William Baker turned down-and-out Irwin Car and Equipment into a growing niche company Featured

4:19am EDT December 19, 2013
Bill Baker, president and CEO, Irwin Car and Equipment Bill Baker, president and CEO, Irwin Car and Equipment

Over the course of the 120-plus years that Irwin Car and Equipment has been in operation, the company has undergone several ownership and identity changes — but it wasn’t until William Baker took over the company in 1993 that Irwin Car and Equipment started to reach its full potential.

Founded in 1891, Irwin Car started as a manufacturer of cast iron wheels and mine cars. The company evolved into making steel mine cars, but by 1981 and 1982 the industry was changing. Miners were moving away from mine cars and using belts and conveyors. Irwin at that point got left behind.

The company’s president at the time approached Baker about his interest in buying the company. Baker wanted to do a lot more than the current president had wanted or was willing to do. He had been happy running the company with six or seven people and doing less than $1 million a year in business.

“I had known that company for a long time because I was a supplier to it, and I thought it was a niche business that had a lot of potential to grow,” says Baker, who is now the company’s president and CEO. “My goal was to buy the business and take it from six people and grow it to $20 million.”

The few people in the business at the time thought Baker was unwise, but he embarked on a program to build up the company anyway.

“Twenty years later here we are at $50 million in sales with seven business units,” Baker says. “We don’t do anything today that they did back then.”

Here’s how Baker helped Irwin Car and Equipment realize its true potential.

 

Get with the times

When Baker bought Irwin in 1993 the company was still doing business in industries that were either not growing or dying. Today, the company has grown from six employees to 125.

“We’ve grown dramatically, and we’ve introduced a whole host of new products,” Baker says.

“My background has been in growing and building businesses, and this one isn’t the first that I built.”

Out of college, Baker went to work for Midland Ross, a global diversified manufacturer with $1.2 billion in sales in the 1970s. He was put on a fast track and given experience in a number of different areas of the business.

“I learned how to do things first class with a lot of money, and then first class with no money and a lot of risk,” he says. “Having worked for a big corporation you learn how to do things the right way. I was able to sort the wheat from the chaff and evaluate what I needed to do and what I didn’t need to do and what made sense and didn’t make sense.”

That’s why he wanted to get involved with Irwin and had the vision to take the company beyond what it was doing.

“We have replaced all the equipment and we’re a totally different company,” he says. “We’re a custom engineering and design manufacturer of material handling equipment. We have formed seven business units, and we principally have a lot of niche markets.

“We have a business unit that makes wheels and wheel assemblies for all types of applications. We make wheels from 4 to 65 inches in diameter. We make wheels for the NASA launch pad, the Hubble Telescope Observatory, the Seattle Mariners baseball dome and the Arizona Cardinals turf field that they roll in and out.”

The company has two other business units, one that makes industrial transfer cars with an 800-ton capacity and the another that makes steerable trailers, automatic-guided vehicles and big transporters up to 400-ton capacity.

Irwin still has a business unit that makes specialty cars for the mining industry and tunneling, and one that makes locomotives and mantrips for tunneling and mining. The company also makes the signaling and switch equipment for all the streetcars and light rail systems in North America.

“The company was not in a niche market when I bought it,” Baker says. “It had a wheel business when I bought it, but they only made wheels that were 12, 14 and 16 inches in diameter. My thought was if you could do that you could make bigger wheels, smaller wheels and other circular products.

“It was a situation where we said, ‘If we can make the wheels, we can sell the bearings and mount motors and drives and represent a company that sells roller chain and conveyor chain and sprockets. That led us to moving into industrial cars and beefing up our engineering department. It was a complete building process.”

 

Focus on growth

Over the past 20 years Baker has managed to grow the company from a
$1 million business into a $50 million one. But he still sees further potential and has his sights set on hitting $100 million.

“That’s not a magic number or anything, but I believe we could get there,” Baker says. “We’re still looking to grow strategically and synergistically. We’re also looking at new product development.

“My philosophy has been that companies don’t just stay the same. If you don’t grow, you actually regress because the market is ever changing, the customer base is ever changing and nothing stays the same.”

Irwin operates in a very tough market, but Baker says this will be the company’s best year ever, not because the economy is good, but because it sells to 22 markets in nine foreign countries and 42 states.

“We’ve been able to increase penetration with our existing customers and increasing penetration with new customers while adding new products,” he says. “We think we can continue to grow. We’re biting off market share from competitors, and there has been a lot of rationalization in the industries we serve, and the strong will survive.”

Baker’s keys to growth success start with him. He views his role in the company as needing to be out in the marketplace so he knows what is happening firsthand.

“I’m out there with our salespeople getting to know our customers and our markets, and based upon that, I have a good feel for what’s happening in the marketplace,” he says. “No. 2 is to have good people to rely on and trust who can assess what’s happening in the marketplace.

“No. 3 is to have a vision of where each market is going and what products may be up and coming and also looking at competitor’s products to see how you could enhance them by working with your customers.”

His other key to growth has been his willingness to take some calculated risks.

“We spent $3.8 million in our manufacturing facilities in the last three or four years when the economy was tanking,” Baker says. “We believed this was the time to do it because the markets would come back some day.”

While those markets are indeed bouncing back, they still aren’t as great as Baker had hoped they would be at this time.

“We basically haven’t seen growth for the last six years and that’s been the biggest challenge,” he says. “We sell to companies like Boeing and Caterpillar, and people aren’t spending any money because they don’t have any confidence. It’s gotten to the point where people have cannibalized and cannibalized to the point where they can’t do it anymore and they have to buy some equipment in terms of modernization, expansion and job creation.”

Looking for a catalyst to get the economy moving again, Baker put his focus on new markets and products for the company.

“We’ve continued to develop new markets and new products,” he says. “One product in particular was a low-emission diesel mantrip and locomotive for the mining and tunneling market. We received a very significant order that has carried us the last 2½ years. It was a great new risk for us and a great new product line.”

That was a high-risk, high-reward proposal for the company, because it was historically making battery and trolley electric locomotives. The jump into diesel was a big stretch.

“You have to look to the future of where that market is going or what kind of products you can produce and what kind of markets you can enter that appear to be high growth and sustainable for the long term,” Baker says.

“I drive my business from a sales and marketing standpoint. From our perspective the customer is No. 1, because if you don’t have a customer you don’t have a business. We’re very customer-oriented, and we’ve continued to work with our customers to develop new products and look for areas where they have needs.” 

 

Takeaways:

  • Make sure you see the full potential of your business.
  • Focus on growing new markets and products.
  • Continue to listen to what your markets and customers are looking for.

 

The Baker File:

Name: William Baker
Title: President and CEO
Company: Irwin Car and Equipment

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: He received a degree in management and economics from Westminster College. He also earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Toledo.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? When I was about 12 years old I had a grass cutting business. I also worked for White Swan Amusement Parks for two summers when I was 14. Those jobs taught me to work hard, be focused and that at times I had to make sacrifices. When my friends were out having a good time, I had to work.

What was the best business advice you ever received? You have to treat people like you want to be treated.

In all your experience growing and building businesses, what has been one of the biggest keys to success? The ability to stay focused and be determined are the two critical ingredients.

If you could speak with anyone from the past or present, with whom would you want to speak with? I always admired Vince Lombardi.

 

How to reach: Irwin Car and Equipment, (724) 864-8900 or www.irwincar.com