Over the past half century, so much has changed in business and the world. Through all the economic ups and downs, Alberta’s entrepreneurial spirit has remained strong and businesses continue to persevere and prosper. Since Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. opened its doors in 1970 as the newest forklift dealership in town, there have been seven downturns and one catastrophic health crisis. This locally owned family business has ridden out each of these storms through diversification, nimble decision making, business planning and a little bit of humour to emerge stronger on the other side.
“If we’re not having a downturn I get nervous. Things are going well? What do I do?” quips retired former owner Kirk Hudson. “I had a managers’ meeting years ago and everybody was saying how their branches were doing. And I asked one and he said ‘everything is going so great here’. I had one word for him: duck.”
Western Materials has managed to successfully duck to avoid the fate of many other Alberta companies over the decades, and the early philosophy instilled by the founders has positioned it to prosper and grow in the next 50 years.
HISTORY OF WESTERN MATERIALS HANDLING & EQUIPMENT LTD.
Lee Miller started the company in November 1970 after attending a trade show in Seattle. Toyota’s line of forklifts had just come into the United States and their booth was advertising for dealers. The requirement for consideration was a company name and facility. Miller pulled the name Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. out of the air, got an address for the application, and was suddenly a Toyota dealer for Calgary. It has been an amazing, enduring partnership that both sides are proud of.
“We are honored to have been partners with Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. for 50 years. They were the first Toyota forklift dealership in Canada when they opened their doors in 1970 and they have been outstanding representatives of the Toyota brand and everything it represents ever since. We’d like to congratulate Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. on this significant milestone and we look forward to continuing to build on our great partnership for many years to come,” says Jeff Rufener, President & CEO, Toyota Material Handling.
Miller soon added a branch office in Edmonton and in the years that followed expanded to Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie and Red Deer.
A few years into Western Materials’ tenure Miller brought Keith Barbour on as a partner to help grow the company. In 1974 Lloyd Cunningham joined the company as a mechanic and Kirk Hudson came onboard in the same capacity the following year. By 1979, Lee Miller was ready to move on and offered up his shares of the company, so Barbour, Hudson and two others bought him out to become a four-man ownership team. Within five years, Hudson and Barbour shared ownership of the company and then in 1994 Barbour retired making Kirk Hudson the sole owner of Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd.
Some health issues in 1996 caused Kirk to begin looking at ways to pull back from the company. After trying out a few different options he decided to form a management team to run the day-to-day operations at WestMat, with all but one member being promoted from within the company. He appointed Lloyd Cunningham as president to lead the company forward.
“I formed the management team and people asked how many days a week I’d be coming in and I said ‘None. It’s yours. Run it,’ and I’m telling you, they did an unbelievable job,” Kirk says.
Kirk’s son Kyle has also done an unbelievable job in the company. He started out working summers as a student, first in the parts department and then in the shop as a gofer and shop hand. After spending a few summers exploring other interests while earning his Bachelor of Commerce, Finance degree from McMaster University, Kyle joined the Western Materials team fulltime in 2007.
“I just started learning the business from the bottom up,” says Kyle Hudson, Chief Operating Officer for Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd.
Kyle started in the company’s rental department and then in 2009 he took on the role of service manager, all the while juggling the needs of the company’s six diverse locations. Over the next five years, he accepted mentorship from the number of employees with incredible longevity in the company, especially Lloyd Cunningham who by that time had 40 years of experience with WestMat.
“I decided in 2015, that it was time to make the move and transition into ownership, and here we are today,” says Kyle.
THE COMPANY TODAY
Since day one, Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. has been a Toyota forklift dealer and has the honour of being the first independent Toyota dealer in the country. This flagship partnership helped launch the business and establish the reputation for high standards and quality that WestMat enjoys to this day. It is also the only authorized dealer for scissor lifts manufactured by Aichi, a Toyota Industries company. However, early on the executive team saw a need for equipment beyond the yards and warehouses around the city and continued to push the company for solutions to grow.
The company dabbled in some other lines of equipment to diversify its offerings. Lee Miller and Keith Barbour built their own line of rough terrain forklifts for purchase and rent called Miller-Barbour until the endeavour became uneconomical about six years after launching. Changes in the market in the early- to mid-1980s meant they had to start purchasing the Ford powertrains they used in the units from the United States, bringing with it high prices and all-time low exchange rates for Canadian dollars. WestMat discontinued their Miller-Barbour line and looked outward for a replacement.
The forklift dealers had developed a relationship with Ontario-based manufacturer Load Lifter Manufacturing and in 1988 began carrying its quality rough terrain products. Representing this manufacturer meant WestMat’s clients had access to its wide range of products boasting capacities between 4,000 and 30,000 pounds and lift heights from 8 to 42 feet. These four-wheel-drive forklifts are perfect for operating in Canada’s inclement weather, performing well in snow and mud to guarantee great results every time. These superior product offerings, including compact and mid-range telescopic handlers, complemented WestMat’s existing products and provided a more versatile selection for clients.
In the early 2000s, the company further expanded its product line with the introduction of Kalmar’s high capacity lift trucks and container handlers. Kalmar has some of the largest industrial reach stackers on the market and is uniquely suited to meet some very specific needs. With Kalmar, Western Materials could offer clients large capacity forklifts up to 125,000 pounds and put huge equipment including 286,000-pound capacity industrial reach stackers and enormous container handlers at customers’ fingertips.
These long-term relationships with the best manufacturers in the world have allowed WestMat to grow and expand with the confidence of its customer base while enjoying win-win relationships with the manufacturing partners. The company has exclusive dealership rights for Toyota, Load Lifter and Kalmar throughout the province, and the products of all three complement rather than compete with each other.
