Touchpoints, Talent and Technology
The tale of Lincoln Contractors Supply, Inc.’s supply chain savvy
There is a story that is told and retold amongst Lincoln Contractors Supply, Inc. employees that provides direct insight into the character and business model established by its owners. Back in the 1970s, a contractor needed a few small, but critical, items to complete a job. He called Al Knief, Founder of the equipment supply company, who immediately boxed up the items and sent one of his secretaries to deliver that box to the customer at the job site. The total sale was $3—but the message of care, no matter how small the need, was clear.
That kind of responsiveness has been reinforced at the Wisconsin-based business for over six decades. Even as it has grown from one location to 10, and ownership has passed from generation to generation, the company holds firm to it roots as it continues to build on a foundation of support, service and problem solving that stretches well beyond an equipment purchase or rental.
Partners and Prospects
Lincoln Contractors Supply was founded in 1956 by Knief and Wilmer Guenther with the goal of providing concrete and masonry equipment, tools and associated services to general contractors and trade commercial contractors in the Milwaukee area. The company grew gradually through the ‘60s and ‘70s, building on its product stock, repair services and knowledge base.
In the early 1980s, the company was purchased by Knief’s and Guenther’s sons, Norm Knief and Dale Guenther, who had visions of growth. They opened a second shop in Milwaukee soon after and by early 2000, expanded the company footprint around the state thanks to an alliance with FABCO Equipment Inc. (now Fabick Rents), the Caterpillar dealer for the state of Wisconsin.
Today, Lincoln Contractors Supply offers a range of rental and for-sale used equipment. But, according to the company’s longest-tenured employees, it’s not the thousands of pieces of safety equipment, masonry and concrete supplies, air compressors, pneumatic tools and other construction equipment that define the company. It’s the values and beliefs that employees fondly refer to as ‘Lincolnizing’ that is intimately woven throughout the operations.
Eric Steinbrecher, current Vice President of Sales and Marketing, started working for the company in 1978 and has watched the transition of ownership through three generations.
He says, “I was their milestone 20th hire—but I had no experience. So they put me to work at counter sales, in the warehouse, driving trucks, in the rental department, in the shop to fix stuff, and I even shoveled snow at the owners’ houses. I honestly thought I would work for a year or two and then go back to school, or maybe become a carpenter.”
But the owners, and their sons, changed his mind by providing guidance, education and opportunity, i.e., ‘Lincolnizing’ him. Less than four years after he was hired, Steinbrecher was put in charge of the company’s newly established second store in Milwaukee. He was just 22 years old. Steinbrecher ran the Milwaukee north branch store for three years, and then moved up to outside sales, then Product Manager, Sales Manager and his current role in sales and marketing.
Employee longevity provides a critical foundation to the company’s legacy. “For Al [Knief], it was always God, family and Lincoln in that order,” Steinbrecher says of the late founder. “That was a message that I got 42 years ago and it’s the philosophy I live by today when I deal with people. The original owners and every generation since has been all about ‘Lincolnizing’ our people to provide top-notch customer service.”
Longevity and Leadership
Steinbrecher has done his part over the years to ‘Lincolnize’ new employees in the same way that he was. “Some might laugh at the term, but it’s true—I know this firsthand. I’ve had situations over the years where I hired from outside for lead positions, and it doesn’t work as well as hiring from within. When our people work their way up through our organization like I did, they have all the tools—technically and professionally—to excel,” he says.
That philosophy is working. Nearly half of the 120-plus employees have been with the company for 10 years or longer. One-quarter have been there for over 20 years.
For instance, Josh Pavich was hired as a technician in 2003, moved to the rental department within a year as a Rental Manager and then became Branch Manager for the Oshkosh region in 2016. Jered Piencikowski started as a driver. Today he’s the branch manager for the West Allis store. Territory managers, those individuals who handle outside sales, are largely long-term as well. Five of the 11 current territory managers have been with the company for 20-plus years.
“Leadership has always provided opportunities for growth to our employees. I’ve had many offers over the years to go work in other places, but I like it here. I feel like family and we’re all in this together,” Steinbrecher says.
That sense of community also extends to customers.
“Since day one, this company has endeavored to be the best in the business, to provide our customers with top-of-the-line equipment and supplies, while providing great service.” Aaron Knief, President, Lincoln Contractors Supply, Inc.
