Michael Lensman arranges gears after cutting them on a Crown Equipment assembly line in New Bremen. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

‘You’ve got to live by what you make’: Crown Equipment grows company north of Dayton

Fueled by e-commerce, quiet New Bremen company grows workforce by 50 percent in five years

It’s based in a small village mostly surrounded by farm fields about an hour north of Dayton, has about 5,000 employees in Ohio, and is known world-wide for its products.

Crown Equipment Corp., based in Auglaize County, produces lift trucks, material handling equipment — and jobs. Lots of jobs for this region.

The Dayton Daily News was recently given special access to the company to see how it has grown to be one of the state’s Top 70 employers.

Crown Equipment keeps most of its manufacturing in the United States and makes most of its own components. It’s a material handling business equally comfortable in the worlds of e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail. And the company embraced electric vehicles long before “electric” became an industry buzzword.

The chassis of a Crown vehicle is readied to be fitted over a power plant on a Crown assembly line in New Bremen. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

“I think of them as A — a great Ohio company,” said Bob Trebilcock, executive editor of Modern Materials Handling and editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. “And I think of them as a leader.”

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The company has nine manufacturing sites in the immediate area around New Bremen, where five plants are located.

“They have grown their own eco-system, if you will,” said Glenn Richardson, managing director for advanced manufacturing, aerospace, aviation for Jobs Ohio, the state’s private development arm.

And the nearly eight-decades-old company remains family-owned, even as it brings in more than $3 billion in annual revenue, according to one industry estimate.

“You’ve got to live by what you make,” Jim Mozer, Crown vice president, said.

Ohio-born

Born in New Bremen, Crown has long been quiet. Some 12 years ago, Forbes magazine called Crown the “BMW of fork trucks” responsible for the “ultimate lifting machines.”

A sign off East Monroe Street (Ohio 274) welcomes visitors to New Bremen. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Beyond that, there hasn’t been a lot of national attention.

Behind the sedate facade, however, is a business whose workforce has grown by more than 50 percent in the past five years. Founded by the Dicke family in 1945, the company employs more than 15,500 people worldwide, including 10,800 workers across the United States.

With the fourth generation of the Dicke family in control — James Dicke II is Crown chairman and James Dicke III is president — the company worldwide has 19 manufacturing locations, more than 500 retail sites, including a company-owned Vandalia retail outlet and an engine plant in Troy.

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In November, Crown announced that it will invest $130 million to expand in New Bremen, creating new space for parts and finished goods. The investment includes $40 million in construction and $90 million in new equipment.

Though the expansion is happening at the company’s final assembly plant in New Bremen, more than 560 new jobs will be added in New Bremen and New Knoxville.

Randy Niekamp, Crown’s vice president of human resources, said the e-commerce explosion is driving the expansion.

“Anything you purchase for the most part gets moved by a forklift,” Niekamp said.

‘If they’re successful, we’re successful’

In August 2018, industry online publication Modern Materials Handling ranked Crown as fifth on its list of the “top 20 industrial lift truck suppliers,” with more than $3 billion in annual revenue. The site said Crown grew six percent in 2017 alone.

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Lift trucks are getting a lift on the tide of a rising economy. “Globally, the market for industrial trucks grew by nearly 16 percent. That’s double the 2016 growth rate, which followed a flat year in 2015,” Modern Materials Handling said.

Trebilcock, executive editor of Modern Materials Handling, said his publication in August will publish its latest 2018 top 20 list. He doubted Crown would rise from the No. 5 slot on the list, only because the companies ahead of it, such as Toyota, are “huge.”

Competing in a mature industry, lift truck producers are “sort of like the car industry — if you don’t make a good product, you just don’t survive,” Trebilcock said.

Crown is generally seen as part of a trio of the chief North American lift truck brands, the other two being Toyota and Raymond, which itself is owned by Toyota.

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Though the technology has been slow to catch on, Trebilcock said Crown is respected for being an early player in various guises of autonomous controls — vehicles whose movements are controlled by the human eye or with special gloves. Tom Smith, a manager of the company’s customer demonstration center in New Bremen, demonstrated the glove control for a recent visitor, moving and halting a lift vehicle with smooth motions of his gloved hand.

