This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Diesel Progress and was written by Chad Elmore.
Palmer Johnson adds engines, engineering to longstanding drivetrain business.
Recently, Palmer Johnson Enterprises made several important moves that are intended, in part, to give the company more opportunities to support its customers. Last December, it entered the engine business for the first time when it acquired Hamilton Engine Sales, a distributor of industrial engines. Then came a spin-off of its Trident Engineered Solutions business, an engineering firm already doing work for well-known original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the off-highway space.
The parent company of Palmer Johnson Power Systems, it has long been known as an off-highway equipment parts and service provider dedicated to drivetrain components such as gearboxes, axles and transmissions. While that work will continue to be an integral part of the company and remains as important as ever, it plans to become more of a “one-stop shop” for customers through its recent activity.
Last fall, the company opened its new 14 bay, 20,000 sq. ft. Recon Equipment Center across the street from its 65,000 sq. ft. headquarters and Powertrain Reman Center in Sun Prairie, Wis. The new facility and its staff are dedicated to reconditioning, repairing and repowering machines for OEMs, rental shops and dealers. The location is in addition to the 10 full-service shops it owns across the United States and Canada.
As part of its new business ventures, changes were also made to its leadership team. Craig Parsons became CEO of Palmer Johnson Enterprises with direct oversight of Palmer Johnson Power Systems, Hamilton Engine and Trident, while Craig Swenson was promoted to Parson’s previous position as president of Palmer Johnson Power Systems. Brad Lyons, vice president of Sales and Service for Palmer Johnson Power Systems, was named president of Hamilton Engine. Director of Engineering Brad Borchers became general manager of Trident, while Adam Becker was promoted to vice president of Operations, Palmer Johnson Power Systems. In that role, he will oversee Inside Sales, Product Support, Marketing, IT and Distribution.
“For a 44-year-old distribution and service business, we’ve grown and changed significantly in the last 5 years,” said Becker. “It's common for companies in our industry to work more regionally, and that was Palmer Johnson not long ago – on our service side that’s still how the individual locations operate because of the geographic nature of what they do. On the sales side of the business, we’ve moved away from some of that local, branch, approach and developed a technology and account management centric sales process which has helped us scale as we’ve grown and hopefully serve our customers better. In many ways, this was entirely different from how we operated all the years prior.”
“Many people have been given opportunities to expand their careers here over the years, especially now through the recon and engineering businesses — where our teams are basically working in a startup-type of company”
The acquisition of the Hamilton Engine distributor business is expected to help strengthen Palmer Johnson’s national standing in the off-highway equipment industry.
From its headquarters and warehouses in the Pacific Northwest, Hamilton Engine Sales represents Isuzu engines in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii and represents Deutz in Oregon as well as western Washington and Alaska. The company also carries industrial diesel engines from Volvo Penta and gaseous fueled powerplants from PSI and Zenith Power Products. Hamilton supports customers through 30 full-service dealers.
Palmer Johnson Power Systems and Hamilton Engine will continue as stand-alone businesses and pair the former’s expertise in powertrain components with the latter’s engine expertise to further support their customers. The companies will share expanded resources in human resources, technology systems, inventory fulfillment and accounting.
“Very few engine distributors have access to the drive-train components that we do,” said Becker. “We can put all of the powertrain components together from an integration perspective because of our direct access to the manufacturing partners we proudly represent, which we feel is a huge advantage.”
From a drivetrain perspective, Palmer Johnson Power Systems has close relationships with most of the major brands, from Dana-Spicer Off-Highway to Twin Disc to ZF.
ReNew, ReFresh, RePower
The well-lit and temperature-controlled Recon Equipment Center is equipped to work with hydraulic systems, electrical components, software updates, gasoline and diesel engines and more.
Depending on future plans for a particular machine or the customer’s budget, the facility can ReNew (remanufacture entire machine to OEM specifications), ReFresh (refurbish major operating systems to original specs) or RePower. The latter involves modernizing and upgrading the powertrain, including the engine. The shop can do anything from small repairs to complete teardowns and rebuilds. While the facility is in the process of getting its own paint booth; it has access to one across the street where it applies Imron polyurethane paint from DuPont to factory-correct colors.
In the few months since its ribbon-cutting ceremony, the facility has already turned around fleets of lift equipment, especially telehandlers. On a given week it will work on anything from skid-steer loaders to railroad maintenance-of-way machines to airport ground support equipment. Its customers include OEMs, construction fleets, dealerships and rental shops.
“Recon is the result of how our business has progressed over the years,” said Susan Schuster, OEM & Service Programs manager for Palmer Johnson Power Systems. “We started out repairing and re-manufacturing axles and transmissions for equipment OEMs and have grown into a Service Dealer who they rely on for repairing and reconditioning whole machines.”