While the $3 box of products is lore within the walls of the equipment supply company, it also represents a fundamental element of the company’s culture. Even today, Lincoln Contractors Supply’s territory and branch managers work diligently to respond to customer needs—an effort clients particularly appreciate during times of difficulty.
A local Madison contractor, one of the oldest in the area, has partnered with the company for many years because of its extensive supply of equipment and, to a bigger extent, its service—a partnership that has become invaluable when issues arise.
Not long ago, the contractor was working on a new high-rise apartment complex in Madison when a water main broke and flooded the basement of the nearly completed structure—at 5 a.m.
Steinbrecher says, “They told us that only one person answered the phone—and that was Lincoln Contractors Supply. We opened the local shop and got pumps to the job site within hours of the call. This is why we make sure that our customers have [our staff members’] business and personal phone numbers.”
Another customer had a similar event in a big office building. The superintendent called Lincoln Contractors Supply, which mobilized a team of eight plus the equipment to help out.
In another instance, a customer was having trouble with a piece of equipment that he had rented from Lincoln Contractors Supply. He called at 8 p.m. on a Friday. “Of course, we answered and got a new piece to him that evening,” Steinbrecher affirms. “I remind everyone who comes to us that we’re not just an equipment supplier—we’re problem solvers. We work together to find the best resolution to any issue. That opportunity to work with a talented team and help is what has kept me here for four-plus decades.”
Cutting the Cord
Finding solutions for customers is largely dependent on the team’s ability to help identify the best equipment for a job, both in terms of capability and cost. That awareness requires education.
Vital to the company’s continued success is for its people to have opportunities to learn about and test new advancements. One incentive is for upward of 20 employees to attend shows such as the annual World of Concrete in Las Vegas.
“Our customers don’t always have time to evaluate new technology—it’s our job to share knowledge and track trends,” Steinbrecher says. “For instance, the way equipment is powered has changed considerably over the years. The evolution of battery technology has made the need for extension cords nearly obsolete. We started with battery-powered drills and now we have 50-plus pieces of battery-powered equipment.”
He points to the battery-operated chisel that removes tile as an example of the shift to robotic, remote-controlled and soon, autonomous systems. “We didn’t have a battery-operated tile remover years ago. Today, we have four,” he says.
Another popular rental is the power buggy wheelbarrow. The power buggy drives to the cement truck for filling and then drives to the pour site. “We’ve always had gas-driven power buggies in our rental fleet. But now with more concern about CO2 and fumes, the battery-operated [equipment] makes much more sense,” Steinbrecher says. The company has 20-25 in its rental fleet today, which is expected to increase in the future.
He adds, “Battery-operated as well as emerging teleoperated and autonomous systems are changing the way people do business. That’s very exciting for us and our younger employees.”
New Leader, Same Principles
Lincoln Contractors Supply went through a third leadership transition when Aaron Knief took over as President of the company from his father, Norm, in 2017.
Aaron always knew he was going to work for his father’s company. “I started working part time for the company in 1989 as a teenager. I worked in various departments every summer until I graduated college,” he says.
In 2000, within days of graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a degree in entrepreneurship, he became a full-time employee in the rental department. In 2005, he became the branch manager for Lincoln Contractors Supply’s Oshkosh and Appleton locations. He also continued to build his knowledge base, earning his master’s degree in industrial distribution from Texas A&M University in 2007.
Now as the head of the company, Aaron has his own vision for the future that will look very different as a number of the key leadership team members, including his father, begin to retire.
Aaron adds, “One thing that my father and I always talk about is the importance of family. Lincoln Contractors Supply is like a family to me.”
Steinbrecher’s own son, Dan, is likely part of that future. While attending the University of Wisconsin–Stout, earning a degree in construction management, he worked nights and weekends for the local branch office in Eau Claire.
“The Knief family has known Dan all his life, so when he got close to graduation, they asked him to join the company,” Steinbrecher recalls. Dan currently works for the company as a Territory Manager in the Madison office.
When asked about the future of equipment rentals and his vision, Aaron says, “My vision for the company is to build on what my father and grandfather started. Since day one, this company has endeavored to be the best in the business, to provide our customers with top-of-the-line equipment and supplies, while providing great service. If I can continue one thing that they strived to do throughout their careers, it is excellent customer service.”