“We will open a plant in Europe!”

Seoul/Duisburg. Takeovers often have a pale aftertaste. However, when the South Korean group Young An bought a traditional American company in 2003, things looked very different: In addition to reliable and robust products, independently operating units, short decision-making processes, a high degree of flexibility and a living family feeling form the backbone of Clark today.

Listening to him, you quickly realize that this young man still has big plans. Seung-Soo Baik, 45 years old, is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Clark Material Handling International. The conversation revolves around a powerful organization and considerable growth potential. About the gradual further development of the company in the American market and a noticeable expansion in Europe. Yes, actually everything you would expect to hear from a CEO in a conversation like this. But more on that later. First, it’s all about history.

Looking back: In 1917, the American automotive supplier and axle manufacturer Clark (founded in 1903) invents the world’s first forklift truck for internal material handling. Eight vehicles were delivered the following year. By 1919, 75 trucks had already been produced and sold.

The whole thing is not a flash in the pan – on the contrary. “Do this, do that!” became the credo in the 1920s. Consequently, Clark named his first petrol-powered three-wheeled tractor “Duat”. According to Seung-Soo Baik, this served as the basis for the development of the first ever petrol-powered forklift truck.

At the beginning of the 1940s, Clark then developed the first electrically powered forklift truck that could be used for an entire shift. The fact that the start of production was postponed until 1945 due to the Second World War remains a historical side note. More important in this context: the first Clark forklift truck arrives in Europe immediately after the end of the war and has a lasting impact on what will be called intralogistics 60 years later.

The basis for a successful company

Meanwhile, the foundations for another successful company history were laid on the Korean peninsula in 1959. Sung Hak Baik, the father of Seung-Soo Baik, begins to set up a hat production facility. The small family business initially produces 70 hats a year. “Today, we sell more than 100 million hats a year and are number 1 worldwide,” says Seung-Soo Baik. In addition, the company quickly realized that two components form the basis for a successful company in the long term: Internationality and diversification.

“Nevertheless, it was by no means foreseeable that our family would one day enter the industrial truck business,” says Seung-Soo Baik. However, exactly one hundred years after the founding of the automotive supplier Clark, Young An took over the now American industrial truck manufacturer Clark.

Seung-Soo Baik remembers that Clark – in crisis at the time – was up for sale. “We simply bid and then won the bid more or less by chance.” What followed, however, had nothing to do with chance, but with entrepreneurial decisions. The declared aim of the takeover: “We want to build the most reliable and robust forklift trucks!”

It also quickly became clear that the main potential lay on the American and European continents. “We launched in the USA in January 2003 and a year later we were already in Germany,” says the manager.

Rolf Eiten, Managing Director of Clark Europe GmbH, also confirms that in addition to America, the further development of the European market is particularly important to the South Koreans: “The large market for warehouse technology in particular still offers us considerable growth potential.”

“Joint development of products and solutions for Europe”

According to Clark Europe, the European development departments have been working closely with their colleagues in South Korea and the USA for some time now. “The focus is on the joint development of products and solutions,” says Rolf Eiten, “which are specifically tailored to the requirements of the European market.” The vehicles currently in use in Europe all come from Asia – but this is not to remain the case. Seung-Soo Baik: “We will build a plant in Germany!” Still unclear: the exact timing.

A look at the USA shows how quickly something like this can happen. Just three years after the takeover by Young An, Clark opened an – initially small – production facility in Kentucky in 2006. The factory in San Luis Portosi, Mexico, which went into operation a few years later, was closed again in 2015 in favor of expanding the US plant. The aim is to have all counterbalance trucks for the US market (which currently still come from Asia) manufactured in Kentucky in the coming years. Seung-Soo Baik: “Our maxim is to produce in the markets for the markets.”

“Size is secondary. What counts is what the customer needs.”

But back to Europe. When asked about the dominance of the large industrial truck manufacturers, especially in the important intralogistics markets, Seung-Soo Baik has a surprisingly simple and clear answer: “Size is secondary. What counts is what the customer needs.” As a smaller company in comparison, the company has very short decision-making paths and therefore great flexibility when it comes to meeting customer requirements.

Rolf Eiten agrees. Clark is also an internationally operating company with its own production and development facilities – just like most of the competition. The manager adds: “In addition, we have independent sales organizations operating worldwide with a powerful organization for sales, customer service, training and research and development.” A flexible dealer network close to customers also ensures the rapid availability of forklifts, spare parts and services.

“We are family” – close relationship between all participants

Nevertheless, Seung-Soo Baik repeatedly emphasizes in conversation with Hebezeuge Fördermittel that the company differs from many large players in one key respect: “We are family!” By this he means the close relationship between Clark, its suppliers, customers, dealers and employees. This, coupled with short decision-making processes and a high degree of flexibility, is what makes up the core of the company’s brand. “We are able to react much faster and more flexibly to market conditions than a large, complex organization,” says the manager. In addition, there is no need to take “outside investors into consideration”.

Seiung-Soo Baik still has big plans. This drive can be felt in every minute of the conversation. A drive that over the past fourteen years has not only made Clark International what it is today, but also what the world’s oldest forklift manufacturer wants to be in the future: an internationally successful group with the charm of a family business.