Horses were her first love. She imagined a career in equestrian science. Through the years, she rode her way to national titles, practicing agility and dodging obstacles in English style as well as Western.
Anika Conger-Capelle never shed her competitive spirit. But horses have been only her hobby since one fateful day in 1997, when her dad, Gary Conger, called to tell her about an opportunity in the family business.
“As I look back, it was absolutely 100 percent the correct route and path and journey for me,” she recalls.
The third-generation leader at Green Bay-based Conger ToyotaLift, Conger-Capelle led the forklift sales, parts, rental and service company through an expansion three years ago that more than doubled the size of its Ashland Avenue headquarters. Sales, which held steady at about a 5 percent annual increase through the recession, were $18 million in 2012, $28 million in 2013 and are projected to be $32 million for 2014.
It may seem that success at Conger came almost overnight, by luck. But just as winning a sporting competition comes with long hours and hard work — not to mention strategy — Conger took calculated steps to earn its good fortune.
This is a story of how a company that was in a healthy canter beside its competitors saw opportunities to break ahead of the pack and win the championship.
“I felt ready,” Anika, 40, says of the big contracts they took on in 2013. She credits her dad with building the foundation for their success through his smart financial moves and avoidance of debt. Gary, 70, remains president but handed his daughter the reins to run the company as general manager and vice president five years ago. He, in turn, is pleased with her leadership.
“The enthusiasm of youth helps,” Gary says of Anika, who three years ago assumed 45 percent ownership of the company. “She has a good, rounded knowledge of this industry. She has to know what she’s talking about, more so than a male in this business. (Anika is one of only two women running Toyota forklift dealers in the U.S.) They give her one chance, so she does a very, very good job of informing herself of the ins and outs of this business.”
Dorothy and Lloyd Conger started the company in 1955, when they left Sheboygan to take an opportunity to buy a small forklift service business on the northeast side of Green Bay. Anika says her grandfather was eager to work close to the Northwoods where he could hunt and fish (though starting a business left him little time for that).
Lloyd died in 2008 but at 91, Dorothy still pops in now and then to see how things are going. She recalls the couple sold their house for $3,000, rented a farmhouse and took the money to start their business in a small garage on the premises (they shared a bathroom with their landlord, a potato farmer). Lloyd repaired forklifts and Dorothy handled the office work. Their children did odd jobs or played nearby; Gary was 11, Bruce was 7 and Tana, 4.
“I would never have expected it to get this big,” says Dorothy, who stopped working at Conger in the mid-1960s. “My husband would have liked to see it now.”
Against his convictions about not wanting to work with foreign companies, Lloyd was convinced by a particularly gregarious Toyota distributor to take on the brand in 1970. As the No. 1 rated fork truck brand in the U.S. — with a reputation for durability and reputation for the Toyota Lean philosophy — it turned out to be a very good move.
Lloyd and Dorothy moved their business to the current location in 1975. Gary tells the story of how his dad decided to quit five years later.
“One day he asked my brother and me to come into his office. He was 57, and he said he was going to retire. We asked, ‘When?’ and he said, ‘Noon.’” And he did. He gave up smoking cold turkey and he gave up the business cold turkey. He said ‘I can handle the big issues, but all the little stuff gets to me.’ So we purchased my parents’ interest in the business in 1984.”
Gary bought his brother out in 1996. Their sister, Tana Winkka, who had always worked in the business, stayed on as office manager.
Meanwhile, Anika had studied equestrian science and business at William Woods University in Missouri and earned a bachelor of science in business administration. After graduation, she enrolled in pre-med courses at UW-Green Bay. Within a year she knew medicine was not for her, either. She had worked in the family business in the summers, doing everything from sweeping and answering phones to taking orders and coordinating sales. Although her dad always said they would never create a position just for her, the opening in accounts receivable came at the right time.
Within a couple years, new OSHA rules required training for forklift operators and the company saw it as a great opportunity to bring in new business. At 24, Anika was recruited to be the trainer.
“At that point, I thought maybe I should have driven one first,” Anika says with a hint of irony in her laugh. “I actually enjoyed it.” Since then she has also updated computer systems and handled major account sales and marketing. Over seven years, she took business courses through Lakeland College and earned her MBA in 2007.
“A lot of women don’t know opportunities like this are out there, that they can be extremely successful,” she says. “Going into it, 95 percent of my contacts were male. They were hesitant to deal with me; they did not feel that I understood the workings of a fork truck, that this was a man’s thing. But I proved to them that I knew my business.”
