Getting a lift

KION North America Corp. makes forklifts and other material-handling trucks. File/Provided

The newly rebranded Kion North America Corp. forklift-maker of Summerville has come a long way since its forerunner started as a blacksmith shop on a stagecoach route between Cleveland and Cincinnati in the 1800s.

It was called Baker Material Handling when it set up shop in the Charleston region in 1985 with 200 employees, and became Linde Material Handling in 2005.

Kion, the newly named company, is now looking to lift its North American market share by injecting a new line of forklifts into its assembly operation and more workers over time.

"We will even further strengthen our Linde brand with additional product offerings while at the same time grow the Still brand through future developments," said Brian Butler, Kion North America president and CEO. "As we align ourselves with the global development and manufacturing strategy of the Kion Group, Kion North America will become a significant contributor to the development and manufacturing of products specifically for the North American market."

The 225,000-square-foot plant along U.S. Highway 78 now produces about 1,000 or so Linde-branded forklifts and pallet jacks, and it sells about 2,000 others imported to the site from Europe. In all, it represents about 2 percent of the lucrative North American market, mostly for the higher-end niche market.

Starting soon, a line now used throughout Europe called Still will be introduced to the factory. And down the road, a third brand, most likely an economy model, could join the assembly line, allowing Kion to produce lines for all segments of the market, from premium products with custom features to less expensive offerings.

The factory, on 58 acres with room to expand, operates as a well-organized machine.

More than 1,000 parts from around the globe merge at the plant, where they are inspected before they show up on the assembly line.

"We need to be cost- and quality-competitive," Butler said.

Axles are assembled first, then the frame and a counterweight is added. Next comes the overhead guard, engines, tires and mast. That's the vertical machinery just behind the forks that raises, lowers or tilts loads.

Before they roll out the door on their way to customers and dealers, each forklift is inspected and tested.

The name change is the first move toward making Kion a major player in North America.

"It signifies a change in strategy and development," said Butler, who took the helm of the local firm nine years ago.

Adding new lines is meant to more than double market share to 5 percent, he said while walking down an assembly line of the signature orange-colored Linde brand forklifts. The Still brand stands out in yellow.

"We want to continue with our specialized niche, but enter the volume market," Butler said, referring to mainstream forklift sales now dominated by competitors, especially Toyota, the No. 1 forklift seller in the world.

Kion, with its six brands, comes in at No. 2 in global sales. It currently leads the European market and wants to lead the global market. North America is key to that strategy, he said.

Orders for Kion products in the U.S. are approaching pre-recession levels, when 195,000 units were ordered, according to the company.

"The catch-up effect after the (economic) crisis is undoubtedly playing a key role," said Christian Bartl of the Kion Group. "Over the past two years, the U.S. economy as a whole has been robust, and there is strong momentum in the energy sector."

Kion's drive to boost its presence in the U.S. is being driven by the nation's lower labor costs among industrialized countries and favorable energy prices. The rise in online commerce is also a factor because items consumers order electronically must be moved around in warehouses and distribution centers before delivery.

"We want to move away from being a niche provider and become a significant market player in North America under the Kion name," said Kion Group CEO Gordon Riske.

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With the new line will come new workers.

Butler estimates the plant will double its workforce in three years, even possibly adding a second shift, though he said there's enough room to absorb additional workers on the factory floor now without expanding the plant, which operates weekdays only.

A few engineers and others already have joined the company, boosting employment to about 140.

"We are building a development team in the U.S.," Butler said. "We are really taking the company to a new level. The whole concept is to broaden our range."

From small, narrow-body models to hulking, big-wheelers, forklifts come in a variety of sizes. Battery-operated and fuel models are available. Average price of all models leaving the factory: between $33,000 and $34,000 each.

Vehicles made at the plant travel far and wide, going to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and across the U.S.

Kion operates a 40,000- square-foot parts warehouse adjacent to the assembly operation. It employs about 25 people. A machine and welding shop sits just behind the main factory floor, a site isolated from the assembly operation to keep dust and dirt to a minimum inside the plant.

"We want to maintain a clean operation," Butler said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or