after was the material handling related equipment. That’s kind of how I got where I am today. I’m going to take a break and see if you have any questions, if you want me to go in a different direction. But I want to thank you for letting me say that, because no one’s ever heard that.

Danny:

Well, that’s sort of the point and the purpose of why we want to do this Executive Series a little bit more. Instead of just talking about business and here’s the objectives, here’s what we’re doing. Yeah, we’re going to get to that stuff, but take a very personal interest in the stories. I think it’s very interesting just to hear, that’s very interesting to me to see the massive influence that an English teacher had, a ripple effect. I think it helps to create context, to look around what you have built and how you’ve gotten there. I think it’s super interesting and I think our audience finds that very interesting as well. So, I want to kind of go back with this English teacher a little bit. What was it that made that impact? Was it pushing, saying, “Hey, listen, I’m going to push you in this direction and challenge you”? Do you hear his voice saying like, “Hey, we’re going to go into this company, let’s start another one”? What was that motivating force behind that?

Ed:

That’s an interesting question because first of all, in his class, and I still have the characteristic, I’m the joker, I’m the one that tries to get everybody to laugh in the room. That characteristic has stayed with me my whole life. But, in a different direction than that, I tried to do an appositive, I was destructive and a troublemaker. But this guy just saw something and I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. And one of the interesting things is, when I got to Whitewater, my first year, my first semester, my resident assistant was an ex-Air Force guy and I was lucky because that guy taught me good study habits and notes and how to be effective in a classroom.

But just to brag a little bit about Mr. Pecora, I actually went to the high school advisor and I won’t say his name, doesn’t matter. After he saw the ACT test, he said, “Go back to being a car mechanic.” At the time, it was considered a good job at a new car dealership. But Pecora, he wouldn’t have it, so he actually knew the Dean of Admissions, got me in and my second semester, I got pretty good grades, all A’s. I was motivated, now I had found that, there’s a new person inside of me I didn’t know was there. I started mid-year, so it was the second Christmas. When I brought my grades home, of course I had to go see this guy. And he said, “Would you bring them to Horlick tomorrow?” And I said of course I would. And we went to see the teacher and he said, “Do you remember this guy?” And he said, “Sure.” And he showed him my grades and he said, “You told him he wasn’t smart enough to go to college.”

Pecora was kind of a really special guy and I know there’s lots of excellent, excellent teachers out there, but I happened to be in the right classroom with the right guy. And in addition to him pushing me to do this, it didn’t matter, it helped a lot that the girl I was dating at the time loved the idea of going to college. And my next door neighbor who had taught me how to weld, he was an engineer from Wisconsin and he was so excited about it. Actually my family didn’t take me to school, my next door neighbor did. He actually became my father-in-law; I married his daughter many years later.

Danny:

That’s awesome!

Ed:

So a number of things had to fall into place and believe me, that first semester, I was a pretty lonely guy and I thought about quitting a few times. His name was Robert Edstrom, I would call him up and say I want to come home and he’d say no, no, stay. I stuck it out of course, and after that first semester, then you knew that you were going to finish. But it took awhile to get into the groove, but the right people were there. But Pecora clearly is the guy who grabbed me by the neck and said, “You’ve got to do this, life’s too short. There’s so much you can do with it.” And of course I thank him a lot because I’m the first one in my, I have sisters and brothers, I’m the only one that got a high school diploma out of my family, let alone go to college. So it was kind of special.

Danny:

Very special, very special, that’s awesome. That is awesome. So you started the company, you’ve said in ’94, and you’ve said you’ve done everything and anything in between. You mentioned rocket booster, carting for, all kinds of crazy, cool stuff. What are you doing these days, like your role in the organization?

Ed:

Well, I didn’t want to correct you on this interview, but I’m no longer the President, I’ve become the CEO. I’ve taken over R&D, pretty much, still function as the Chief Engineer. We have half a dozen really good designers here today, but one thing that’s kind of fun, in that some of the designers haven’t had a lot of math and understanding engineering. One of the fun things that I get to do is we actually have classes now, where I can explain engineering, in terms of statics, dynamics, strength of material and that if they build something, we analyze it for stability and strength to make sure that what we build is strong enough and will never fail.

From the standpoint of just being a businessman, the company’s in a good position, it’s profitable, it’s stable. We don’t have debt and over the last 10 years, my son who’s Ryan Brown, who’s running the company, has just completely redone the company from the ground up. And what I mean by that is, we have the best equipment that you can imagine. When I started out, we had an ironworker. Today, we have CNC lathes, CNC mills, man saws, lasers, plasma. About a week ago, we ordered a brand new, it’s called a tube laser; most expensive machine we’ve ever bought. But what you can do with that is, you can build the best equipment possible.

