By Eric Peterson | Dec 15, 2014
4,000 (300 in Utah)
Privately owned by Wing Enterprises
Employees: about 4,000 (300 in Utah)
President Art Wing says his company has made five million ladders in the past four decades -- but it's just getting started.
When Art's father, Hal, was selling life insurance to GIs in Germany in the early 1970s, he met an inventor by the name of Walter Kümmerlin. "He had this crazy ladder," says Art. That ladder, now better known as the telescoping articulated ladder, is now the ladder of choice for construction, telecom, and other industries. Hal soon became the North American distributor, and later started manufacturing them under license in the late 1970s.
Today, the Little Giant Ladder is "the Kleenex” of the telescoping articulated ladder market, says Art: The brand is synonymous with the category, regardless of the manufacturer. And there are several hundred companies making them today.The original German company, WaKü, might have been the innovator, but they are not the market leader. "We have more market share in their market than they do," says Art.
Little Giant shifted from importing to manufacturing by 1980 after the "Deutschmark went nuts," says Art. By 1985, the last patent ran out and Little Giant was free to manufacture the ladders on its own.
"We are in a really boring vertical," says Art. "In the last 75 years, our industry has filed and gotten two patents. In the past two years, our company has filed for 75 patents."
This coincides with the launch of Little Giant's internal innovation center in 2012. "It's a team of engineers who dream up new stuff, new ideas, and new concepts," Art says. "We are pursuing ladders that are solving specific problems for the telecom industry and the cable industry."
Examples include the SumoStance, a much more stable extension ladder that feature a built-in bubble level; the Claw, an innovative system that securely connects extension ladders to scaffolding and other overhead mounts; and cutting-edge safety cages that are favored by a number of industries. "Quite frankly, we're having trouble building them fast enough," Art says of the cages.
"We have so many proprietary widgets and features we've developed for so many companies and industries, we can mix and match and solve any problem for any company," he touts.
Some of the innovations relate to changes in OSHA and ANSI regulations. "We've embraced that," Art explains. "It's been a bit of a paradigm shift for us."
Little Giant has also strived to make lighter ladders. For cable and telecom techs, Art notes, "The number-one injuries are strains and sprains," often from unloading heavy ladders. Lighter ladders not only minimize injuries, he adds, but allow cable and telecom companies to expand their workforce to include people who might not have the strength to handle heavy equipment.
Major corporate customers include Comcast and Turner Construction along with mining, energy, and aerospace companies, but Little Giant has an impressive -- and growing -- retail market as well.
It started in 2003 when the company produced an infomercial that became a thing of direct-sales legend. When the patents on some of the top-selling Little Giant ladders started to run out, the company decided it needed a marketing push. "We needed a way to communicate we were the original and we were the best," says Art.
That they did. The infomercial catalyzed stratospheric growth of 300 to 500 percent from 2004 to 2006. A decade later, the curve "has flattened out but it's still double-digit growth," says Art.
And Little Giant continues to buy air time for the same infomercial, and still gets the same ROI, albeit on a smaller investment.
It all comes back to making a better ladder. Noting that the perfect angle for a stable ladder is 72.5 degrees, Art says that Little Giant's innovations are all about safety.
The statistics are sobering. Every day, about 2,000 people are injured while using a ladder. Of those, as many as 100 will suffer a permanent or long-term disability and one person will die in a ladder-related accident.
"Our mission here is to prevent injuries and save lives," he says. “It’s better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than to park an ambulance at the bottom. Leading safety leaders and professionals now focus on fall prevention, rather than protection."
Not that Art himself spends a lot of time on his company's products. "I don't like heights," he laughs.
Challenges: "Not a whole heck of a lot," says Art. "We are doing everything we want to do." He says that lack of debt has been critical to Little Giant's success, noting, "Business is a game and bootstrapping is part of that game."
Opportunities: International markets. The company is already global, and the market could follow suit. Art says Little Giant has embraced globalization with manufacturing facilities in China, India, and Brazil that employ over 3,000 people in all. Currently, however, the U.S. represents 97 percent of Little Giant's sales. "The sweet spot is 90 percent and 10 percent," says Art of the ideal domestic/international balance. "We'll get there."
Another opportunity: growth in the consumer market. "We're branching off into traditional stepladders and extension ladders and trying to put some of that Little Giant magic into them," says Art. These ladders will be sold at the dominant "big box” in the U.S., which has 85 percent of the market share for ladders sold at retail, starting in Q3 2015. "It's the place you want to be," says Art.
Needs: Another manufacturing facility on the East Coast. With low unemployment in high freight costs from Utah, Art says Little Giant will open another U.S. plant before 2020. He says the yet-to-be-determined target location will be within a day's drive of 70 percent of the country's population.