Ethics and a faith-based approach may seem like odd foundations for a successful company in today’s world of Enron headlines, but John Wieland, CEO of MH Equipment Company, has made it work. “When Julie and I purchased MH Equipment, we committed to running our business on Biblical principles because it makes great business sense. What are Biblical principles? They’re things like do what you say you’re going to do, let your yes be yes and your no be no, work hard, serve others, focus on the future without neglecting the present, and give your profits to others,” he said.
Wieland bought MH Equipment in 1994. Beginning with 50 employees, three branches, and $7.5 million in sales, in the last 10 years the company has grown to 550 employees, 22 branches, and more than $100 million in sales.
Wieland received a degree in accounting from Western Illinois University, passed the CPA test, and began his career as station accountant for Commonwealth Edison in Cordova. He worked at Peat Marwick for eight years before becoming CFO of Lincoln Office.
His community activities include initiating the “His First Foundation” at MH Equipment and volunteering for Easter Seals, YPO, Downtown Rotary Club, Grace Presbyterian Church, and Peoria Christian School.
Wieland and his wife, Julie, have four children.
Tell us about your background, education, family, etc.
I’m the third of four children; my birthplace is actually Fort Sill, Okla., where my dad was serving in the army, but I grew up in Jerseyville, Ill. I loved my childhood in Jerseyville. My father is a physician who specializes in family medicine; my mom was a registered nurse but committed her life to being her children’s cheerleader and caretaker. I was one of the lucky ones to get accepted to the “Harvard of the Midwest”-Western Illinois University. Four great things happened at Western: I played a ton of basketball; graduated with a degree in accounting; found my wife-to-be, Julie Rahn; and, most importantly, for the first time I personally bowed to the cross of Christ. Julie and I have been married for 22 years, and we’ve been blessed with four children ranging in age from seven to 15: Josiah, Jamie, Jennifer, and Jessica.
What originally interested you in finance and accounting?
One of my math teachers in junior high told my parents I bordered on being a genius in math. Later, that teacher completely recanted that statement and said there was a fine line between genius and crazy, and she was leaning heavily the other way. Anyway, numbers and I got along, and that’s why I got into accounting.
You’ve owned MH Equipment for 10 years. Tell us how that came about.
After college, I worked for Commonwealth Edison in the Quad Cities for a year and a half. Considering I wanted to marry Julie more than she wanted to marry me, I moved to her hometown, Peoria. I got a job with the accounting firm Peat Marwick. Because my experience wasn’t overly impressive for public accounting, I came in at an entry level and took a 20 percent pay cut. This was a good lesson that you shouldn’t be afraid to take a step back to take several forward. When I worked at Peat Marwick, I audited MH Equipment for six years. They were virtually bankrupt at the time, but I always thought if they were properly capitalized and there was a little more energy, they could be successful. I then went to work for Tom Spurgeon at Lincoln Office, where I was the CFO for five years. Out of Tom’s generosity, he allowed several employees to be minority owners, with the profits of the company servicing the debt. It didn’t take a genius to figure that was a great deal. In 1993, the CFO of MH Equipment, Ron Creamean, said Hyster was looking to sell MH. I was interested in going for it with the seed money I’d received from Lincoln Office. To make a long story short, I was in the right place at the right time, Hyster gave me a clean balance sheet, and off we went. An interesting side note: Fred Metzger was going to buy MH with me, but because of timing, he moved to Cleveland for another great opportunity. When we bought Ohio in January 2003, Fred became the president of Ohio North.
Describe MH Equipment and the products/services the company provides.
First and foremost, we’re a service organization-not a sales organization. Over half of our 550 employees are technicians who maintain our customers’ mobile fleet. When I came to MH, people primarily did business with MH because they wanted to buy a Hyster lift truck. That isn’t what I wanted. Even though Hyster lift trucks are a great product, I wanted people to do business with MH because we’re MH, and they want to do business with us. Our passion is to be a good steward of people’s money, and, most of the time, that ends up in the form of fleet management. Fleet management is when we manage and maintain a company’s entire mobile equipment fleet for a fixed cost. We work with customers to improve their utilization of their fleet and will end up reducing the number of lift trucks they need, thus further reducing their material handling expense. Another primary area is rental, to meet our customers’ short-term needs. We have more than 1,500 rental trucks. We also refurbish used lift trucks for sale, conduct operator and technical training, and design racking and conveyor layouts. Other products we sell are industrial supplies, waste compacters, scrubbers, sweepers, and rail car movers.