I tried to build a reputation and I think we have. We may not be the cheapest cart in the world, or our solutions aren’t the cheapest, but we like to think they’re the best and the most durable. Most everything we build gets a five year warranty. However, most of it doesn’t need attention even at that point. It’s just well-designed and well-built. So we try to pride ourselves on that and that’s made it a lot easier with having the right equipment. It’s kind of nice, even welders today, have gone from MIG to fusion, and they’re expensive, but they weld excellent and they have no splatter or debris. So it makes the finished product look that much nicer.

Danny:

That’s awesome, that’s great to hear some of that transition and just that focus on quality. There’s been a lot of change in the industry over the last, I mean, there’s a tremendous amount. I know that you’ve seen a lot from ’94 to now. I think from a material handling standpoint, with the whole, we’ll call it the Amazon effect, with needing to get things done faster. Lean manufacturing is a big piece with having much tighter supply chain needs. What are the big challenges that you’re seeing in the industry right now?

Ed:

Wow, there’s actually quite a few. Believe it or not, I still, we’ve been building carts and converting to fork truck free delivery for almost 20 years, well actually 20 years, 21. I’m still surprised, and I can’t fake up any names, I don’t want to give anybody trouble, how you go to a major, major, major manufacturer, somebody who’s been in business for 100 years, and they have multiple plants in the United States, how they are unaware – I don’t want to say ignorant, but unaware – of the benefits and the cost savings and the safety improvements that they could make by implementing equipment that usually has a payback of, very, very quick, a year or two years at the most.

There are many companies out there that are cutting edge, Danny, don’t get me wrong. But, I want to give an example. I can’t say a name and if I hadn’t really thought of it, I would have asked their permission, but we’re building carts right now for a company that builds diapers. And they build a lot of diapers, millions and millions a day. And the system that many plants in the United States, I started working on this program three years ago, they have a really, really bright guy who sees the benefits of a cart delivery system versus a fork truck. It took us three years to get management, and this guy makes a lot of money, it’s not like it’s an issue. Well, it turns out, we’ve got the program going now, we did initial tests in one department in one factory, and the results were so fantastic, the company immediately released the program for the entire plant and then I got a call that said, “How quick can we do all the plants?” And it went from them finally seeing the light.

I want to give you an example of something we did just a few months ago, it’s a light manufacturer. They build a lot of the lights that are on streets and stuff. We put in a cart delivery system, and later on, I’ll get into that if you want to hear about it, but what they did in the process, believe it or not, this plant runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And in the beginning, before they put in cart delivery and their fork trucks, they had 30 people, 30 material handlers on each shift, all three shifts. They also had, I don’t remember the real numbers, but on fork trucks, but I know that the savings were excessive. We eliminated over 44 trucks

Danny:

Wow.

Ed:

And we eliminated, there were only 13 people on each shift, doing material handling, using the cart system versus the fork truck. So, their return on investment was extremely fast and of course, and then that was only a third of the plant. We still have two more parts to do and we’ve got orders to do the rest of their plant. And this is another company, that one’s actually pretty close to us, it’s in Wisconsin and I think we went back and forth for two to three years quoting and looking at designs. There’s also a, not a bad, but there is a pushback. I probably, personally, have converted over 100 plants from fork truck delivery to cart delivery and I can tell you almost every single one, when you walk in, employees of a company are angry and against, they’re very negative toward the carts because they think they’re going to make their jobs harder. Well, I’ll tell you this, every single case, we’ve walked away winners and in most cases, I get a hug when I leave.

There’s still a mentality out there that cart delivery isn’t as good as it is and it’s a shame because fork trucks are inefficient, they’re expensive, they’re heavy, they’re dangerous and carts are efficient, carts are lean. When I learned what lean was, and the fact that carts could be such a big part of reducing waste and continuous improvement, just from the standpoint, when you have a fork truck and a stationary station at a work stall, if you want to change the package or part presentation, it’s a major deal. In our case, change the cart. It’s simple, it’s flexible and it’s actually so much easier. That’s one of the things that we fight daily. You would think that the world would know.

Danny:

(laughs) Yeah.

Ed:

We recently developed a cart for, I’ll even say it, it’s Toyota. Of course, a leader in lean, major, major leader in lean. And fortunate to be a supplier to them and get involved and we developed the new barrel cart. You may think that, in addition, you can imagine how difficult a 55-gallon drum of anything. I don’t care what’s in that drum. They’re five, 600 pounds and they get exchanged in some places constantly. And instead of having all that equipment, we put the barrel on the cart and you do a cart exchange; and it’s a phenomenal improvement. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, what you can do with them.

