It all started three decades ago with one product; an item so successful it created a need for expansion for a fledgling business. The automatic paint gun washer developed and patented by Herkules Equipment Corporation in 1985 was designed to create a safer work environment while reducing labor costs. But the Michigan-based company's effort proved so successful, the business' founders realized there was a need to quickly create new product lines to keep sales going.
“The painting washer...it's a very durable product that lasts forever,” said Kathleen Okray, marketing manager for Herkules. That durability has mostly been a blessing for the Detroit-area business, which has mastered the art of diversification in its 30 years in business.
Today the company product lineup also includes EnKon and Boss Lifts and soon-to-be-launched Bacon Family Fans. Located about 25 miles northwest of Detroit, Herkules employs 30 people in a 32,000-square-foot facility.
The paint gun washer was “the best thing since sliced bread for the collision industry,”
Following the inception of the paint gun washer, in 1987 company founder Richard Robb cross-licensed the technology with the pneumatic air bag technology owned by Herkules Lift Trading GmbH of Kassel, Germany. Robb met leaders of the German company at a trade show and they became stock owners in Herkules. It was a move that gave the U.S.-based Herkules more of a global presence, although in recent years the German business was sold and current Herkules president Todd Bacon reached an agreement to purchase the shares. “When (the ownership) changed it was hard for them to be shareholders,” Prost said. “They still have a good relationship,” he added.
Prost, who met Herkules president Bacon in college, said the pair realized about 15 years ago that the collision market was shrinking. So they diversified and launched an industrial division, creating a series of pneumatic material handling lifts for industrial applications. “We hired a full time manager for that division, to take it and run with it,” Prost said.
The company created a series of versatile pneumatic material handling lifts for industrial applications. Herkules began exploring fans, painting washers and industrial lifts for automotive lines. “Over the recession we did a lot of (research and development) on a shoestring budget,” Prost said. “We were able to produce amazing lift equipment, along with a high focus on quality.” Offering lifts that can get cars up just high enough for an oil change is proving a good fit for many in the industry. “Quick lubes will see a payoff in three to four months and after that they're ringing the register,” Prost said.
Okray said strong company leadership helped Herkules weather the recent economic hard times, and noted the firm's ongoing use of Michigan steel as a source of pride. Prost “is a financial guy and is also creative. He was able to keep the business operating. He did an incredible job back then,” Okray said.
While the collision industry used to comprise about 60 percent of the firm's business, now the industrial lifts are making up the larger share as accidents are on the decline in the wake of improved safety features and regulations. But Herkules is also growing in other ways, through the launch of large industrial fans and in the exploration of other product lines. “As a small company, we have limited resources but we have an unlimited curiosity and are interested in finding what customers need,” Okray said.
Prost said Herkules leaders continue to ask its talented employees to stretch their skill sets, and they continue succeeding. “We have a group of people here that can build just about anything,” he said.
The business has customers across the U.S. and in Japan and Australia, and this summer Prost is traveling to Quebec to reach out to northern businesses that have expressed interest in Herkules' products.
And what will the next 30 years bring? “It will be fun to see,” Okray said. “Our leadership knows how to adapt to the changes in the marketplace. Who knows if we'll even be making paint gun washers 30 years from now, but I know we will still be supporting the ones are making today.” Prost said the business is poised for whatever the future may bring. “We have a firm belief in providing customer service, and that we build a quality product and stand behind it,” he said. “It pays off.”
Eileen Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 12 years. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen.