Associated Grocers of New England (AGNE), Pembroke, N.H., has come a long way since 1946, when it was organized by an enterprising group of 18 AGNE Raymond lift truckindependent retailers who operated out of an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Concord, N.H. Today, AGNE’s sales approach $500 million a year while running six days a week with more than 150 employees. A major turning point for the company came in 2005, when it built a 380,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art distribution center in Pembroke, N.H., to accommodate its thriving business and double the capacity for continued expansion and enhancement of its product offerings.

The journey from 18,000 to 380,000 square feet is the result of customer growth and a dedication to accommodating retailers’ changing needs. With more than 300 members and 650 independent retailers to service, planning for AGNE’s larger distribution center involved optimizing the company’s space, streamlining its maintenance program, increasing lift truck productivity and improving warehouse efficiency. AGNE was able to achieve these goals after turning to Abel Womack, an authorized Raymond Sales and Service Center in Lawrence, Mass., to re-evaluate its equipment and accommodate its lift truck and material handling maintenance needs.

Identifying the issues
AGNE offers grocery retailers in the six-state New England region and upstate New York/Albany area an expansive variety of products as well as retail support services such as advertising, marketing, merchandising, store design, equipment, bookkeeping and retail systems.

With business booming and space becoming limited, AGNE recognized the need for a new facility. In 2005, AGNE began looking for companies to assist in managing its lift truck maintenance and provide recommendations for optimal equipment within its facility. AGNE had specific needs in mind and knew it required the right partnership.

As a wholesale grocery distributor, AGNE’s facility includes a detailed set of operations and various warehousing environments. The entire facility is temperature-controlled, and involves areas with refrigerated storage and blast freezers. Lift trucks move the product throughout the facility, starting at the receiving dock. Operators scan in products that are delivered to the facility, label them and deliver the pallets to their respective storage area.

When the time comes to select product to ship out of the warehouse, the operators use a voice picking system that is synchronized with a replenishment system. As product gets selected for shipment, the voice picking system also updates lift truck operators on which pick slots need to be replenished before it runs out.

“It’s like a synchronized dance of product coming in, being put away, then retrieved,” says Robie Robichaud, vice president of warehousing and transportation. “The goal is to not let anything run out. This way operators will not have to go backwards to try to re-pick something that was not there the first time.”

Despite a smooth material handling process from dock to slot, productivity in the old facility suffered due to limitations with slotting availability and ceiling height. The facility was being damaged due to improper sizing of its lift trucks, which were going too high. This resulted in more downtime for repairs, which contributed to decreased productivity. The company lacked room to grow, and its fleet of lift trucks were not able to accommodate the volume of product.

Choosing the right solution
In search of a true partner, AGNE interviewed vendors and evaluated the products and equipment each one offered. To ensure these products accommodated its needs, the company tested new equipment within the facility, in various applications. After an extensive review of the Raymond lift trucks, AGNE determined Abel Womack would be the right partner.

“We relied heavily on the opinion of our maintenance people to determine how durable and responsive the equipment was as well as the ease of usability,” says Steve Creed, senior vice president of supply chain management for AGNE. “When it came time to make the decision, our team unanimously agreed that Raymond was the best choice. It was an easy decision to make.”

After a thorough walk-through of the old facility and a review of designs and layout for the new facility, AGNE and Abel Womack began strategizing. By studying AGNE’s business, Abel Womack learned that the facility stored a wide range of products, including dry groceries, perishable products, freezer meat, deli, dairy, produce, cigarettes and tobacco. Lift trucks needed to accommodate multiple working environments, including cold storage areas. Abel Womack determined a solution for the company’s needs based on aisle width, ceiling height and overall flow of the operation.

“AGNE relied on us to understand its grocery operation and trusted us to make the right recommendations,” says Mike Gay, director of technical sales for Abel Womack. “We took our time to study this facility and provide a plan for best optimizing the space and equipment to maximize cost savings.”

Warehouse optimization, reliable equipment and ease of maintenance are crucial to AGNE’s business. That’s why Abel Womack suggested implementing the Raymond Models 7400 and 7500 Reach-Fork trucks as a remedy for some of its pain points:

Increased visibility. The Model 7400 lift trucks easily accommodated the change in AGNE’s clear stacking height, which was 20 feet in the old facility but would be 32 feet in the new facility. In the past, AGNE struggled with facility damage in its refrigeration areas and product damage due to lack of visibility throughout the operation. The clear view mast design on the Model 7400 lift trucks allows the operator to clearly see the load and rack, resulting in better control, more precise handling and a reduction in damage.

Increased energy efficiency. The Models 7400 and 7500 trucks are equipped with Raymond’s exclusive ACR System with AC motors on both lift and drive. This system requires fewer battery charges, which resulted in increased uptime and energy efficiency. The extended battery performance allows operators to move more pallets per battery charge. Using the smaller, less expensive batteries on the AC motor reduced the amount of batteries and chargers needed on-hand and resulted in less time recharging compared with the lift trucks AGNE relied on previously.

Application of specific features. With temperatures reaching as low as -20°F in cold and freezer storage areas, keeping operators’ hands and feet comfortable through an 8- to 10-hour shift is key for productivity. Abel Womack installed the Raymond ThermaKit system onto a select amount of the Model 7400 and 7500 trucks. This system is designed to make the operator’s compartment as warm and comfortable as possible. The heated operator platform keeps the floor warm, enhancing operator comfort. Additionally, the heated control handle permits operators to wear less bulky gear and lighter gloves, which allows them to work more productively. The ThermaKit system has a thermostatic control that automatically cycles on and off when moving from cold or freezer areas to other areas of the warehouse, making for a smoother operation.

Ergonomic design. The ergonomic features on the trucks match operators’ natural motions. For example, the placement of controls and switches and intuitive function of the control handles are made for natural movements of operators while on the lift truck.

In addition to the Models 7400 and 7500 Reach-Fork trucks, Abel Womack suggested a mixture of new equipment and existing equipment to fully serve each function in the warehouse. Raymond Model 5600 order pickers would be used for high-level picking or planned item retrieval functions; existing Raymond Model 8400 end rider pallet trucks would be used for loading and unloading tractor trailers, as well as performing low-level order picking functions; and Raymond 102XM pallet trucks would be used for delivering products to retailers.

In the discovery phase, AGNE emphasized the importance of eliminating maintenance issues and receiving continuous support on the service of its lift trucks. Abel Womack responded with a scheduled maintenance plan and in-warranty repairs. For any out-of-warranty repairs, AGNE’s in-house technicians were trained by Abel Womack, something unique in the industry.

“We understand that in-house technicians are used to working on different types of equipment,” says Gay. “The last thing we want is for customers to lose time or see decreased lift truck productivity by not having the capability to service the trucks on their own. Our maintenance program provides a solution.”

Because AGNE switched to using sturdy, reliable, well-maintained equipment, maintenance needs have decreased and become more manageable. Still, AGNE’s technicians were fully prepared, with the support of Abel Womack to provide service needs, making for a highly productive and increasingly efficient warehouse operation.

Putting equipment into action
After months of planning and strategizing, construction on AGNE’s new facility was completed in March 2006. The company made the 25-mile move in 3.5 days. Abel Womack was there to provide support and diffuse any equipment issues. AGNE made sure its retailers were well-stocked with product during this time. AGNE didn’t skip a beat getting back to business.

From the start, Abel Womack entered into a more strategic partnership with AGNE to monitor its fleet utilization and work with in-house technicians to determine its cost per operating hour. Based on this data, Abel Womack was able to recommend which trucks should be replaced at what time, settling on an efficient schedule to maximize the economic life of each one.

The new equipment has proven to be extremely effective for improving visibility and reducing costs, which has resulted in higher productivity rates and a reduction in damage to both the facility and the products.

Solid partnership
By choosing a dependable material handling provider, complete with reliable lift trucks and a steadfast maintenance program, AGNE has seen significant improvements with warehouse visibility, lift truck productivity and cost savings. With all of the positive changes and modifications to the building over a period of seven years—including lighting, wider aisles, slotting layouts, family groupings, reorganization of products and equipment upgrades—operators are moving more smoothly and efficiently throughout the warehouse. AGNE has seen a 58% total improvement in throughput and achieved cost savings of up to 18% since moving into the new facility.

The solid partnership between AGNE and Abel Womack goes beyond the fleet of lift trucks. The companies worked together to collaborate, strategize and implement a comprehensive plan for continued success and significant growth for the future. AGNE looked to Abel Womack as a trusted total solutions provider for their business, and as a result, achieved the results they were striving for.

“I have had a better experience with Raymond when it came to service, responsiveness, backing equipment and warranties than with any other lift truck service provider out there,” says Creed. “In my experience, Raymond had always done the best job, and I feel we made the right decision in bringing Abel Womack in to help us. They have absolutely been a partner in business with us from the day they walked through the door.”