For a while, Recon existed as a proof-of-concept enterprise tucked into a corner of Palmer Johnson’s headquarters building. The concept grew to the point where the company was ready to invest in a new building dedicated to the job, one resplendent with large overhead doors and cranes.
“We have an impressive business model,” said Schuster, “we’re unique in what we bring to table. We don’t rent and we don’t sell equipment, we only help keep it up and running. OEMs, Dealers, National Rental Companies nor End Users see us as a competitor. We work with them; we augment their in-house service capabilities. Some companies aren’t equipped to repair to the level we are. Special tooling, test equipment and systems are expensive, so is time lost in troubleshooting. That’s where we step in and present a quality cost-effective solution”
The company also has programs with more than a dozen OEMs. Some of that work supports certified pre-owned programs, when a dealer takes a used machine in trade for a new one. Some customers purchase their used equipment from rental houses and send it to RECON to be refreshed. From Sun Prairie, the like-new machine will be hauled to the sales lots of single-brand dealers, helping an OEM capture more of the market and get more product into the hands of end-users.
Palmer Johnson works on many examples from an equipment brand that is no longer available new: JLG ended the production of Lull telehandlers in Port Washington, Wis., with the 2015 model year, but the machine is still popular in the region.
“We get a lot of Lulls in from end-users. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and a little bit into Illinois is Lull-heavy and that's what a lot of big contractors still run. Some have 25 or 35 Lulls in their fleet,” said Kelly Thoms, service manager, Recon Equipment Center, Palmer Johnson. “We got one in that’s a 1998 and they've had it since day one. They absolutely love it and want to keep it. It wasn’t in too bad of shape, but the problem is that finding some parts is a pain in the butt. A lot of times we can find the right parts from our suppliers, and if we have to, we can make them.
“We'll get some Lulls that come in with 12,000 hours and many with 15,000 hours. We’ve got one in the shop now with 22,000 hours on it. They love them, but some operators will really beat them up. Then they send them to us to get rebuilt.
“We’ll put new Lull decals back on and we also incorporate upgrades. Because we’ve worked on them so often, we know what we can do to make them better. We’ll reroute hoses and incorporate a single point lube system.”
“Trident Engineered Solutions is going to bring together everything we do today,” said Becker. “Now we can help customers with just about anything they're trying to accomplish from a drivetrain perspective. If the customer can explain what their end goal is and give us a budget, we should be able to support them by providing a solution.”
The new venture operates from Palmer Johnson’s headquarters location, where it has converted a machine shop into a fabrication center. Raw material enters on one end and is routed to an assembly area. It has full access to the parent company’s test rigs, paint booth and other equipment.
Brad Borchers, formerly Director of Engineering for Palmer Johnson and now general manager of Trident, said he was one of the first employee the company hired to perform an engineering function. He joined the team 13 years ago.
“For the first several years at PJ, I spent a lot of time doing application engineering,” said Borchers. “I would specify one of our products, such as a PTO, pump drive or a marine transmission, into an application for the customer.
“Today, the industry has evolved to the point where we need to add more value to the products we carry. Engineering is one way we can do that. We're going to take the products we have access to and apply the resources we have to delivery integrated engineered solutions. We’ll start from a complete drivetrain design perspective, which is something fairly unique in our industry. In the hydraulics world they have direct access to hydraulic products; in the engine world they have direct access to engines and limited powertrain components. In our new world, we have access to all of these products through the relationships we've developed.”
Trident is already working directly with OEMs in the specialty ag market as well as construction and mining. It has also worked with railroad maintenance machines. Maybe most importantly, they support Palmer Johnson Enterprise’s other ventures.
“We work with PJ’s Recon team.” said Borchers, “We help by stepping in when they get into a new project where our engineering resources are valuable. We also work very closely with PJ’s marine and oil & gas sales team when the engineering, installation and start-up on highly engineered mechanical & electrical components is required. We will also be a key resource for Hamilton Engine when their customers require a solution that, for example, would include an engine, a power transmission product, controls and fabrication.”
Borchers acknowledged that some of PJ’s best customers are engine distributors along with other packagers and integrators.
“Our goal is to not step on any toes, but we’ve been doing this long enough that we understand the gaps in the market where we can step in,” said Borchers. “Engine distributors often have limited engineering resources, and we can help them with by providing a combination of an engineering resource and customized product. There are also smaller and medium-size OEMs whose core competency is building machines for niche markets but lack the expertise to design the powertrain and source all of the components. One of the biggest challenges for these manufacturers is length of their design cycle. If you have one engineer and their job is to design a new machine, it can take three, four years to come up with everything.”
Trident’s goal is reducing that design & manufacturing lifecycle, “If we can help bring that down to a year that allows OE’s to get their machines to market quicker. That keeps their offering modern and should result in selling more equipment.”