Tell how your tenure at Lincoln Office helped you when you purchased MH Equipment.
Lincoln was a great place. A lot of people know Tom Spurgeon, and fewer people know me, but those who knew us both got quite a chuckle out of that combination. It was definitely the “Odd Couple.” Tom is a master with social etiquette. It’s taken me five minutes to figure out how to spell “etiquette.” We truly were polar opposites. He bought me shoe polish, cringed every time he looked in my car, and when he bought his first Lexus, I congratulated him on buying his Lennox. I still need shoe polish, my team at MH still cringes when they look in my car, but I do know the difference between a Lexus and a Lennox. Seriously, I learned a great deal from Tom. For example, if you’re going to do something, do it with excellence. He taught me to keep personal expenses separate from business expenses. He also taught me that real teams could fight like dogs and afterwards still respect and like each other. Thanks, Tom.
You’ve been credited with saving MH Equipment from certain closing. Describe how you accomplished that.
One person saving a company rarely happens, and it didn’t in this case. There are so many things outside your control-interest rates, the economy, and war, for example-that someone could make all the right decisions and still be left in financial ruin. Several things happened here: MH had negative equity of $750,000, and Hyster absorbed that and then gave MH about $250,000 in incentives. When I bought MH in April 1994, the market was at the beginning of an unprecedented five-year growth. Also, there were some incredible employees at MH. Becky Czerkie and Charlene Davidson have been part of the leadership team from the beginning. The only thing I brought to the table was “fresh wind” and a different vision. Another thing we decided to do was put myself and MH Equipment under the authority of an outside board of directors. That’s helped tremendously. Currently, Dan Daly, Dick Blaudow, and Bill Barrick are on the board. It’s never healthy for someone not to be held accountable in business or life.
How has MH expanded over the last 10 years? To what do you attribute this expansion?
Several things contributed to the expansion, but the most important reason is because of the hard work of our employees. Our passion for fleet management was instrumental in the original footprint of MH Equipment growing from 50 to 150 people in five years. We originally had three branches and added Decatur and Ottawa. In 1999, Hyster encouraged me to grow geographically. They said I had done a great job, everything I touched turned to gold, and I was destined for greatness (slight exaggeration). Big problem: I started to believe it, and that was the beginning of some very humbling times. First, I coveted growth for the wrong reason-because of my ego. Secondly, when I covet something, I’m a terrible negotiator, and I paid too much for the two companies I bought within a span of three months. I purchased the Indiana/Kentucky dealer in September 2000 and the Iowa dealer in January 2001. This tripled the size of MH Equipment. It also took a profitable company and turned it upside down. In the first six months of 2001, we lost more than $700,000. Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, talks about if you pay tuition, make sure you get an education. And I thought college was expensive. I’ve told many people that God took me to the woodshed and taught me some very expensive lessons. He taught me about coveting, pride, and patience. But we finally got our act together and turned profitable in July 2001, and I hope my days of coveting things for the wrong reasons are over.
So why did we buy the Ohio dealer with 215 employees in January 2003? Ohio was a company-owned store of Hyster, and they came to us and said they wanted us to buy it. The leadership group decided that if we ever got a red flag that wasn’t removed, we’d walk. I really didn’t covet this acquisition. The red flag never came, and even though the Ohio dealer had lost millions in the prior year of our acquisition, because of the lessons we learned a few years ago, we were profitable in Ohio the first year. People can negotiate a lot better when they can take it or leave it. We now have five divisions with five presidents, each being owners in the company, along with our CFO, Brad Barrow. Darrell Randal, Randy Kaluza, Bill Meek, Fred Metzger, and Coit Edison drive our success. I work fewer hours today than I did five years ago before the expansion. That concerns some of my team, since I didn’t work that many hours five years ago.
You’re adamant about ethical business practices. Is that a difficult stance in this day and age?
