Chris Palmer had planned a career in finance, far away from his family’s construction equipment firm where he had grown up doing odd jobs around the shop. But when his family—including step father Bob Wood and mother Roberta who had founded Wood’s CRW in 1961–approached him with an opportunity to return to his hometown, Palmer signed up.
He joined the firm in 1992 and became president in 2007. Since then, he has helped steer the 60-employee company to its present success, which includes being tapped in 2014 to purchase Link-Belt’s company-owned store in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Wood’s CRW covers eight states in the Northeast. They are an award-winning Volvo Construction Equipment distributor for the state of Vermont, where their heavy earthmoving division serves customers in home building, general excavation, landscaping, aggregates and sewer work.
The dealer’s crane/lifting division, chiefly representing Link-Belt and National Crane products, serves customers in Vermont as well as Connecticut, New Hampshire New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Those sectors include heavy highway, heavy civil, crane service, tree removal, rigging, marine construction and roofing.
We sat down with Palmer to get his take on how he got to helm Wood’s CRW, and what guides him as he navigates his company through today’s market.
Big Iron Dealer: We all have people in our lives who shape us – who’s your hero, Chris?
Palmer: I would definitely say my parents – they set my moral compass as a young man. And certainly, from a business standpoint, they certainly set me up for a career that I love.
In the late 80s and early 90s, we went through some very difficult financial times in the company; most husband-and-wife business owners would have put a fork in it and said, enough of this, but my parents had grit beyond belief. They stuck with it, they ground through it, they kept their heads high, and they never said never.
BID: What’s one of the best bits of advice or truth you ever received, and how you have applied it?
Palmer: Do the right thing and treat customers like your partners. My parents modeled this, and it’s been engrained in all their kids.
We’ve had customers that have fallen on rough financial times like we had. We’ve built a culture based on working with them if they communicate with us honestly about their situation. Because in many cases, those folks don’t leave the industry. They come back – they stick with it like my folks did, and when they came out the other end and they’re growing and they’re doing business with us because we worked through some short-term problems that they ran into.
Another example is with used equipment. We want to be able to sell it to friends, local people, not just export and ship it out of our territory. So, we spend an exceptional amount of money preparing our machines for sale – we want to sell somebody a good, sound, safe machine.
We also want them to feel they’re treated fairly. We had a customer that I’ve done a lot of business with, but this was early in our relationship. They picked up a used machine from us, and on the way home they blew the engine. From a legal standpoint, we didn’t really have to do anything, but we worked with them and rebuilt the engine – I think we ate the labor and they paid for the parts, and they ended up with good life cycle on that machine going forward.
BID: Creating customer loyalty is never a ‘one and done,’ is it?
Palmer: Definitely not. To that point, one of the things we’ve recently decided to do is to help our best customers with one of their biggest challenges, which is the shortage of operators. We’ll be putting a tab on our website to list equipment operator jobs for our customers and give that page visibility on social media.
Our goal is to hopefully provide some job candidates to our customers – it’s good for them, and it’s good for us.
BID: What’s the No. 1 business pressure that keeps you up at night?
Palmer: There are some key members of our team that will be retiring over the next decade; some within five years. A lot of these folks grew up in the industry and that experience is invaluable to our organization, as well as to our customers.
A big part of my job now is really about the workforce – not only retaining folks as long as I can, but building the skills and talents in the folks coming up. The big thing I need to do as president of the company is to develop and attract people to our industry, which isn’t always considered super sexy.
Another complication in the Northeast is, as people get older, they get sick of the cold weather and move to Florida, and recruiting from the south to come back this way is not easy.
BID: So how do you insulate yourself from unpleasant surprises?
Palmer: As Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everyone’s got a plan till they get punched in the face!’ We’ve had technicians with a ton of experience, people we trusted, who gave us only six months’ notice before they retired. We should’ve been looking further down the tracks.
Now, we’re trying to build contingency plans and cross train our people, and I need to be consistently recruiting and looking at people who fit the best with our values and our culture.
We really try to grow our own talent whenever we can, so we’ve reached out and built partnerships with some of the technical schools, both at the college and high school levels over the last three to four years. We have a monthly recruitment meeting of our management team and talk about what we need to do to be better employer and be attractive to new folks coming into the industry. We’ve ended up with full-time employees from each of the four technical schools we partner with.
BID: Is the talent pool growing or shrinking?
Palmer: I think the tide has turned – I think people are starting to truly understand the opportunities that are there for technical trainees.
But you’ve got to be a good employer, and you’ve got to offer the right benefits package and the right compensation, the right training and the right facilities to grab those who have decided to take that career route.
BID: What do you do, specifically, to make people want to stay?
Palmer: When we’re trying to recruit folks, we’re also looking for people that are looking for not just a job, but for a career. And people buy into what we have going on as an organization. They won’t be just another number here.
The other thing we started just this past year is a profit-sharing program for folks who are eligible for our 401k plan – it’s a great, cost-effective way to let people share some of the stronger financial results of the company; and it’s been pretty well received by our team.
BID: What kind of a boss are you?
Palmer: Since my partner got out of the business, I’ve had to change the structure of how we manage the business, and I’ve had to change my style of managing our team. One of the things that I’ve done is with my direct reports – I now have a 30-minute “One-on One” meeting every week with those folks; for those who aren’t here in Vermont I do a Skype call.
This has been a great opportunity for me to get to know them better and understand what they have going on in their lives, sometimes on a personal level and sometimes it’s a work challenge we’re trying to resolve. We use a 10-10-10 format: They get the first 10 minutes, I get the next 10 minutes, and for the final 10 minutes we talk about the future. I’ve also encouraged some of our managers to use this with some of their direct reports, and a couple of them are now doing that and find it to be very valuable. I think people appreciate knowing they’ve got 30 minutes of undivided attention; the phone’s off and it’s just you and me.
BID: What’s your goal for 2020?
Palmer: We have some great customer partnerships, and my goal is to do more with the current partnerships we’ve established. Eight states is a big swath; so, I want to broaden the product offerings at all our branches to create more rental and sales solutions for our customers.
BID: If you could go back in time, what’s one thing you would do differently?
Palmer: I actually have very few regrets if any. I truly believe that the experiences you have, both good and bad, shape who you are today. Sometimes when you knock your head, those are some of the best lessons because you remember them.
But if I could change one thing, I really wish I had paid more attention in my French class in high school – I wish I had mastered a second language. I enjoy traveling and I think communicating in the native language would be much more of a positive and a cultural experience.
Occasionally it enters my mind to go back and try again … someday when things slow down a little bit, maybe I’ll try to get that done.