Danny:

Yeah, so you mentioned something earlier on. You said you guys are starting to move into the AGV world a little bit. Talk to me a little bit about that. That’s obviously robotics and AGVs, automation is a very hot topic right now. What are you guys doing in that space to address some of those needs that are coming up?

Ed:

I think we’re on top of it pretty strongly. In the last month, we did a system for a company that uses an AGV, a well-known, very reliable piece of equipment that we’ve done many projects with. And we build power roller carts and each cart can be a single or a dual position cart. We actually put a PLG with a bunch of sensors on it. So the AGV primarily does the tracking and the stop and starting; that’s based on its computer. The stop and starting is based on, after the cart is positioned, the computer on our cart will talk to the computer on the work stall and say, “Either give me a load or take a load.”

I’m really proud of the fact that, we just delivered 16 carts, they’re dual stationed, so that, what it basically does, when it pulls up, these are all, in this application, the cart pulls up to a machine and takes two loads off finished product, the AGV takes it to a shipping dock, or a fork truck will lift it off the cart and puts it on a semi. Very, very successful program and we’re pleased that when we put it in in November, not one single glitch. Of course, we had a bunch of really good electrical engineers setting up their routes and debugging and programming the computers, that they all are working properly. But, very, very happy with the success. We’ve been involved with maybe, a half a dozen AVG manufacturers, and we’ve done a little work for all of them. It’s a fairly expensive installation and it takes the right company.

Sometimes, I’ve heard it, and I’m not sure, Danny, if this is true, this one it was in that they, to make that system pay for itself, they need to have a company that works seven days a week, 24 hours a day, which this one does. I don’t think it ever shuts down, man, even Christmas they’re going. They make so much styrofoam products, it’s unimaginable what we consume in this country, how big we are. We’re seeing more and more of that, but it’s primarily major companies with high volume production requirements.

Danny:

That makes sense, yeah. As we look to wrap up the interview here, what does the future look like for Topper? It’s relative to products, or innovations?

Ed:

I hope my interpretation and my children, one thing I’d like to highlight a little bit is that, this company was a really good company. It became a great company, I have five children who joined the company. When they were young kids, I used to have to wonder if they’d even want to work with me. But they all, one got a degree in business, one got one in marketing, one got an engineering. So we got a really neat package, in that, Ryan taking over the day-to-day operation and I get to do the R&D. It’s been a really nice combination and the kids are, in my opinion, very smart and they really do a good job. We are continuing, I’m not sure, Danny, right at now, but, I don’t know, maybe 20, 30 patents that we like to think we’re very innovative and creative and committed to doing a super job. I can’t tell you that we’ve never done a job that the customer wasn’t happy, but we didn’t leave until they were. So that, I think we have a good reputation of always finishing it.

Our company has a philosophy, and we’re pretty good at this, we don’t like to grow more than 20, 25% a year. A few years ago, we doubled in over a year, and it was very difficult financially, it was very difficult to find people, it was difficult to get equipment. Believe it or not, you can do a lot more business and make less money, than if you control things and you’re really keeping an eye on things. So we see that, we’ve actually bought the land next to our existing building. We’re ready to put up a new facility and it’s based on the fact that, I don’t know, the last 10 years, it’s worked well for us. By controlling the growth, we control the quality, we control the delivery schedule, and of course, everything’s much better on a system where you have that. Business has not been a problem, we have too much. I’m trying not to, all indicators are, even during the recession, from an economic standpoint, I don’t see a downturn for us.

By becoming, I don’t know, less dependent on financing with banks and stuff, we’ve actually been through a recession like everybody else did and it was tough. We diversified because we were primarily automotive during that. Automotive is still a big part of this company, but it’s not the major part anymore. We’ve found out that there’s a number of companies, and I don’t want to say too much, who are more recession-proof, and we made sure that we are suppliers to them. Because I can’t control what’s going to happen to the economy, but I want to make sure that I’ve covered all the bases in that. I can’t say we’re recession-proof, I don’t know if that’s possible, but I think we’re very close. We keep cash on hand. Who would ever think, in your lifetime, that General Motors and Chrysler would go bankrupt? I didn’t.

Danny:

Yeah.

Ed:

The bank that I’m with, that I started with when I started, the company is still with, said that would never happen. Well, even the bank never thought General Motors and Chrysler would go bankrupt and at that time, they were my two biggest customers; they still are today. We’re very proud of our relationship with all the automotive people. One of the things they get to brag about, a little bit like a Chrysler, or a Kia, they only will use our equipment because it’s tested and it’s real reliable and it’s a good design. And we have many, many customers that will only use Topper equipment because they’ve tried others and it’s failed and we go the extra mile, in terms of designing and testing to make sure our equipment’s made out of the proper metals and built right and all that stuff.

