EDMORE — Dean Voss, owner of A&O Forklift in Edmore, believes people should never start a business they know nothing about.
Voss knows a lot about beekeeping. He operated a successful apiary business of 2,000 to 3,000 hives for 33 years. His business produced 100 to 150 tons of honey each year and rented 3,000 hives to apple and blueberry farms for pollination.
“It’s a plus when entrepreneurs are familiar with the market, customer needs and how to serve these customer needs,” said Georgia Abbott, the director of The Center for Creativity & Enterprise at Northwood University in Midland.
Voss wanted an easier way to transport his bees. He knew the design of an ordinary forklift wasn’t a good fit for his specialized business.
This realization and practical understanding led him to build a product to meet his business needs — his needs, as well as the needs of many other beekeepers around the world.
Developing an idea
“A good business idea solves problems that are out in the world, creating a better quality of life,” stated entrepreneurial expert Georgia Abbott. “That is what value all great entrepreneurial ventures have to offer the market.”
It is essential for beekeepers to maneuver over plowed fields and rough terrain. The wheels and suspension on a standard forklift are not designed to go in these areas.
Voss’s forklift design would allow beekeepers to access hard-to-reach places. It featured four-wheel drive, wide floatation tires, articulated steering and an oscillating frame.
The oscillating frame enhanced stability while moving over rough, uneven terrain. Most forklifts have one hydraulic cylinder in the middle of the mast. Voss’s clear-view mast placed cylinders on the sides for better visibility.
Voss saw the void in the servicing beekeepers in the forklift manufacturing industry as an opportunity.
“Most entrepreneurs have a sense for seeing an opportunity in the marketplace. They see a window or an open door, so to speak, and they can’t sleep unless they go through it,” Abbott said. “Often, entrepreneurs are opportunity seekers and have a certain sense of seeing opportunities in ways that others don’t see.”
Introducing the prototype
Voss made a prototype of his forklift design in the 1980s for personal use in his beekeeping business. He found a used mini-wheel loader, which is a smaller version of a road construction or gravel pit loader, and modified the unit to meet his specific needs.
“Prototyping, iterating the product and starting with pieces, parts, retrofits and used goods are so effective in the initial phase of development,” Abbott said. “Often, entrepreneurs want everything to be ‘brand new’ and spend recklessly too early on unnecessary things. Quick prototyping and quick iterations of changes are critical to successful launch.”
Voss modified, refurbished and sold new and used forklifts for the next 20 years.
Selling the units was no problem, which led Voss to suspect a market demand was being overlooked.
Voss knew the migratory nature of the commercial beekeeping business. Bees were transported to warmer climates in winter for pollination and honey production, which extended the demand from a seasonal to a year-round market.
Too many irons in the fire
In 2003, A&O Forklift became a registered dealer of the Swinger line, which offered a mini-wheel loader. During the company’s first year, 100 loaders were modified and sold as forklifts.
Forklift sales continued to thrive. Voss felt he could no longer be a full-time beekeeper and operate A&O Forklift as he had for the past for 20 years.
He sold most of bee hives in 2006.
“Toward the end, we got so busy we would we were just putting out fires in either business,” said Voss. “We had to get rid of one or the other.”
Voss directed his main focus to forklift manufacturing, which had been nearly impossible while beekeeping full time.
Voss was not the first to change a mini-wheel loader into a forklift.
However, by the time he decided to patent his own product on a commercial basis, the standing patent on a similar product had long expired. He had no issues with obtaining a patent.
Abbott said this isn’t always the case with patents.
“There is currently a lot of debate about intellectual property rights, patents and the patent process,” Abbott said. “Many suggest that this process is antiquated and does not keep up with the way markets work and purchase, nor does it keep up with the pace of technology advancements and collaborations of our time.”
Voss says his biggest issue came in 2006 when he decided to go from partial to complete manufacturing. Suddenly, there became conflict in buying the Swinger base models.
“They suddenly felt threatened by our building something complete,” Voss said. “We asked to share the market with them, using theirs as an entry-level machine and ours as an upper-level machine. Since ours would have more features, they would have nothing to do with that and even presented a lawsuit against us. My supplier went to vendors and tried to cut me out of the picture.”
The lawsuit was dismissed. However, an amicable solution could not be reached, so the supplier of the base unit was removed from the equation.
Without the base unit, Voss was forced to make a decision – find another supplier or manufacture the entire forklift unit.
He opted for complete manufacturing. He patented his product under the HummerBee name.
“We thought if we could sell 60 to 70 of our own units each year, we’d do fine,” said Voss.
A&O Forklift has done more than fine. Its market has extended from the United States to Canada, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Sweden and Australia since its crew of 23 employees began to market, manufacture and service the HummerBee from the ground up.
Voss expanded the HummerBee product line to include additional attachments — a trailer to haul the unit, mower deck, snow blade, snow blower, 60-inch wheelbarrow bucket and a soft cab cover.
Voss markets through customer referrals and direct sales by advertising in trade journals, such as American Bee Journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture, Digger and other nursery magazines.
Customers fall into place once you secure a good marketing strategy, according to Voss. However, he believes maintaining good customer service is most important.
“A repeat customer offers free word-of-mouth advertising,” Voss said. “Happy customers will buy again and give referrals, which leads to business growth.”
Voss makes a lot of his own deliveries for A&O Forklift. A typical delivery load would have seven machines and three trailers, a forklift mast, a couple of snow blowers and other attachments.
It may stop in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. Voss often delivers a load staged in California before returning to Michigan.
“I have always gone out with the semi truck and done retail deliveries all over the nation,” Voss said. “Even though we’re already national, we get a lot of personal customer contact through doing national deliveries.”
In Abbott’s expert opinion, developing good rapport with customers is essential to survival, yet often overlooked by entrepreneurs.
“A customer will buy once, but keeping them coming back and telling others through referral are most important,” Abbott reminded.