March, in case you hadn’t heard, is National Ladder Safety Month, and what better place to ring it in than at a made-in-Utah ladder company with the motto, “Preventing Injuries, Saving Lives.”
Art Wing, 60, whose father, Hal, started the Little Giant Ladder Systems 50 years ago, is our host. He’s standing in the boardroom at the company’s headquarters in Springville, pointing to the Little Giant motto/mission statement stenciled in big letters on the wall.
“Preventing injuries, saving lives,” he repeats. “That’s what gets us up in the morning, that’s why we come to work. We try to make a difference in the world.”
At which point Art, as amiable as he is hyper, says, “Let’s go on a tour.”
The sheer size of the Little Giant operation is borderline dumbfounding — sort of like the first time you stand next to an NBA basketball player. Hidden behind the modest front offices lies a sprawling warehouse that covers 300,000 square feet — the equivalent of three New York City blocks or half of Buckingham Palace.
Assembly lines, some run entirely by robots, methodically put together ladder parts at all hours of the day and night. Upward of 300 people work here.
“We never close, we run 24-7,” says Art.
They’ll produce some 300,000 ladders this year out of this facility, adds Matt Frisbie, Little Giant’s marketing director who has joined the tour. And that’s only a part of the Little Giant manufacturing network that includes various overseas locations. All total, they expect to produce about 2 million ladders in 2022, a figure that Art suggests will make them the second-largest ladder company in the world.
Making this sound all the more remarkable is when Art describes how Little Giant started out.
In 1972, the company began when a ladder came in the mail from Germany to the Springville home of Art’s parents, Hal and Brigitte.
The Wing family had lived in Germany the three previous years, where Hal, who had been stationed in Germany in the 1950s as a young soldier in the U.S. Army, sold insurance for Beneficial Life.
As fate had it, Hal made the acquaintance of a German house painter named Walter Kümmerlin who had invented a ladder with hinges that allowed it to be transformed into various shapes and sizes.
Having never seen anything like it in the States, Hal made a deal with Kümmerlin to import his articulating ladders to America.
When the ladders arrived, Hal laid out the parts on his kitchen table to start putting them together.
To Art, the oldest of Hal and Brigitte’s four children, this origin story isn’t hearsay.
He was there.
As a 10-year-old he was part of the very first Little Giant assembly line.
“I was child labor,” he says proudly.
“My father (Hal Wing died in 2012) was never short of chutzpah or getting things done,” says Art reverently, “we live in the shade of a lot of trees that he planted.”
Suffice it to say, the road from the Wing’s kitchen table to the giant warehouse is one with many turns, detours, start-overs and try-agains. There’s a bankruptcy in there, and repurchasing the rights at a sheriff’s sale and repaying all the creditors, and an award winning infomercial in 2002 that turned everything around (in the space of a weekend, they went from selling 330 ladders a day to 7,000).
“If we wouldn’t have innovated, and failed and started again, we wouldn’t be here,” says Art.
The top innovator — or “chief tinkerer” as Art calls him — is Ryan Moss, the Little Giant CEO who has been with the company since 1984. Out of his mind have sprung many of the more than 250 patents Little Giant has been awarded over the years.
As the crowning part of the tour, Ryan opens the door to the Hal Wing Studio, where dozens of ladders line the walls, each one a little bit different.
“There are 2,000 ladder accidents every day in America, 100 disabilities that result from those accidents, and one death,” Ryan says, recounting ladder industry statistics as he walks around the room. “What we’ve done is taken it upon ourselves to really focus on safety. We looked at the leading reasons people get injured on ladders and then studied that behavior and innovated around it, so we could help protect the user from himself.”
He proceeds to show a display of double pulleys, flares on extension ladders, various locking devices, a bottom step that clicks to let you know you’re at the lowest rung (so you don’t step off early, a common cause of injury), the removal of the top step (the one ladders typically warn, inexplicably, “Do Not Stand Here”), safety cages that make falling off practically impossible, and on and on.
Back at the conference room, the tour over, Art pulls out a business card. On the front is his cell phone number — “I answer at any hour,” he says — and on the back is this quote from Steve Jobs: “One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.”
“I always believed we had the best products, but we weren’t doing the second part of sharing it with humanity well enough,” Art says.
The unprecedented growth of the past 10 years is beginning to change that.
Would Hal Wing be surprised to see the transformation?
“He would not recognize this company. It would be beyond his wildest dreams,” says his son. “But I know he would be very, very pleased.”