Powering Through Growth and Change
Palmer Johnson Power Systems’ drive to lead the industry
The story of Palmer Johnson Power Systems is one of ongoing growth and awesome transformation. This international business provides engine, transmission and drivetrain systems and service for off-highway vehicles like construction and oil field equipment, as well as marine vessels.
“In the off-highway industry where minutes count and deadlines cost, our team delivers solutions driven by expertise, innovation, urgency, safety and steadfast manufacturer partnerships,” says CEO Craig Parsons. “Our customers should feel the passion in our people 24/7, in North America and beyond.”
The company’s origins can be traced back to a 100-year-old company Palmer Johnson Yachts, which started building sailboats and grew into a full-scale yacht-construction company, eventually building 80-foot to 196-foot world-class vessels in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. In the 1970s, Bill Parsons, one of the partners of Palmer Johnson Yachts, decided to diversify the business by expanding into the distribution of transmissions for the off-highway industry. This business grew, diversified its services and, under Bill’s leadership, Palmer Johnson Power Systems evolved into a large, multifaceted service business.
A New Generation
Fast-forward to the present day, and Palmer Johnson Power Systems is now solely owned by Craig Parsons, Bill’s son. The company retains the energy and momentum of a startup business, but with the industry knowledge and acumen of a company with a century-long history. Parsons believes the company’s success is fueled by a forward-thinking approach, an adaptability that keeps the firm agile and able to embrace changes in the industry.
Since its inception in 1977, Palmer Johnson Power Systems has added 20 product lines to its distribution and service selection, including Twin Disc, Wichita Clutch, Kessler, Dana Spicer, ZF & Carraro, to name a few.
Traditionally, the business has been known for taking on component work, such as axles, transmissions and drivelines; but it now also works on full pieces of equipment of any kind. In general, a third of the business is focused on service and repair, a third in the distribution of parts, and a third in unit and component sales, such as a full transmissions or engines.
Palmer Johnson Power Systems has modernized its businesses by opening new facilities or upgrading existing ones to accommodate large machinery, such as all-terrain forklifts, rail trucks and small cranes.
“We decided we’re going to bring in the work and do everything we can,” explains Craig Swenson who, following the company’s recent acquisition of Hamilton Engine in Portland, Oregon, transitioned from his previous role as Palmer Johnson’s COO to company President.
Swenson and Parsons met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison , each earning a Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in small business management and entrepreneurship. Now, Swenson runs the daily operations while Parsons oversees acquisitions and oversight for the parent company, Palmer Johnson Enterprises.
Bridging Distances, Building Teams
The Palmer Johnson Power Systems management team leads a business of 160 people in the U.S. and Canada who work across sales, service, accounting, IT and warehousing. “We take a progressive approach to team development and company culture,” Swenson says.
Ideas for change are sourced from all corners of the company, operating with an open-door policy all the way up to the CEO’s office. Employees have opportunities to provide feedback at regular meetings, and an annual “pulse” survey is carried out by a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to tell the management team how they are performing as employers.
The business has invested in Salesforce IT technology to facilitate advanced digital workflows across teams, making it more efficient to track trends and provide quick customer responses.
“We try to create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable and wants to do a great job for us,” Swenson adds.
This includes providing flexible work arrangements like remote working, coaching programs, training opportunities and prioritizing internal promotions. While the company is focused on growing in scale, its leaders are just as interested in growing individuals and retaining them for the long term.
“Our Inside Sales Team has product experts, and those experts coach people who’ve just started working with us,” Swenson says. “Similarly, we’ll pair a new service tech with someone who has a lot of experience. In the end, they build a rapport and relationship with each other.”
Perks of the Job
Every couple of years, the company hosts an all-employee retreat. Former trips have included weekends at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Two years ago, all Palmer Johnson team members from the U.S. and Canada were flown to Vail, Colorado, for a long weekend.
Most of the time in Vail was spent experiencing fun-filled, activity-driven team-building exercises, including all- terrain vehicle and white-water rafting trips. “The activities gave these distant teammates the opportunity to meet face to face so that, in the future, they can more effectively share resources and work together despite the geography differences,” Swenson says.
The business also places a special focus on employee wellness, and two weeks a year staff is encouraged to take an extra half-hour a week during regular hours to go for a walk or exercise. The firm also runs workout challenges and organizes triathlon teams each spring.
They’ve even adopted a system for rewarding hard work through wellness activities, such as a health club membership or an extra day’s vacation. Staff can be rewarded points from team managers or other colleagues recognizing their hard work. Every staff member is allocated a volunteer day where they can take time off work to serve a cause that they believe in.
This ethos of giving back begins at the top. Parsons sits on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County and has sponsored an employee to participate in the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race from Alberta, Canada, to New Mexico. The firm’s customers helped sponsor the cyclist, with their pledges going toward the support of the Boys & Girls Club.
The Next Chapter
“In an industry that is typically very old-school, we’re always working to evolve through technology or new acquisitions,” Swenson says. The biggest challenge the company faces is fluctuations in segments of their industry, such as the oil field market.
To overcome this type of challenge, the company plans to continue diversifying and growing. Currently, Parsons and Swenson envision annual growth of 10% through internal changes to their business and 10% through new acquisitions. Part of their plan is to spin out their engineering department to take on contracts outside of their company; but the company leaders also have a few more tricks up their sleeves. Recently, The Blue Book Network helped Palmer Johnson Power Systems open a new facility in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where they not only repair equipment such as all-terrain forklifts, but they also refurbish them along with many other types of equipment in various industries, such as construction, rail and ground support.
“We’re taking equipment all the way down to nothing, sandblasting and painting, and building it all the way back up,” Swenson says. “We call that a ‘ReNew’ project, making it basically brand-new again and often upgraded by implementing new technology and safety features.” The company also offers a “ReFresh” option for those who want a lessor version. Either option touches every major operating system to ensure longer life and an increased return on investment. By doing refurbishment work, the firm is able to provide more affordable options for customers when the economy is down.
“We’re working to balance out the markets so we’re even more diverse,” Swenson says. “Stay tuned; we have lots of exciting upcoming changes underway.”