Member Profile: Wolter Group LLC
BY ERIN INGRAM
From Two-Car Garage to Seven-State Enterprise
The Wolter Group began in 1962 as Wisconsin Lift Truck, a small family forklift parts business run by its founder Otto Wolter out of his two-car garage. Almost 60 years later, that small company has grown into Wolter Group LLC, which encompasses Wisconsin Lift Truck, Illinois Material Handling, Ellis Systems, Wolter Power Systems, Kensar Equipment Company, Bohnert Equipment Company, A D Lift Truck, and Fleet Services. Together, this suite of companies provide high-tech solutions for materials handling, fleet services, power systems, and plant and warehouse needs across seven states.
Wolter Group is rebranding in 2021 to better reflect its capacity to serve multiple client needs under one roof. For the first 50 years of its existence, the company operated as Wisconsin Lift Truck. As the company grew and acquired new businesses, the name Wolter Group LLC was created to reflect the growing family of brands. Now, Wolter Group is unifying its family of brands under one name, and “moving from a house of brands to a branded house,” Wolter’s president Jerry Weidmann explains. In January of 2022, the company will officially become known as Wolter Inc., with all of its services united under one banner. This rebranding communicates to clients the sophistication of the company’s offerings, and makes it clear that Wolter is a one stop shop for all a client’s needs. The company’s new motto, “Accelerate Your Productivity,” reflects the company’s focus on providing not just materials but a full suite of solutions to their clients. “Our goal was to have a big enough footprint to expand the business decades into the future.”
Expanding the Footprint
As president of Wolter Group since 2007, Jerry Weidmann has guided the company through significant years of growth by acquisition. Weidmann began his career as a financial planner for high networth individuals, as well as managing acquisitions and investments for small businesses. When he married Otto Wolter’s daughter in 1986, his father-in-law encouraged him to join the family business. Weidmann was brought in for what was intended to be a one month consulting project. “I’m now in the 30th year of that one month project,” he laughs. Weidmann leveraged his background in financial planning, acquisitions, and investments to grow the company. “In the early years, the business was growing organically, the economy was growing organically. But over time, organic growth wasn’t enough” Weidmann began looking to acquisitions to grow the footprint and profits of the company.
In 2010 the Wolter Group acquired Witco Systems, the company Otto Wolter worked for before starting Wisconsin Lift Truck Corp. In 2012, Wolter Group expanded into Illinois with the acquisition of Scott Lift Truck. In 2015 the company acquired Fleet Lift Truck Service and ServiceMax and in 2016 Ellis Systems, all in Illinois. In 2019, the company acquired Kensar Equipment, Integrity Industrial Equipment and Bohnert Equipment, giving them a foothold in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. And in 2020, The Wolter Group acquired K & L Mechanical and Equipment & A D Lift Truck, opening the door to Missouri and Southern Illinois. “Our goal was to have a big enough footprint to expand the business decades into the future” explains Weidmann. Wolter Group LLC now boasts over 450 employees, working across seven states.
Meeting the Challenge of Technology and Automation
Wolter Group has keenly felt the vast changes in the industry due to automation, the rise of internet shopping, and the demand for ever faster delivery of goods and services. Weidmann points out that the “Amazon Effect’’ has shifted demand from large shipments that can be trucked en masse to their destination to micro fulfillments – a trend that he believes is here to stay. This is changing how Wolter Group’s clients look at material handling in all aspects of their business. In large part, this means moving their own operations towards automation to reduce costs and time. The Wolter Group is responding with an increased focus on technology, ensuring that the products they support and distribute match the new demands of the market.
Rising to the challenge presented by this rapidly changing field requires a heavy investment in Wolter’s technicians to ensure that their skills meet the needs of customers. To this end, Wolter Group runs a training division staffed with full-time trainers to teach and support their technicians. This transfer of knowledge is critical as the company’s baby boomer employees begin to retire, and their 30 years of experience must be passed on to new employees coming onboard. To support less experienced employees in the field, Wolter Group is utilizing Google Duo and Team Viewer to allow their technicians to connect remotely to an expert who can provide virtual technical support, and coach the technicians through challenging projects.
Wolter Group is also changing how it recruits new employees, as typical sources such as LinkedIn and local advertising no longer bring in enough qualified applicants. The company has begun hiring full time recruiters who will proactively search for potential new employees, and bring them into the business. “This is the story that’s going on everywhere,” says Weidmann. “We’ll have to be a lot more creative, willing to train people who perhaps don’t have the skills but have the right attitude – that’ll be the ongoing story, bringing people in, training them up.”
The Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 forced companies to innovate to continue to operate virtually, and Wolter Group is no exception. The company took this as an opportunity to modernize some of its practices, and many of the pandemic changes will become part of company culture going forward. For example, the company is creating post-covid policies for flexible work in a number of its departments, and streamlining its systems by digitizing all paper transactions and workflows. This means it will no longer matter where an employee is based – the workflow can move to them. These changes will allow employees to provide faster response times to customers, and manage their workload more efficiently.
The pandemic also had a large impact on the company financially. The Wolter Group’s business volumes had dropped by 30% by the second quarter of 2020. But the company was determined to keep its employees working through the slowdown. “It’s a family business,” says Weidmann, and they did their best to care for their employees like family during an immensely challenging time. Weidmann recalls, “we had individuals who struggled due to COVID, and we said just take unemployment, you’ll have a job when you come back.” The company set up full-time remote work options to keep employees safe, and sought to support employees who were struggling mentally or emotionally because of the pandemic. “How you treat others determines how they treat you – if you don’t take care of your people all the time, when there are opportunities they will leave – and there are plenty of opportunities right now,” Weidmann points out. This determination to keep their employees working was justified as business volume began to pick up in the third quarter of 2020, and have now returned to over 90% of 2019 levels.
Looking Ahead Over the next decade, Weidmann sees great opportunity to build Wolter Group’s capacity to manage the increasingly complex and automated systems populating the materials handling work space. As Wolter Group has grown, its client size has also greatly increased. Customers are now likely to have facilities throughout the state, region, or the country. These customers increasingly demand high levels of sophistication and technical expertise. “The customer base has changed,” says Weidmann, “so therefore we have changed to be a player with those more sophisticated customers.”
With these sophisticated customers in mind, the focus now for Weidmann is to unite the company’s diverse acquisitions into one cohesive and highfunctioning entity. This includes improving and standardizing operations and procedures across all company holdings. The goal is to have a Wolter Group building in Indiana operate the same way as ones in Wisconsin, with both guided by response time to customers. “Our vision is to be able to deliver a service tech within a fourhour response time, anywhere in the seven-state region, at any time” says Weidmann. Going forward, the Wolter Group team will be taking that performance measurement and driving it through all their services, keeping the company at the cutting edge of technology, and always accelerating the productivity of their clients.