Global Opportunity Mindset
Hyde Park Partners Innovates Productivity Solutions for Manufacturing
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To see what could be versus what is.” That was the vision of Clifton Vann IV for his company Livingston & Haven, LLC five years ago.
“Going a step beyond…” That is his vision now for the various entities encompassed within his Charlotte-based holding company Hyde Park Partners, Inc., which owns and provides corporate services for Livingston & Haven, MROStop LLC and AEG International, LLC.
Vann has always been in the vanguard of American ingenuity in engineering and manufacturing. He, like his father Clifton B. Vann III, the consortium’s chairman, believes in doing “whatever it takes to ensure the long-term health of U.S. manufacturing.”
Livingston & Haven (L&H), Vann’s flagship company, was formed as an industrial distribution company in Charleston, S.C., in 1947, that later expanded into pneumatic components and hydraulics. Vann’s father had joined the firm in 1966, and in 1973 opened a branch in Charlotte that became the headquarters for the company when he purchased it in 1980.
Today, L&H is a $75 million leading industrial technology provider in the Southeast. The company specializes in providing solutions in the automation, hydraulic, pneumatic, lubrication and connector industries.
L&H utilizes a collaboration of engineers and industry-focused specialists to provide innovative productivity solutions for manufacturers. L&H also offers a variety of services including: engineering design and fabrication, research and development and resource efficiency and conservation.
Vann considers L&H a problem-solving company that helps manufacturers work smarter. With some of the highest fabrication capabilities in the country, its engineering solutions can look more like artwork than industrial tools. Vann likens it to “providing an off-balance-sheet engineering resource for clients without them having to bear that cost.”
“We’ve worked on solutions that range from improving the speed of machines that put sleeve labels on plastic bottles, to designing and reconstructing a rocket cradle used to facilitate the launch to the International Space Station,” touts Vann.
“We are a large distributor, so we took 68 years of playing with different kinds of products, 6,000 customers in 150 industries, and said ‘Given our experience, I bet we could write our own music.’”
Promising Markets in Developing Countries
L&H represents more than 850 vendors with one million products across a vast array of industries in the broad field of motion control, including fluid power, hydraulics and lubrication—“Anything that needs to be moved or packaged or distributed or built,” Vann says.
That includes aerospace, automotive, steel, medical, consumer, packing, printing, textiles, cigarettes, beer, tires, plastics, carbon fiber, extruded aluminum, fiber optics, wood products, nails, tools, and the plastic safety inserts for electrical outlets.
Employees are spread across the Southeast, numbering approximately 190, including 50 home-based salespeople.
The company’s products have evolved since its postwar beginnings when it offered gas pumps and air brakes for trains.
“We’ve changed as technology has changed,” says Vann. We’re branching out into more energy-related technologies. Solar was not part of our past.”
Vann sees promising markets in developing countries where millions of people are coming out of poverty. A decade ago, for example, Ethiopian farmers had to finance the $125 price of conventional irrigation pumps; today, they can afford to buy solar-powered pumps.
It has resulted in a broader application of skills to new products, processes and industries, all the while keeping the focus on high quality and unsurpassed knowledge the company is known for. “After all,” Vann says, “the process of vetting vendors for solar panels isn’t all that different from vetting vendors for hydraulic pumps.
“We had to think outside the box,” he continues. “We didn’t want to do something so far afield that we didn’t know what we were doing. We kept the same sort of paradigm thinking about ourselves, but we changed what we do.”
To free money for new ventures, Vann hired Strategic Pricing Associates, a consultant whose advice improved the company’s margins.
“We created a way to rob Peter to pay Paul without Peter feeling poor,” he says. “We were able to improve our corporate margins by almost 4 percent. It was a very conscious plan to develop strategy, but also to figure out a way to pay for the strategy.
“Going to Africa, making our own products, takes time. We need to be in position to be able to withstand the test of time.”
Unlocking Foreign Trade
In 2009, Vann had launched an online-sales initiative MROStop which revealed the potential of global marketing far beyond the company’s six-state Southeastern base. MROStop is an e-commerce resource for quality MRO products like hose, fittings and adapters; hydraulic products; pneumatic products; pumps and lube equipment; electrical supplies and fasteners.
MROStop demonstrated the promise of broader marketing. The website made $4,000 in 2009 after it was launched in August, $60,000 in 2010, $300,000 in 2011, $1 million in 2012, and $3 million in 2013.
Customers from such far-flung places as Russia, the United Kingdom and Thailand were paying high freight costs to get quality products from the distributor—mostly the same products L&H already sold stateside. The site now sells in 72 countries.
“That made us look internationally,” Vann says. “That made us look at other products, and that made us look at existing products in a new way. We started to wake up to this idea that there’s this whole world out there—to think about small business on global scale rather than regional or national. It’s like a gateway drug.”
