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MacAllister: 75 Years and Counting

MacAllister Machinery, Indiana’s leading construction and heavy equipment dealer, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. It has become a big company but, asserts Chris MacAllister, president since 1991, one that still strives to “act small.”

By that, he means treating every customer as an individual, connecting with each customer personally. Being small also means adhering to a corporate culture that emphasizes a focus on customers, respect, teamwork, innovation and continuous evolution.

When he joined the family business in 1976, MacAllister observed that the company’s culture “needed work.” One of his first goals was to establish a well-defined philosophy that permeated the organization. “How we treat others is a big deal.”

That same culture had formed the foundation of the company, which began with a handshake in 1945 when E.W. MacAllister was asked to be Caterpillar Tractor Company’s exclusive dealer in 68 Indiana counties.

E.W., a former dairy farmer, helped build some of the first roads in rural Wisconsin and became county highway commissioner at age 25. The knowledge he acquired about machinery in that role was so impressive that he was hired as a salesman by Drott Tractor, a Caterpillar dealer. Rising through the ranks as sales manager and then general manager, by 1941 E.W. was ready to move his family to Indianapolis and open his own dealership: MacAllister Tractor Co. A few years later, he hired his son, P.E., who learned the business from the bottom up, serving as a parts warehouseman, mechanic and salesman.

P.E. and his brother Dave took control of the company in 1951, after E.W. suffered some health problems. The brothers incorporated their father’s ethics and principles, adding their own blend of integrity and responsibility. Those traits, along with honesty and dependability, remain core values at the company.

Building a company one employee at a time

Based on the family’s long-standing values, building a congenial work environment was one of Chris MacAllister’s major strategies upon ascending to the presidency four decades later. When he took on the role, he was “young and fearless … and aggressive,” he recalls. He recognized that several staff members who had been with the company since the beginning were reaching retirement age. “I retooled the management team and took the company in a different direction.

“The quality of our people is good,” he continues. Maintaining high standards while creating a collaborative work environment played a key role in recruiting good workers. Today, MacAllister has 23,000 employees at 38 locations in Indiana and Michigan.

Two of those employees are fourth-generation MacAllisters: Chris’s son Alex, 29, has been with the company for six years and is in a 10-year program

to take over the business; and his daughter Laurel, 26, has been with the company for three years and concentrates on the real estate branch.

Growing and adapting

Evolving to adapt to changing times and technology has been a solid attribute of the business. When the post-war boom in the 1940s created demand for residential and commercial construction, MacAllister met that need by providing a then-limited selection of Caterpillar equipment. Since then, the company has expanded its line of products and services and added a rental division in 1999.

Founded on innovation and ingenuity, MacAllister Machinery has continued to accentuate learning and adaptability. For example, because people make major purchases over the internet, MacAllister says, “We have to figure out how to do business over the internet, remotely. It’s the evolution of business.”

Being a “very competitive person” drives him. “I don’t like to lose,” MacAllister confesses. Adopting an aggressive approach, he “figured out how to succeed within our cultural requirements.” Poised for more changes, he plans to continue determinedly addressing the future, recognizing the importance of investment and resilience.

He predicts that the already growing rental industry will become a bigger part of MacAllister’s business. “Dealers will own more equipment,” he speculates. “Customers specialize in digging – not managing a fleet. We can do it better.” Particularly as equipment becomes more automated and connected to a central control center to monitor its condition, he expects that dealers will manage fleets.

This arrangement benefits contractors, he adds, because they have no capital tied up in equipment. It also benefits the dealers, with predictable usage in exchange for guaranteed availability. Shifting to a new business model based on equipment ownership is part of MacAllister’s long-term perspective.

The AED connection

Perspective is something the current company president gained through his AED membership. His grandfather, the company’s founder, joined AED “in 1945 or ’46,” about the time he started his own company, the younger man recalls.

Chris’s father, P.E., became AED president in 1972. “My father found [the relationship with AED] extremely helpful,” he remembers. Chris says P.E. turned to AED to learn the equipment business and for education, particularly in managerial principles and how to conduct business.

Although P.E. would go on to help build Indianapolis’s Convention Center and RCA Dome – home of the Colts football team – along with contributing to other projects as part of the revitalization of Indy’s downtown, he was still learning the business when he first took over the company. Networking with other AED members and attending the annual convention taught him how to sell, how to manage employees and how to run a business.

But P.E.’s son gained something else from his AED membership. The 2000 president says, “I got something different out of it. I went to ‘business school.’ I already knew business, but I got perspective by talking to other dealers.”

Some of those dealers are second-generation customers, but MacAllister doesn’t take that for granted. “We work at it every day,” he declares, adding that the company earns its rank as an industry leader over and over, each day. Knowing that success takes time and perseverance, he says MacAllister Machinery will “stick with” the dedication needed to achieve it. He knows that developing relationships creates repeat business.

As he visits each of the 38 locations to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary with the employees, MacAllister predicts, “We will continue to grow.” Facing the challenge of retaining a small company attitude while providing the benefits of a big company, he refers once again to MacAllister Machinery’s ingrained corporate culture.

“Our culture will stand the test of time – and will continue to attract good folks.”

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