Danny:

Great, well, it sounds like you guys have, there’s a lot of growth for you, hopefully managed growth, making sure that it’s, yeah, because growing too fast sometimes has some challenges with it. But, sounds like you guys are really poised, set up for the future, looks like you guys have had just a great, several, 20 plus years doing this. It sounds like you guys have got some fabulous products. I love hearing about what you guys are doing now, with the AGVs and answering that challenge, and helping to really educate your customers on how to use these solutions and how your solutions are really helping to tell that sustainability story, really help from a safety aspect. It sounds like you guys are doing fantastic.

Ed:

Well, we feel pretty good where we are. Don’t think we take this for granted. We work hard, we’re very fortunate to have a great group of salespeople who are hardworking guys. They’re all from the business and I’m proud of every one of them. There was a time when I was the only salesman for this company and that was one of the harder jobs to give up, believe it or not. I enjoyed, immensely, all my relationships with all the companies that we’ve built, the hundreds and hundreds over the years. And that I maintained friendships a lot of them to this day. Yeah, it’s been a real fun ride. I hope the kids enjoy it as much as I have. I’m getting ready to take it a little bit easier, they tell me. (laughs)

I really enjoy being here, I love the challenge. You asked me earlier, what’s it like to get up in the morning? I usually have a list, I do every night, what I want to do the next day. I’m kind of a get up and go, there’s a lot going on in the world, a lot of opportunities. And I actually feel bad that I’m getting up in the years. I wish I had another 50 to do this because I’m not sure where they’re going to end up with all of it, but we still enjoy a lot, it’s fun.

Danny:

That’s awesome, that’s awesome. Well, Ed, I really thank you for joining me today on IndustrialSage. If anybody would like to learn more about Topper, what’s the best way, what’s your website?

Ed:

www.topperindustrial.com. Please contact us about anything. We love a challenge. That’s interesting, I want to bring one thing up. You’d think from a cart standpoint, we’ve yet to see anything we can’t put on a cart, and as we mentioned earlier, I can say it, we build carts for rocket boosters for SpaceX out in California.

Danny:

That’s pretty cool.

Ed:

Kind of fun to be a part of all these things.

Danny:

Oh yeah.

Ed:

That cavemen, who invented the wheel, I’d like to meet him because without wheels, I wouldn’t have a business. I appreciate you taking time, letting us tell you a little bit about Topper, we’re proud of it.

Danny:

I really appreciate it. Thank you for sharing your story, too. It was great to hear the background.

Ed:

Well, it’s, uh… but here I am, and you don’t forget your roots, you know?

Danny:

Exactly. Well, thank you so much.

Ed:

Okay, Danny, take care.

Danny:

All right.

Ed:

Bye bye.

Danny:

Bye. All right, so there you go. Another great episode of IndustrialSage, round up our Executive Series. This is a new format that we’re going to be rolling out with, when we talk to our different executives, just to hear, really, their stories. And to hear the background of their career paths. I just love hearing family owned business, hearing the story how everyone’s involved. I thought it was actually really neat that Ed’s kids are coming in, running the business and have backgrounds in marketing, engineering. It sounds like what they’re doing is super innovative. I love the story and the aspect of his high school English teacher, who, obviously made a really big, pivotal impact.

So anyways, I hope that you enjoyed this series. We’re going to be rolling out more of these as 2020 rolls on and if you have any questions, we’d love to answer them for you on the show. You can reach out to us at IndustrialSage.com/questions and if you are listening on any of the podcast stations, we’d love a review. Share the love on social media and I’ll be back next week with another episode of IndustrialSage. Thanks for watching.

About Topper Industrial

For more than twenty years, Topper Industrial (www.topperindustrial.com) has been and continues to be a leading manufacturer of material handling equipment. Topper provides lean material handling solutions to the supply chain.

Topper Industrial is able to engineer and design Industrial Carts (Mother / Daughter Cart Systems, Quad Steer Carts or Tracking Carts, Specialized Delivery Carts, Transfer Carts with Roller Deck, Static Carts, Rotation Carts, Tilt Carts or Kitting Carts), Industrial Car tComponents (Parts Department), Industrial Containers(Corrugated Containers), Pallets, Lift/Tilt Systems, and Racking. Topper Industrial designs all products with ergonomics in mind, focusing on ease of use and best positioning of material to get the job done. Topper Industrial is a proud member of MHI. Follow on Twitter @TopperInd. Call 800-529-0909. Contact pr@topperindustrial.com.


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