While many manufacturers outsource manufacturing to areas with cheaper labor, Mozer said Crown makes 85 percent of its own parts, with most of that work anchored in the United States. That approach is called “vertical integration,” and it’s driven by a desire to control quality, executives say.

“You’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror on what you do,” Mozer said. “We know the quality of the product is what you expect from Crown.”

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“They could have outsourced their production to other countries,” JobsOhio’s Richardson said. “But they fundamentally decided to grow that capability in Ohio.”

Dave Beddow — Crown’s vice president of manufacturing operations and a downtown Dayton resident — said vertical integration also lets Crown bring its own designs to life.

Those designs include data-gathering equipment and sensors that track vehicle operating time, lift time, down time and operator identity. ID tracking prevents trucks from being operated unless a certified driver logs on, executives say.

“I know without a doubt, 24-7, there’s nobody on any of my lift trucks in 19 plants who isn’t certified — because the truck won’t work,” Beddow said.

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The data tracking system, dubbed “Info Link,” also tracks maintenance and operating issues.

He added with a laugh: “My plant managers hate it that I know that. They take care of it. They know that I know.”

Ted Griffith, Jobs Ohio managing director of technology, logistics and distribution, credits Crown with staying atop cutting-edge technologies.

“Crown is an example of an amazing company that grew up in Ohio,” Griffith said. “But they did not stand still. They embraced all the new technology coming in and stayed completely relevant.”

Most of Crown’s machines are powered by batteries. Richardson identified Crown as leader in fuel cell technology, a technology that allows vehicles to quickly recharge, boosting productivity.

“They do it as a matter of their DNA,” Richardson said.

Why electric? The primary focus for Crown vehicles in the high-density, narrow aisle market for indoors distribution centers and big box stores where space is tight. Some of Crown’s trucks have lifts that go upwards of 40 feet.

“Being electric, there are no fumes or anything like that,” Niekamp said. “It’s an efficient way to power that truck.”

Visit a Walmart or other big box store and keep your eyes open. You could very well see a Crown lift at some point.

“You’ll see a lot of our products in Walmart,” Niekamp said. “If they’re successful, we’re successful.”

The company’s manufacturing presence includes plants in New Bremen, Troy, Celina, New Knoxville and Minster, with a training facility in Fort Laramie. Most of the sites are within a 20- to 30-minute drive of New Bremen.

At a Troy plant, Crown make an internal combustion engine for its C-5 product, a four-wheel propane powered forklift made in Indiana.

‘They’re everything’

New Bremen has nearly 3,000 residents, and many of them work for Crown, including Mayor Jeff Pape, a manufacturing engineer for the company.

Crown in a special way has embraced the village as home, Pape said. In the mid-1980s, Crown bought a new home for a local American Legion chapter, making the legion’s former home a company facility downtown. The business worked a similar trade with a senior citizens organization.

The company is a large source of tax revenue for the village, making up nearly half of its budget, Pape said.

“They have a special interest in making sure it (the village) is what it is,” Pape said. “The downtown really is the company.”

In 2007, Forbes magazine estimated that one in seven village residents works for Crown. Pape couldn’t say what the number is today, but he believes the Forbes number was accurate.

Talk with anyone in the village’s historic downtown area — built around the remnants of the Miami-Erie Canal — and chances are excellent you’re speaking with a Crown employee.

“You’re going to have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t work for Crown,” one delivery driver told a visitor in late June.

In separate interviews, no Crown executive was able to say exactly how many buildings Crown owns in New Bremen, although the company has five manufacturing plants in the village, they said.

Asked what Crown means to the village, South Main Street resident Rose Brady said: “They’re everything. Just everything.”

Brady, 85, said Crown makes a certain standard of living possible in the Auglaize County community.

“I’ve lived in Sidney, and this is much nicer,” Brady said with a smile.

New Bremen is sometimes chided for being a “Crown town,” Pape acknowledged.

“I generally explain to them that cites much larger that New Bremen work hard to get a company like Crown in their community,” the mayor said. “We should consider ourselves very fortunate to have them.”

While finding the right people is always a challenge, Niekamp said that if Crown can get job candidates to visit New Bremen, the company has a shot at getting them to take an offer. The company has more than 1,400 employees with 25 years of service.

“People tend to come in, stay and make it their careers,” he said.

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