MROStop also opened a solution to the distributor’s longtime, frustrating, limited ability to deal with multiple big suppliers, each wanting to block competition.
Others in the industry addressed the problem by buying other distributors, a consolidation phase that Vann, who had a longstanding territorial contract with Bosch, did not consider a solution.
“I decided not to do that because it was more of the same,” he says. “I decided to look for new territories outside the U.S. It turned out I could do things for our current suppliers in Africa that I could not do in the U.S. This was a new opportunity.”
They started in Tanzania, where Vann now has a store with 10 Tanzanian and two U.S. employees. At a trade show this year, they drew crowds with a Parker under-sink reverse-osmosis water filtration system.
“We’re getting tremendous interest in that in Tanzania. While this is not a product we would think about selling here,” Vann points out, “we’re not only developing new products—we’re finding new markets for our existing products, too.
“We can get business in other countries and people want to buy from us. We’re selling solutions, but we’re really brokering knowledge.”
In the process of exploring solar energy, Vann found that Bosch, the longtime partner for hydraulics, made solar panels with a distributor in Mooresville. So L&H started researching and developing locally generated and distributed direct current systems.
“Then we started building systems for Bosch,” Vann says, adding that the systems have markets in both the United States and Africa. “Our distribution was very nimble; we could do things for them in weeks that would otherwise have taken months. We became a contract R&D house for Bosch for renewable energy. Our facility continues to be a guinea pig for the next level of technology for Bosch.
“We’re not really in the solar business; we’re in the power management business. We look at power usage and identify waste—it makes no sense to create solar power to supply waste. We reduce the total energy footprint, then talk about where energy comes from, saving enough money to pay for the solar system. That’s really the way we approach everything,” Vann describes.
“Now we’re imparting our knowledge with solar, water, hose, fittings, and lubrication to our African friends,” says Vann. “Of course, that portfolio will grow as we determine what the needs of the community are and where those products are. When you think about it, we’re a concierge service basically for the continent of Africa.”
American Engineering Group (AEG) was the next step in Hyde Park Partners’ mission to provide innovative solutions to the global community. AEG offers the highest quality engineering products and expert engineering solutions; products that improve efficiency and quality of life with a focus in water purification, renewable energy solutions and industrial technologies.
The approach involves strong connections among L&H, AEG, and MROStop that accelerate the success of each. AEG’s Firefly technology, for example, is for sale on MROStop.
“It was all done purposely with synergy in mind,” Vann says. “We want to broker our U.S. customers from our core businesses to our customers in Africa. We’re about selling the knowledge. If we don’t have it, we’ll find somebody who does and sell it to you—from bridges and cranes to skyscrapers and aircraft carriers.”
These types of brainstorming sessions have fostered a mindset constantly open to opportunity. Vann is working on a plan to sell water drilling equipment hoses from Tanzania to Ethiopia.
“My challenge was to unlock the thinking of the team, to think about our business a little differently, to think about who our customers could be, rather than who our customers are,” he explains. “The mindset was really the biggest challenge. When you think about what’s next for your company, think about what you know, not what you do.
“We usually know a lot more than what we do. What do you do every day that other people will pay you for? The risk of doing nothing is guaranteed risk. Let’s play offense, not defense.”
Unlocking Trade with Africa
A number of Hyde Park Partners’ solar-powered products are already successful in Nigeria—namely the Firefly and the Oasis and the newer GoSol Power Box.
Made under the AEG aegis, Firefly is a solar-powered device that powers up to five bright LED lights, is lightweight, customizable, and has a built-in USB port to easily charge mobile devices—especially useful in a region where cell phones are as ubiquitous as sunlight but little electricity.
“We’re selling them in-country,” Vann says. “We’re working with NGOs, faith-based organizations, high net worth individuals—anybody who’s interested in changing the life of someone in Africa.”
Installation takes no training, the necessary screwdriver is included, the plastic box is fireproof, the lights are waterproof, and the software-run system prevents pirating by curious Chinese competitors.
Vann also works with local banks to help customers get microloans and with local cellular providers, a natural fit.
In addition to Firefly, the company created Oasis, a water filtration system that can use solar or other power to produce 75 gallons of drinking water a day by filtering any water except seawater, including chlorinated and brackish water. Smaller microgrids can run enough for a home, while larger microgrids can provide power to filter water for businesses, banks, hospitals, and other commercial operations.
“One of the things we have to overcome in Africa is the idea that solar doesn’t work,” Vann says, explaining that cheap Chinese products have made African customers wary of the technology. “We’re having to re-educate them on what solar is or can be.”
The former CEO of GE in Nigeria was powering his 12,000-square-foot house with diesel generators until he bought a AEG-designed microgrid system and saw how electric lights should shine. He flew to Charlotte and bought a second system to double his power this year.
When neighbors stopped hearing the noisy generators, they found out about this U.S.-designed microgrid and started ordering systems for themselves. Likewise, international firms that find a home in Charlotte often attract their business associates to join them.
