Applied Industrial’s Customer Focus

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Founder Joseph Bruening set the tone from the top that the highest priority was customer care—and that’s still the focus today.

By Russ Banham

Chief Executive magazine

For the past 12 years, Applied Industrial Technologies CEO Neil Schrimsher has looked back at the work of his five predecessors to inform the strategic opportunities for the future. Most important in his retrospection is the foresight of Applied Industrial’s founder, Joseph Bruening. “He articulated the responsibility each of us had to leave the business better than when we walked in,” Schrimsher says. 

Bruening was a classic American success story. Prior to launching the company that evolved into Applied Industrial more than a half-century later, he was a customer service troubleshooter for an axle maker in Detroit. In 1922, Bruening resigned to manage Detroit Bearing Company, a maker of replacement bearings for cars and trucks. The owner gave him a mandate to turn around the fortunes of the company’s Cleveland-based office in 90 days. 

Bruening did just that and then offered to buy the local business. He subsequently changed its name to Ohio Ball Bearing Company. Two years later, he acquired Detroit Bearing in its entirety, the first of many acquisitions across his more than half-century at the helm. 

He believed in the principles of hard work and the highest quality customer service. “Our customers come to us because we have the brands and the goods, we have complete inventories, we save customers time and money, and we are good people to deal with, so they tell me time after time,” Bruening once said. 

Over time, he shifted the company’s market focus from automobiles to industrial bearings, renaming it Bearings Inc. and taking it public on the American Stock Exchange. Multiple acquisitions commenced throughout Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Arkansas, and in 1965, the company’s stock was listed on the NYSE, where it continues to trade today. 

The acquisition spree continued in the 1990s and 2000s, with the rollup of more than a dozen small and midsize operations, all predicated on fulfilling industrial customers’ technical operating needs. Several acquisitions, for example, were inked to strengthen the provision of fluid power solutions and services. Others built out the company’s industrial motion, fluid power, flow control, automation technologies and related maintenance supplies. As the new millennium dawned, Applied Industrial commenced a major international expansion plan, culminating with locations in Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. 

After taking the helm in 2011, Schrimsher continued to grow the company, adding specialty process flow control products and solutions in 2018, then automation technologies in 2019. As legacy industrial infrastructure converged with emerging technologies, he bolstered Applied Industrial’s digital, technical and application capabilities to become a leading distributor and solutions provider across advanced machine vision, as well as collaborative and mobile robotic technologies. 

What started as one location with three associates selling a single product category now tallies more than 560 locations and 6,000-plus employees offering more than 8.5 million SKUs. Although the company’s scope is vastly larger, its founding philosophy remains unchanged. “The founder set the tone of taking care of the customer, which remains our guiding principle 100 years later,” says Schrimsher. 

This philosophy has helped Applied Industrial weather myriad economic crises, two world wars and a global pandemic. “A strong focus on cost accountability, continuous improvement and how we expanded the business to increase relevancy to the customers we serve in today’s industrial economy, all played a role,” says Schrimsher. “We look backwards and take great pride in how we’ve grown and evolved over 100 years, but we also look forward with excitement about the potential ahead.” 

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