Sometimes people think MH is a Christian company. We’re not. We’re simply a secular company that tries to do business based on Biblical principles. Regardless of one’s faith, we want anyone to be attracted to the culture of MH Equipment. So to the question of whether integrity is hard, with 550 employees, I’m sure this commitment is a floating target to some, even though I’ve been to every branch in the last six months sharing the vision. I have struggles in areas of life, but I’ve been fortunate not to be drawn to love money and, therefore, as it relates to being a good steward of a customer’s money, we’re pretty successful. Every employee of MH Equipment-whether they’re in Des Moines, Iowa, or Erie, Penn, has heard our “filter” question we ask ourselves when dealing with people. The question is, “If your customer, vendor, or fellow employee knew everything about this subject that you do, would they say they were treated fairly?” If the answer is no, then we made the wrong decision. Obviously, we have no business dictating to people what they do outside of work, but we let our employees know we want them to be able to put their head on their pillow at night and know that, as it relates to MH Equipment, they were a man or a woman of integrity.
You’ve very active in the community. How do you decide which organizations to devote time to? Is volunteerism something you encourage at your company?
I steal a lot of time from Julie and the kids simply because of the demands of my job. Therefore, I do restrict my discretionary activity. I coach a lot if my kids are involved; I serve my church, Grace Presbyterian, as an elder and Sunday school teacher for young married couples; and I serve Peoria Christian School as a board member. I’ve been fortunate to work with Chad Bailey and Janet Hellige of the Christian Center with the start of the Servant Leader Awards and Father Daughter Purity Ball. Janet has driven these two events with passion and excellence and they’re now staples for our community. I also admire Steve Thompson and Easter Seals, so I commit my time to them, too.
The bigger picture is what does MH Equipment do for the communities in which we serve? One of the core beliefs of MH Equipment is that every community will be better off because we work and live there. Well, that’s a nice little goal, but what does that mean? Until 2001, the only thing of significance we did was offer to pay for any employee and their spouse or significant other to attend the Family Life Marriage Conference. Over the years, we’ve paid for well over 100 couples to attend. But outside that, I always thought I’d give money away when I took money out of the company. The problem was, I didn’t take money out of the company. So we’d give a little money here or there, but to say a community was better off was definitely a stretch. In July 2001-remember we’d just lost more than $700,000 that year-my leadership team sat in my basement and discussed our future. We thought we had the ship going in the right direction, and it was that day we committed to the His First Foundation. It was there we agreed to commit 10 percent of our budgeted net income or actual-whichever was greater-to this foundation. And we started it for the last six months of 2001. The concept of the foundation is to come along side our employees’ passions. We want our employees to be people of passion and make their community better. The foundation will support them in three areas: non-denominational organizations whose mission is to share the love of Jesus Christ as well as meeting the physical needs of people in His name, organizations that perform good works for a community, and simple acts of kindness. The employee completes a request form. We only ask two questions-the organization or cause and what type of commitment you’re putting into it (time or money). The foundation will then write a check. Since we started this in 2001, we’ve exceeded our budget every year. The only thing I wish is that I had started the foundation in 1994. This is by far the most gratifying thing I’ve done in business. If every company would set up a foundation, it’s incredible the good that could be done in our communities.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot. The following are thoughts that have stood out:
- It truly is all about getting the right people on your team.
- You don’t have to be a genius to be a business owner.
- Believe in what you’re selling.
- Pay attention to your wife’s intuition.
- You have your job to support your family-not vice versa.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Good to Great by Jim Collins is a fantastic book.
- Business by the Book by Larry Burkett challenged me to “not give Faith only lip service.”
- Prune the tree when it’s bearing fruit-not during the year of drought. Anyone can flex a company when they have to. Only the good one prunes the company during good times.
- Pray for wisdom and discernment.
- Whatever your job is, work as if you were working for the Lord and not man.
- Revenue is seldom the reason for losses; it is your cost structure.
- The greatest among you must be the servant of all.
- Owning a business comes with incredible responsibility. Make sure you understand that before you enjoy the perks.
- Be thankful for what you have.
- Enjoy the process because the end result won’t bring happiness. If you think making millions of dollars will make you happy, you’ll be sadly mistaken. Personal relationships will determine true joy and contentment.
Is there anything else you wish to discuss?
Owning a business isn’t an end-all. Many people have no interest in it, but there are a few crazies out there who would like to. The reason I’ve been fortunate at MH started with my decision to simply “go for it.” So if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, I would encourage you to use common sense, get complete buy-in from your spouse if you’re married, pray if you’re a person of faith, and then simply go for it. IBI