Staying Power

Oct. 1, 2005
Lisle's loyalty to their industry partners and hometown community has produced a rare connection to both.

Anywhere repair service is being done, wherever there's an opportunity, that's where our interests lie," states Fred Lisle.

This statement not only sums up his company's current vision, but also its history. Since the Lisle Corporation's inception over 100 years ago, it has manufactured and sold everything from hog oilers and cream separators to O2 sensor removers and circuit testers. The common theme - products that make things easier and help save time.

In the process, the company has developed a special bond throughout the marketplace. This ranges from the distribution franchises and warehouses to the individual mobile dealers and technicians that have spurred new ideas for specialty tools. And throughout the company's history has always been a special connection to the Clarinda, Iowa community.

The company's origins go back to 1903 in Stanberry, Missouri, where its original offering was horse-powered water well drilling equipment. Shortly after the company was started, its buildings burned to the ground. The nearby Clarinda community offered the owner a fire-proof building if operations were moved to their town. It was an offer that simply couldn't be refused. After the move, the company began offering agricultural tools and equipment, such as the infamous hog oiler, along with lawn mowers and washing machines.

Following its arrival in Clarinda, the business was bought by C.A. Lisle, a local newspaper and car dealership owner. The dealership would be the genesis of what Lisle is known for today – specialty tools, as the service department discovered a need for some very specific tools in order to properly repair the Fords that kept coming through their doors. This resulted in the manufacturing of Lisle's first three tools; a ridge reamer, a rod aligner and a cylinder hone.

From there, the company's innovative drive led to the production and distribution of magnetic drain plugs. They sold hundreds of thousands to the military during World War II.

Following the war's end, Lisle's tool business continued to grow. By the early 1950s they had sold off the plug business, as well as the other non-automotive ventures. Helping to fuel the company's new, more focused direction was the purchase of a creeper manufacturer – Jeepers Creepers. A growing product line even led to the use of vans and station wagons as Lisle hit to the street to attract mobile dealer and glass front retail business. This would be the beginning of Lisle's connection and commitment to distribution.

The rest, as they say, is history. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003, with Iowa's governor and several state and local politicians in attendance for the open-house celebration. Change is also a constant at Lisle, as in addition to unveiling a host of new products, the company recently announced a series of personnel changes.

John Lisle will be stepping down from the president role to serve as chairman of the board. Filling his spot will be Bill Lisle, with Fred Lisle moving from national accounts manager to vice president of sales. Jon Bielfeldt will transition from the marketing department to fill the role of national accounts manager.

Where Do They Come Up With This Stuff?
"The great thing about specialty tools is that there really are no boundaries in designing or manufacturing them. We've placed an emphasis on ‘new' now more than ever, and developing these types of tools keeps us open to the changing needs of today's vehicles," states Bill Lisle. "It keeps our offerings fresh and also provides the distributor with an answer when end-users ask about what's new."

A driving force behind these product developments is Lisle's Idea Program. Started in the early 1970s, the program brings in about 600 submissions each year from distributor customers and end-users. Each week, the company's management group reviews the most recent collection of ideas to discuss their validity.

"We're currently paying 80 people royalties, and a growing number of our current offerings are the result of ideas submitted by distributors and end-users," states Jon Bielfeldt. "A big part of that," continues Fred Lisle, "is that we follow-up in supporting the inventors and their ideas. We also get a number of referrals from talking to distributors. An example is our tap socket set, which came from a mobile dealer.

"We'll also flush out concepts that come from mobile distributors asking if we have tools that can perform a specific function. Basically, we work to find the need, and then make the tool," he states. With these systems in place, Lisle's goal is to introduce 20 new professional automotive service tools each year.

Remembering Where You Come From
Part of Lisle's proud heritage and impressive collection of products is a deep sense of appreciation for where their tools are made. The made-in-the U.S.A. label that goes on the tools they manufacture not only sets them apart, but also draws Lisle closer to the tight-nit community of Clarinda.

With a population of just under 6,000, the 250+ jobs that Lisle provides are an integral part of the town's economy, not to mention the satisfaction their employees take in sending tools to all parts of the country with an impressive 98 percent fill ratio in meeting their distributor partner's needs. This stems from an investment in inventory that allows Lisle to fill orders more quickly.

While Lisle does purchase a limited number of tools from the outside in rounding-out some of their lines, 85 percent of their 400+ products are made within the company's 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

"I think our business focus has produced a reputation for shipping well, being on-time, producing quality products at a fair price and being easy to do business with. Plus, when problems arise, we work to take care of them, no questions asked," states Bill Lisle.

A big part of this reputation can be attributed to the privately-held, family-owned status of Lisle. "Because we're not a division of some larger company we're able to make decisions based on long-terms goals, not just hitting the next benchmark. This also allows us to react more quickly," states Bielfeldt.

"And because we are family-owned, we're invested at a higher level. We have a personal interest in the success of the business," continues Bill Lisle.

What the Lisle Corporation really embodies is one community taking care of another. By establishing a reputation for high-quality, innovative products and reliable order fulfillment, the owners and employees of this company in a small Iowa town are impacting every facet of the tool and equipment community.

By tapping into their customers, and their customer's customers for tool ideas, and supporting every function of distribution, Lisle stays connected to the marketplace, its mission and its roots.

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