Air Lift is a specialty company that has been developing dependable suspension products since 1949. Air Lift products are sold worldwide and are engineered to fit in more than 540 vehicles. Business in Focus spoke with President Kevin Mehigh to find out more.
Claude Pemberton founded the company in 1949 with the goal of providing a solution for sagging suspensions. Towing or hauling can cause squatting at the rear end of the vehicle which would alter the direction of the headlights, decreasing safety for the occupants. Claude and a partner came up with a simple way of putting an airbag inside the coil spring of the rear of the vehicle.
“You could put air in it, and it would give you added load capacity. The product really hasn’t changed much since. We have different kinds of airbags now, but the basic concept is so simple and clever that it has lasted the test of time.”
The initial air spring resembled a urethane bag inside a coil spring. That evolved into a rubber air spring that is installed between the frame and the axle. This helps with any vehicle used to tow or haul and will eliminate the suspension squat.
Kevin says that the company caters primarily to pickup truck and RV owners who tow trailers or haul heavy loads such as slide-in campers. For towing, the system works with either a ball hitch or a fifth wheel trailer as the coupling of the towing vehicle. Steering is made easier with the airbag as it helps distribute the loaded weight more evenly – toward the front of the vehicle – increasing stability.
“It’s the recreational vehicle market. Pickup trucks are also in that category because they haul things like campers or boats. Anything that you see on the road that is towing or hauling is our main market, but we fit many different classes of vehicles like SUVs and CUVs (crossover utility vehicles). We also have a kit for minivans like the Honda Odyssey.”
Over the last four and a half years, revenue has doubled for Air Lift. Kevin refers to the book ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t’ by Jim Collins. Using the analogy of a bus, it emphasizes having the right people on the bus, having them in the right seats and then building an infrastructure within the company to go after the relevant market. Kevin believes Air Lift has done this.
“We have hired the right people, created the right teams within the organization, and that helped us to address our niche market. It was through sales and marketing efforts, building a bigger sales team and having more feet on the street. More salespeople were in the marketplace calling other customers.” Air Lift also created a much larger website presence, allowing it to reach customers nationwide via internet retailers such as Amazon.
Another strategy for growth and a way of knowing its customers’ needs and wants is through what Kevin calls “hand to hand combat”. Air Lift has point of sale purchase information from its installers and retailers at its store locations. When customers walk in, targeted information and education is available.
Air Lift went from being a hidden gem in Lansing, Michigan to a national player in the towing and hauling industry and an international player in 33 countries in the performance strut market. This second business unit, Air Lift Performance, caters to the 18-35 age group wanting to customize their 2 to 15 year old car with Air Lift Performance air suspension. This product line is a full air suspension replacement which has grown 400 percent in the last four years. The growth in both business units happened through connecting with customers via social networks, grassroots car show initiatives and substantial investments into marketing initiatives. In addition, the company added the resources of 54 third party manufacturing representatives to represent its products both nationally and internationally to reach the re-sellers of the two product lines.
Air Lift is expanding on its current 50,000 square foot facility, bringing it up to 90,000 square feet, and should be occupying the new space in June of 2015. Facility expansion is necessary due to recent sales growth; otherwise Air Lift would not have the capacity to support continuing sales increases.
“We are creating a warehouse of finished goods, so that anybody – at any time – can order something from us and will get it as quickly as possible. We are a fast food society and people don’t wait. We will exceed our customers’ expectations with the combination of inventory, increased production capability, capacity and a warehouse of finished goods, with the right people on the bus in the right seats.”
To find the right employees, even before expertise and skill sets, Air Lift looks to four guiding principles: respect, integrity, continuous improvement and a focus on customers.
Kevin always tells people that Air Lift has the equipment, the building and the products, but, most importantly, the people. “They are our best and most important asset. That trumps everything. We have had some staff for as long as forty-four years and a lady that had been here for thirty-nine years. We have very little turnover.”
Part of the company’s quality policy involves seeking customer feedback. To gauge the customer and employee experience, Air Lift uses a customer feedback metric. Every month, Kevin goes “polling the world” and looks at the internet retailers to find out what customers are saying about the products.
“We use our own internal customer service groups to find out things like: ‘how many calls did we lose this month?’ or ‘how many problems do we have?’ We collect feedback and other information from customers via our warranty registration process and use that information as well.”
Air Lift employs a management tool called Net Promoter Score that calculates the loyalty of customer relationships. The last few rounds saw high scores for Air Lift – on par with companies such as Apple.
“It doesn’t just matter how we feel inside the building; it matters what our customers feel and think about us. They are a promoter of our product, and we need to know if they would recommend that someone else buy it. It’s a big part of what we do.”
Every company needs to separate itself from the pack in some way, and for Air Lift, it has a lot to do with how it fills orders. The company prides itself on having the best order fulfillment in the industry. “When you want it, you get it!” An order can come in at two PM, and it ships the same day – depending on its size. Customer service is also top notch. Typically, when you call a company, you are relegated to voice mail. At Air Lift, you get a real person!
Its customer service groups are also required to rotate, on rotation, to have their phones at the ready on weekends. If there is a problem or question, and a company is only open during regular business hours, how can a consumer get assistance with their product or installation question?
The company’s phone tracking system means it may miss a call, but it never loses a call. A representative will call back as soon as possible. Rapid service ties into Kevin’s description of the “fast food culture” in which people want it now; they want it to fit, work and last; and they want to be able to talk to you if there are any issues.
Air Lift recently hired Human Resources Manager Mary Cook. She feels that the company culture is a superb one and aims to see it recognized as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Air Lift is a very flat structure where anyone can talk to anyone, and there are no reserved parking spots in the lot. She believes that, based on this culture, the world and employees should know how special it is.
The short term goal for the company is to create an infrastructure capable of dealing with its growing market demands. “Our sales growth has been blessed and phenomenal. We will continue to invest in our company to keep up with that pace and make sure we always have the best order fulfillment, customer service and the best service to our industry.”
In the long term, it wants to double the sales revenue again while continuing to be a company that differentiates itself in the market through order fulfillment and customer service. “All that in service and support of being known as the suspension company that helped create better lives. We have the people, the culture and the vision to make it all possible.”