Those who work with her attest to her keen business acumen.
“Anika is very refreshing to work with,” says Bob Bosworth, vice president for sales and marketing at Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., based in Columbus, Ind., where Toyota manufactures all its lift trucks for the North American market. “She came in at a pivotal point — when the market was down — and it took some strong leadership to move forward. She exhibited all the traits of a strong leader and a great businesswoman.
“I think as our industry has come out of the recession there are two types of dealer personalities: One is an aggressive growth position and the other, a wait-and-see type. Conger is more of the aggressive, get-it-done, growth-type mentality. They exhibited that in the expansion of their facility at a time when others were reluctant to do that.”
Bursting at the seams
When Anika joined Conger ToyotaLift, the company employed about 45; today it employs 92. This includes those who work in the Wausau location, acquired in 1994, and in Neenah, added in 2005, as well as the many technicians who work in the field or on the premises of larger clients with leased forklifts. The company sells, leases, rents and services a wide variety of lift trucks and related equipment, including forklifts conveyer systems, sweeper scrubbers, aerial lifts, scissors lifts and boom lifts. It also offers training to ensure those who use the equipment are safe and OSHA compliant.
New forklifts, which can weigh as much as 8,000 pounds and lift as much as 5,000 pounds, cost about $24,000. When the company leases products, the financial arrangement is directly through their distributor, Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. — leaving Conger off the hook for financial liability. Servicing and maintaining trucks accounts for about 45 percent of Conger’s business; sales, about 20 percent; parts sales, another 20 percent; and rentals, 15 percent.
The market for forklifts didn’t suffer as much as many other industries in the Great Recession, Anika explains. The food packaging industry, medical device industry and other consumables continued to thrive — and they all rely on fork trucks. Some industries, such as paper, slowed and unused equipment did not require servicing. But with very little debt and more emphasis than ever on Toyota lean principles, Conger was able to tighten its belt and carry on, with no layoffs or wage freezes.
At the Green Bay headquarters, inefficiencies became evident. Conger was cramped. The company was renting space at a nearby warehouse to store trucks. Fork trucks were parked end-to-end in rows, and whenever they needed to retrieve a truck at the front end, it could waste an hour’s time to move all the other trucks out of the way.
What’s more, the office space was sorely outdated. Winkka, who has worked at Conger for 39 years, recalls the gloomy dark paneling and the noise created as people click-clacked down the worn tile floors in the halls.
The silver lining of the recession, of course, was that for financially stable companies it was a good time to build.
“We were in a perfect position to be able to take the loans and expand,” Anika says. “Interest rates were low, building materials were low, people were looking for work so their rates were low.”
The company hired Bayland Buildings, Green Bay, to add a 33,000-square-foot parts and service department, completed in 2011. DeLeers Construction, Inc., De Pere, renovated the interior of the existing 28,000-square-foot building.
With that, Anika says, “We were poised and ready to go” for new clients.
Conger brought in four new salespeople, who brought new energy. Anika, who since assuming the leadership role had deferred to the more senior managers on the team, was champing at the bit for more action. Sales had been humming at about 5 percent growth each year.
And then, perhaps this is an understatement: Opportunities knocked.
Boom time for the business
Soon, they landed a contract to lease and service about 30 trucks for Waukesha-based Spancrete, a manufacturer of precast concrete products. They began servicing fork trucks for Pacon, an Appleton-based paper products company; for a food packaging company in Wausau, plus another dozen or so small- to mid-sized clients.
But the biggest prize? In 2012 Conger won a request for proposal to lease and service the entire fleet of fork trucks for Oshkosh Corp., about 130 trucks in every division of the company, including Pierce Manufacturing in Neenah, McNeilus concrete mixers in Minnesota and JLG lifting and access equipment company in Pennsylvania.
“Conger is our main forklift provider for the entire corporation globally,” says Terrance Roloff, materials area manager for Oshkosh Corp. “Their level of service is much higher than I would have expected entering the relationship. It’s much more of a partnership we have with them. Toyota is known for its Toyota Production Systems; TPS is the most lean and efficient manufacturing system in the world, so Conger brings us the opportunity to team up with that.
“One neat thing is with this master agreement, we can bring all our segments together, and locate the equipment where it’s needed most,” he adds. “We just announced we’ll be opening a facility in Mexico, and some of the lift trucks now in the Fox Valley could be going there.”
