Rising above a down economy

By on January 15, 2010

Metrolift succeeds despite market
By Susan O’Neill
SUGAR GROVE—Sugar Grove-based Metrolift, Inc. President Rick Dahl credits his company’s successful journey through troubled economic waters to some strategic moves he made several years ago.

“The Chicago commercial construction market was at record levels until recently,” he said. “Two-and-a-half years ago, there were clear markers that the construction industry was too white-hot.”

Dahl said he saw the signs that it would not last. He began to see more slow-payers. Then he noticed formerly successful construction companies, such as Kennedy Homes, filing bankruptcy.

Two years ago, he began implementing cost-cutting measures. He asked his vendors to respond, and he asked his employees to work smarter, doing more with fewer resources.

While the business’ former focus was the rental of aerial lift equipment, the new direction of the company includes purchasing used equipment through auctions and banks, then fixing it up and remarketing it.

“It was good planning,” he said. “We stopped buying new equipment at the right time.”

In addition, he expanded his customer base outside of the Midwest by selling to contractors in states such as Montana, Nebraska, Missouri and North and South Dakota, where the construction industry was not as hard-hit. And Dahl said that home construction sales have actually increased recently in San Antonio.

Dahl said that his profitability goal for the past year was to make at least $1. He said he beat this goal, although he said his company is currently in the shaded gray, rather than “in the black.”

He said that 2009 was a challenging year overall, but the company has several bright spots to focus on. He explained that the wholesale division is doing extremely well, and that the rental and service businesses remain profitable despite shrinking revenues and declining rental sales.

He compared the previous business environment to farming, and said the current environment is more like hunting. He enjoys being a hunter, he said.

“I’m trying to grow in a down market. I’m more alive than ever now,” he said. “I’m wired for this. There’s so much more at stake now.”

Last winter, he recognized the need for additional space for his business. He recently added 30,000 square-feet in shop space and two acres of yard space adjacent to his existing location on Heartland Drive.

The Elburn resident opened his business in 1991, and moved his operations to Sugar Grove eight years ago. He had eight employees at the time.

At the time, his business was in tough shape and he was facing a crisis in his personal life, as well. Dahl said he turned the wheel over to Jesus.

Currently, he employs 46 people, most who live in nearby towns, such as Kaneville, St. Charles, Maple Park, DeKalb and Big Rock. His faith remains a large part of his life, and he said that God’s word leads the way for him and his business.

He regularly meets with a group of about 25 “corporate Christians,” CEOs who get together to encourage and challenge each other. One of the books he likes to hand out to people is called, “Business by the Book: The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for the Workplace” by Larry Burkett.

He said it is the people in his organization that keep him going. He said he enjoys seeing them develop and improve. Through the recent downturn in the economy, he has managed to keep everyone on board.

“We’re all relieved that we made it through another year,” Metrolift employee Kara Sanders said. “Everybody recognizes that Rick’s investments are adding to the vision of our company for our long-term future.”

Photo: Metrolift, Inc. president Rick Dahl stands next to his inventory of aerial lift equipment in one of his lots in the Sugar Grove industrial park on Heartland Drive. Photo by Susan O’Neill