“One of the things that my dad always said and that I’ve adopted is we want to represent the top quality one or two products in their market, products that we can stand behind and proudly put our names behind,” says Kyle.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE NAME
The forklift dealer offers the gamut of services to its diverse clientele. The various arms of the company combine to meet any need WestMat’s customers have. The diversity of the products on offer at the dealer is rivalled only by the diverse nature of its clients. The company supports everything from distribution or manufacturing facilities to heavy oil and gas companies; lumber outfits to companies in the food industry; bottle depots to retail operations. Each company has specialized needs and Western Materials strives to ensure that their customers’ needs are covered.
“I don’t think there is an industry that we can’t provide equipment for,” says Kirk Hudson.
The products can all be tailored to clients’ needs too, especially given Toyota’s high levels of customization. Around 85 per cent of equipment rolling off Toyota’s line includes an option, large or small, that makes it unique to the one before and after it, whether that is the inclusion of a special light or built-to-order specs to handle customers’ toughest lifting applications. Because equipment is so unique, the team attempts to visit each client before ordering to ensure the piece will work for their space as well as their needs. It’s key to ensure that customers are ordering the right equipment for the job. WestMat also offers group/individual in-class, practical and online operator training to help safety administrators better manage their own safety programs.
To meet clients’ varied needs and specifications, Western has an impressive selection of new equipment available including a wide array of jacks and stackers, aerial lifts, tow tractors, telehandlers, forklifts and container handlers. Customers who prefer to buy used equipment represent a large part of the business, and Western Materials is proud to offer a variety of previously owned products for purchase ranging from pneumatic forklifts to aerial man lifts to indoor/outdoor forklifts.
“Capital equipment is something that some businesses need to own, and others really don’t want it so they want to find other ways to finance things. Whether we’re using third-party lease companies or facilitating it internally to help customers out we want to be as flexible as we can from a purchase and payment standpoint,” says Kyle.
On the service side, WestMat has a skilled team of field technicians that can be deployed to customer sites to service equipment in situ. The company has 35 service vans on the road in the province and a welding unit in Calgary to perform any loading dock related work. The company also supports customers through its parts department, which gives customers access to accessories and various forklift parts so that they can fix or refresh their own equipment.
For customers who don’t want or need to invest in a permanent piece of equipment, Western Materials has a comprehensive rental fleet that accommodates the individual needs of clients with options for short-term or long-term rentals, various lease style options, and rent-to-own contracts. With around 440 units, the company has the largest forklift/equipment rental fleet in Alberta.
Having so many options for clients’ forklift needs represents just another way in which Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. is dedicated to serving customers well. As a long-time second-generation Alberta business, Western Materials has a legacy of customer satisfaction and a reputation for quality products and service. It is what the company was built upon in the 1970s and it is important to the entire team to carry on that dedication into the next generation.
“We are Alberta based and we focus on Alberta businesses. Alberta is a unique province in the country and we feel that we understand the customer base here very well and we represent it very well. The fact that it’s a second-generation family business is something that we are extremely proud of,” says Kyle.
The fact that Western Materials has the staying power it does lends even more credibility to the business. It gives clients confidence in their dealings with the company knowing that the company, not to mention many of the staff, has been there for decades and isn’t going anywhere. The team stands behind their word and their work to ensure customers are happy and eager to return.
STANDING OUT IN A CROWD
For Western Materials it is the subtle things that make a huge impact. The company is part of Toyota’s ASEC (After Sales Service Evaluation and Certification) program in Edmonton and Calgary, with Lethbridge soon to be certified as well. This program helps improve the already robust COR-certified safety program by introducing a high level of organization and cleanliness in the shops along with a standard of professionalism and efficiency.
“This is something that separates us from our competition, and will continue to do that,” says Kyle Hudson. “Everything is labelled, there is a place for everything, and it’s extremely well organized. It’s something I’m pretty proud of.”
These standards are a lot of work to attain and even more to maintain, and the Western Materials staff is committed to continually improving productivity, efficiency, and service for its customers. It’s this dedication to the company that makes the staff the most valuable asset at WestMat. Management has created a great culture for staff by treating them with respect and fairness, fostering an environment of fun and providing them with opportunities to grow and advance at their jobs. Western Materials builds on the strengths of its people in order to encourage them to reach their potential at the company. As a result, employees tend to stick around; nearly half of WestMat’s staff has been with the company for ten years or longer.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the owner or a shop helper, everybody gets treated the same. Nobody gets looked down on or looked up at. It’s been like that ever since I can remember. And I think it makes it a pleasant place to work where they actually want to come to work and to make a career out of their job,” says Lloyd Cunningham, Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. President.
This dedication to service standards and quality has helped WestMat succeed and grow over the past 50 years and will facilitate more growth into the future.
FUTURE IS BRIGHT
With this milestone anniversary, the management team is looking back in appreciation at what got them here but they have their eyes set firmly on the future. Much has changed since 1970 but the philosophy of hard work, high standards and relationship building has never wavered.
“I think 50 years of continuity is extremely important,” says Kirk.
With that in mind, WestMat is focused on continuing to differentiate itself with its superior service levels and commitment to customers to find them the best product fit on the market. The team stays abreast of developments in the industry, including the move toward electric or battery powered products and Toyota’s foray into automation and warehouse systems, to fulfil their core purpose: Creating Solutions Together.
For 50 years, Western Materials Handling & Equipment Ltd. has created quality solutions for Alberta businesses, and through determination, teamwork and a well-earned solid reputation, the next generation will carry on serving Alberta business for years to come.