Thus, fork trucks going to Oshkosh Defense — which has been dramatically scaling back with a reduction in orders for military trucks — will remain in the company’s fleet and be relocated to other parts of Oshkosh Corp. as needed.
The flood of new work was exhilarating, Anika says.
“There was a lot of positive energy, but there was also a lot of angst,” she says. “It was a big swirl of positive and anxieties and stress. It was fun, because it wasn’t like we were struggling. So we celebrated the positives and worked toward how to make everything fit together.”
Those in the thick of it attest to the challenges they faced.
“It was tough,” recalls Winkka, who, in addition to office management, headed up the IT as well as Human Resources department. “Everybody ended up wearing three or four hats. Sometimes we felt overwhelmed. We had to focus on getting one job done before switching to the next.”
Anika, Gary and the management team hired new employees as needed and defined certain roles more narrowly. They recently hired an HR director.
Further, communication with the entire team helped. Anika stepped up the meetings with managers and others to ensure everyone stayed on track. She offered optional training sessions to all employees across different disciplines, including “How to Service a Truck” and “Forklifts 101.” She even taught some herself, including “Business 101,” which covered the history, philosophy, mission and goals of the company.
She has learned a lot about communication from working with her horses.
“You have to keep reinforcing things,” she says. “You have to keep your composure. You can get very frustrated as the trainer. You communicate with the animal but it’s not verbal communication. I found that I’m very in tune to body language with customers. I realized that as a rider, if you’re nervous or upset, the animal feels that — it goes right down through their body and they get upset and uptight. It’s part of that training, not only for the horse but for yourself — how to react in situations.”
But most of all, she says, spending time riding horses is a wonderful way to maintain balance. She enjoys the sport with her 12-year-old daughter and her mother, Chris (who worked in the family business a short time years ago).
“My horses today are my therapy,” she says. “They are my getaway. I go into a completely different world with them because I feel a connection into who I am, and my life, and how that’s made me to become successful.
“They also taught me a lot about hard work and that there’s not necessarily an immediate payoff all the time. You have to keep moving forward, doing what you’re doing, and look at what you can do better. It’s that persistence.”
Coming full circle
Gary Conger likes to wax nostalgic. He recalled his father, company founder Lloyd Conger, started with three Toyota forklifts, and in 1998, he set out to locate them. He kept the serial numbers handy and asked everyone to keep an eye out for them.
His daughter, Anika, was at that time dating someone whose company, a metal fabricator, happened to have an old, well-worn Toyota forklift in use. One evening when the three of them were out to dinner together, the subject came up.
“My boyfriend said, ‘We have a really junky Toyota at work, maybe it’s one of those.’ And I said, ‘Don’t be talking about a Toyota truck that way, like it’s junk!’
“My dad gave him the three serial numbers he was looking for. … He came back and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the truck.’”
They bought it back, had it painted, buffed and restored to its original appearance. It’s now on display in the company’s conference room.
Oh, and the fellow who brought the truck to their attention? That would be Derrick Capelle, who Anika Conger married in 1999. Three years ago Capelle began working as the grounds and maintenance supervisor at the company. The couple have a 12-year-old daughter, Anna.
Racking up the ribbons
When it comes to forklifts, Conger ToyotaLift has an edge over its competitors: The Toyota brand. Conger ToyotaLift is the second oldest Toyota forklift dealer out of 72 in the country.
Toyota’s commitment to continual improvement trickles down into everything they do at Conger ToyotaLift, says Scott Zehms, parts manager for the company. The company often taps the Green Bay operation to pilot new lean initiatives. For example, while they used to stock parts for several months, Toyota asked Conger to begin returning unused parts within a month – something of a challenge, but one they were up to.
“The Toyota philosophy flows through everything here,” Zehms says. “It takes discipline.”
Toyota Material Handling U.S.A.’s lift trucks (Conger’s distributor), ranked No. 1 for the 10th consecutive year for quality, value and lowest cost of ownership in a 2014 study conducted by Peerless Research Group. With its Toyota Production System and emphasis on lean manufacturing, the brand has been the top selling forklift in the U.S. since 2002.
Conger ToyotaLift is also on the top of its heap nationwide. It has won the Toyota President’s Award every year since 2007. Fifteen dealers out of 72 dealers nationwide receive the award each year. Dealers are judged on metrics in multiple aspects of their business, including service, support and dedication to customers.