By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN Anyone who has ever been frustrated by being told a company will “see what it can do,” or that a piece of equipment “will probably work,” is likely to find an encounter with Lester Prairie residents Bob Green and Denise Johnson, as refreshing as a breath of fresh air.
Green and Johnson don’t sell excuses. They sell solutions.
Next month, Green will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Rite Way Mechanical Installations, a company he founded in his garage in 1999 based on the simple principle of doing things right.
“I’ve traveled around, and I have seen every way to do it wrong, and I want it done right Bob Green right,” he commented, adding that this is how he came up with the name for his company.
Rite Way designs and builds conveyor systems, mainly for Federal Express, but recently, the company has diversified and started doing more job shop work, including machining, fabrication, and welding, to meet the needs of its customers.
Green described the company as a turnkey operation and a “one-stop shop.” This means it can engineer systems, supply materials, cut, machine, weld, paint, transport, assemble and install them.
When this is done, all the customer has to do is come in and press a button, and it works, Green said.
Johnson, who is Green’s daughter and company vice president, said there is an element of excitement in the way he approaches new challenges.
“If there is a problem, Bob can solve it,” Johnson commented.
He doesn’t just try to sell the customer something; he listens to their needs and then determines the best way to accomplish the job, how he can save them the most money, and how he can deliver the best product possible.
“I want to give them the most bang for the buck,” Green said.
Sometimes, this means designing a new piece of equipment to accomplish a specific job.
Johnson said Green started the company as a way to ease into semi-retirement.
Green had been doing installation work as a private contractor. He did a job in St. Petersburg, FL, and, when the job was complete, there was a lot of equipment left over. The engineer for the project told Green to throw the equipment in the dumpster.
Green saw an opportunity. He called Federal Express and said he could recondition the equipment so the company could re-use it and save a lot of money.
Federal Express agreed.
About that time, Federal Express entered the home delivery market.
Green worked on the company’s first home delivery location in the US, located in Bedford Park, IL in 1999. He installed three other home delivery locations for Federal Express that year.
The following year, Rite Way completed 17 installations, and it has continued to grow every year.
One of the key elements to the company’s success has been its quick turnaround time.
Once, Federal Express called Green with a problem. The company had a new location that it needed to open in 60 days. All of the other contractors it had contacted said the job would take six months to complete.
“We had them up and running in 54 days,” Green said. “We showed them we could really bail them out.”
He has continued this tradition of speed and reliability.
“We guarantee our lead times,” Green said,” adding that this is something not many companies are able to do.
“We have not missed one sort on time,” Green said, referring to the shifts during which Federal Express sorts packages for shipment.
Some of the conveyor systems that Rite Way installs move packages at 350 feet per minute and are able to scan bar codes whether the label is on the top, bottom or side of the package.
The need for reliability applies even when facilities are damaged by natural disasters.
“We have a contract to get them up and running as soon as possible. Usually, we do it within seven days,” Green said.
After Hurricane Katrina, Rite Way had a facility up and running again within a week. There were no hotels or infrastructure in the area, so Green rented a motor home in Minnesota and sent it to the site for his crew to cook and sleep in.
He pulled off a similar feat after a major fire in Quebec City, Canada.
When a tornado struck Hammond, IN, Green received a call late on a Wednesday. The customer asked if he could ship the equipment the following Monday. Green didn’t wait for Monday, He shipped the equipment Friday and his crew worked over the weekend and had the equipment installed by Sunday night, and the company was up and running Monday.
Talking to Green, it is clear that he is a man who does not make or accept excuses, does not compromise on quality, and doesn’t let much stand in his way.
“Rite Way, right now, git ‘er done,” is the company slogan.
Green hired his first employee in 2001 (he is still employed at Rite Way). The company gradually grew over the years, and now employs 50 people.
“I’ve got a lot of good people working for me. I couldn’t do it without the dedicated labor force that I have,” Green said.
His employees know that when the company gets a job, it has got to go. It has to work properly, and it has to be on time.
“If we have to work 16, 20, or 24 hours straight, we do it,” Green said.
The entrepreneurial spirit
Green has invested in equipment and technology in ways that make sense for his business.
He purchased a bundle cut saw that allows him to cut bundles of steel quickly and accurately. A job that used to take two days now takes an hour and a half.
By purchasing equipment to make parts, and stocking the materials to make them, Green controls his ability to guarantee delivery.
For example, he can now manufacture a pulley in an hour, compared to waiting three or four weeks for delivery if he had to order it.
The company builds some components ahead of time, rather than waiting for an order to come in. This allows him to meet customer demands quickly.
Green also keeps a lot of equipment on hand. From that first installment of extra equipment in 1999, the company’s inventory has grown considerably. Today, he has about $3 million worth of used Federal Express equipment in his warehouse, so when he gets a job, he has a lot of equipment to pick from.
