Leadership Lessons with Duncan Murphy

By Nicole Needles

Duncan Murphy joined Riekes Equipment in 1984 under its current ownership. He is the first-generation son of an Irish preacher and graduated from Princeton University. After being in the furniture distribution business for 10 years, he joined Riekes equipment and became president in 1986. He has held the position ever since.

Riekes Equipment is a multi-line material handling equipment dealer covering the north-central region of the US. They were founded in 1936 to act as a source for its parent, a glass bottle manufacturer. Hyster – Yale is its primary partner with many other industry leaders as supplier partners in Storage/Handling, Hoist Crane, Dock & Door, Motive Power, and Automation. They have earned numerous industry awards, including MHEDA MVP 13 times and Yale Dealer of Excellence 24 times.

TMJ: What changes have you witnessed during your tenure and what things have stayed constant?

Murphy: This question by itself could fill a book. Society, technology, industry, workforce and globalization have demanded flexibility and constant company reengineering. Growth from 30 to 215 employees while always working leaner and maintaining productivity was satisfying but challenging. Riekes endured fire, embezzlement, recession and customer and employee evolution. All the while, we were achieving record years. The MHEDA Strategic Planning process adopted in 2006 was, and is, an essential tool driving our success. As we have grown, the requirement to add structure while not succumbing to bureaucracy keeps Riekes responsive to the marketplace. Our Mission – We Are Riekes, Innovative Solutions, Unrivaled Service — coupled with our values keeps us on track.

TMJ: In three words, how would you describe your leadership style?

Murphy: Servant, inclusive, expectant.

TMJ: What was one of the biggest challenges you ever faced and how did you address it?

Murphy: Midway through my career, during a period of strong growth, I was maintaining a strong hands-on management style. My senior leaders came to me and told me to back away and let them do their job. It took guts on their part to take a stand, and it took guts on my part to let go. It was spectacularly successful.

TMJ: What advice would you give to an emerging leader or someone new to the industry?

Murphy: Always keep learning but be sure to learn from the best. Always accept a challenge or opportunity even when it is disguised as a problem or a failure. Listen intently. Compliment often and receive compliments graciously. Have bite sized goals that can grow into BHAG’s as the book Good to Great by Jim Collins states.

TMJ: What is the best business advice you ever received and from whom?

Murphy: When joining Riekes, my mentor Bill O’Conner, an original Buffet investor, gave me a list of things to ask for, many of which were not on my radar, including an opportunity to buy in. When I shook my puzzled head, he stated you will not get 100% of what you ask for, but you will certainly get 0% if you do not ask. Ask correctly, and do not sit on the sidelines.