Vann also has a Tanzanian partner in AEG Tanzania, part of American Engineering Group that hires local Tanzanians, a welcome contrast to most Asian and European firms doing business in the country.
“Part of our commitment in going to Africa was not only to bring American quality products and American technology and innovation, but to integrate ourselves into the culture and be good stewards,” he says. “It gives us a chance to present a first impression. They know American products; they love American products. It’s one of the places in the world where we are still cherished.”
The local stake qualifies Vann to export to Tanzania, opening a route for Hyde Park Partners customers to sell in that country. “I can go to our customers that make cranes, paving equipment, chicken processing equipment, steel mills, electrical plants—you name it—and say, ‘Do you want to sell something in Tanzania?’
“I can broker that now. I’ve established a bridge to make that possible,” he says.
Power Africa Charlotte 2015
“We have a keyhole view of Africa,” says Vann, the self-styled ‘ambassador between Charlotte and the African continent.’
“It’s not your National Geographic Africa anymore,” continues Vann. “These people have more buying power than the Chinese or the Brazilians. This place has come into modernity. Nigeria just had its first democratic election in history.
“The world changes and grows up. There are 50 to 100 million people coming out of poverty every year on the planet.”
Power Africa is an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development to bring power to sub-Saharan Africa where 600 million people—70 percent of the population—lack electricity.
Vann was so impressed with the opportunities Power Africa opens for improving people’s lives and the potential it represented for emerging markets that he hosted a Power Africa conference here in Charlotte in September 2014, bringing together about 130 business and political leaders from Africa and the United States.
Vann plans to collaborate with other regional leaders to host a larger Power Africa conference here next spring. A collateral benefit: Positioning Charlotte as a leading place of interracial partnership and mutual benefit at a time of heightened attention to black-white relations.
“How do you get middle market American and small business more involved in being the internal driver for the export economy?” he asks.
The answer, he maintains, is to combine education—both technical skills and cultural competence—with a regional perspective on economic growth and attracting international partners.
“I think what we’re seeing in industry, at least where I live in manufacturing, employers are less and less concerned whether you have a degree or not,” Vann says. “We don’t care what you know; we care what you can do. We’re going to have to educate you on what to do anyway.”
Global connections call for cultural training, including language education, beginning in K-12. Vann has learned that Nigerian culture is more gregarious and boisterous like American culture while Tanzanians are more reserved and humble, with different expectations in the partnership.
“How can we be global if we don’t understand where you are on the map and what it means to be you?” he says. “If you want to relate to these people, you can’t go with your American glasses on. You have to begin to learn what motivates them. It’s not the same as it is with us.”
By way of example, Vann recounts how a visiting CEO of Coca-Cola from Tanzania somewhat nervously got into a car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway for a 185-mile-an-hour spin around the track, but so enjoyed it he keeps a picture of the experience on his desk and tells everyone who visits about Charlotte.
“Charlotte’s a great place—Southern hospitality, great place to be,” Vann says. “As they come, they define their good time. They go home and tell everybody about it. Let’s start talking it up and not taking it for granted and thinking about what’s next. We need a vision. I think we’ve got a good one. It resonates.”
For Vann, that vision involves a re-invigoration of American innovation that he has seen dwindle in recent decades.
“Our free country allows us the freedom of innovation and individualism that we grossly underestimate,” he says. “We used to be explorers; we went to places like the moon. It feels like today, we’re just happy to sit on our own porch.
“Get off the porch, talk to people you think might not be related, look under rocks that look uninteresting, network. To me, that’s part of the concept in terms of what’s we’re trying to sell to local businesses—get off your island, keep innovating. Companies have to continue to re-invent themselves.
“Look at the foreign companies that have come here,” Vann says. “The first German one comes, their friends come later. There’s unbelievable things happening around the world, many of which we’re not participating in. I think there’s a great opportunity there if we can open this concept up to more American companies—not just Africa but in general.”
Hyde Park Partners, Inc.
11529 Wilmar Blvd.
Charlotte, NC 28273
Phone: 704-588-3670; 800-825-4969
Principals: Clifton B. Vann III, Chairman; Clifton B. Vann IV, CEO; Tim Gillig, President, Livingston & Haven, LLC; James McGinn, President, MROStop LLC; James T. “Tod” Skinner, President, AEG International, LLC
Members: Livingston & Haven, LLC (1947), MROStop LLC (2009); and AEG International, LLC (2013)
Employees: 190 over the Southeast: Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia
In Business: 68 years
Revenue: Over $75 million
Business: Holding company that owns and provides corporate services for Livingston & Haven, an engineering company providing solutions in the automation, hydraulic, pneumatic, lubrication and connector industries; MRO Stop, an e-commerce resource for hoses, fittings and other related technologies; and AEG International, focusing on solar and other renewable energy technologies, water filtration systems, and industrial hose fittings for the global market.