The company is doing a lot more jobs, too. From its modest start, the company has expanded and now averages about 200 installations per year all across the US and Canada. Green still bids each job individually.
In addition to renovating used equipment, the company designs and manufactures new equipment which it sells to other vendors that do installations for Federal Express.
Machines get things done
It is clear when walking through the shop area that this is where Green is most at home.
His eyes sparkle as he points out each kind of machine and enthusiastically explains what it can do.
Rite Way has some of the largest equipment in Minnesota.
There is an angle roller that can shape stock of 3-inch by 3-inch steel up to three-quarters of an inch thick.
There are three shears ranging from four feet to 12 feet in capacity.
There are five press brakes up to 250 tons.
Most are CNC machines (able to be controlled by programming information into a computer).
An assortment of lathes can handle steel up to 10 inches in diameter.
The company stocks steel plate stock from 16 gauge to 1/2-inch thick so it doesn’t have to wait for a delivery to start a job.
There is a prototype area where workers can make sure equipment works the way it was intended.
Another area houses the welding shop, where as many as 12 welders can work at one time.
There is a paint booth, and a panel shop where the company builds its own control panels.
To provide power for the operation, there is a 780-horsepower generator. Green designed the system so a smaller (and less expensive to operate) generator powers the lights and computers when the shop is not working and the larger generator is not needed.
To house all of this equipment, the company needed space. It has been steadily expanding over the past decade.
In 2002, representatives from Federal Express toured Rite Way’s facility, which then consisted of Green’s garage and an office in the basement of his house. They told him he needed to expand if he was going to work for them.
“Some of those guys still work for Fed Ex, and they still talk about walking into my office and smelling the fresh apple pie my wife was baking,” Green said.
They ate the pie, and Green expanded his operation. He purchased a building on Highway 7 just north of Lester Prairie.
After several expansions and the addition of a number of new buildings, the company now has more than 70,000 square feet of shop, warehouse, and office space.
The most recent addition was completed this fall. It includes a 120-foot-by-120-foot parts room with four automated parts carousels, and a 60-foot-by-60-foot office.
Rite Way Laser Engraving
Another expansion was the result of Green’s desire to produce mimic boards. Rite Way could turn around a control panel in 48 hours, but it took a week to get mimic boards back from the supplier.
“The turnaround time was unacceptable,” Green said.
He bought the laser engraving equipment he needed to produce the boards in-house.
Once he had the equipment, he began to look for other uses, and in early 2007, he formed a sister company, Rite Way Laser Engraving.
The company can produce identification tags, engrave plaques, trophies, and awards, and a variety of other custom applications.
Wolves and eagles
Most of the prints on the walls of the Rite Way office depict images of wolves or eagles.
These images suit Green.
The wolves represent his determination to finish what he starts.
“When wolves attack, they don’t quit,” Green commented.
The eagles symbolize Green’s vision. He is always watching, always aware of his surroundings. When he walks through a facility he can size it up in short order.
Behind his sharp eyes, one senses a nimble mind at work. He doesn’t settle for the obvious, but is always looking for a better way to do things.
The business is the culmination of a lifetime of experience.
“I started with nothing, and I worked hard, 24/7 to get where I am,” Green said. “I grew up in a flour mill working with my father. I learned how to sweep a floor. People today don’t learn how to sweep floors. Every part of my life has been a stepping stone.”
Johnson shares her father’s passion, his work ethic, and his view of life.
She said after high school, some people called her a “job hopper” because she would work at a job for a couple of years and then move on. She explained that in these cases, she would accomplish whatever she could for a company, and then move on to other challenges, learning new things as she went.
“Every job I had brought me closer to where I would be an asset to him in this company,” Johnson said, gesturing toward her father.
She went to work for the company in 2003. “I share the same passion he has,” Johnson said.
Green exudes confidence in what he does, the kind of confidence that comes not from arrogance, but from years of hands-on experience.
His drive, energy, and gruelling schedule may not be typical for a man who claims to be easing toward retirement, but Johnson offered one possible explanation for this.
“It’s not a job for him. It’s all fun,” she said.
Promoting the trades
“We have got to encourage kids to look into the trades versus college,” Green said.
He and Johnson both said that a person can make a very good living working in the trades.
To help promote this alternative, the company gives tours to people who are interested in learning about what it does.
Green has employed local high school and college students during their summer vacation and Christmas breaks.
He said he enjoys watching young people starting out, and learning how to use the equipment.
“If they are good, I’m going to give them the best I can,” he said, adding that some students have come back year after year, starting with odd jobs and developing their skills on the various machines.
More information about the companies are available on their web sites, www.ritewaymech.com, and www.ritewaylaserengraving.com.