Rental industry veteran and marketing expert Ellen Steck talks to RER about how her experiences starting out at Prime Equipment and RSC shaped her focus on online technology and customer support, and led her to Atlas Copco where she spent several years working in Europe in the Compressor Technique business area. Now back in the United States, Steck is working with Chicago Pneumatic to grow the CP brand using the principles she learned under the top-notch leadership from each of her previous roles.

RER: To start off, you were in Europe for a few years, what brings you to Chicago Pneumatic?

Steck: Yes, three and a half years in Belgium were an amazing experience…to work in the largest compressor manufacturing facility in the world. And my role in Europe brought the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in more than 100 countries. It was a very challenging but rewarding mission. But one aspect I missed about being in administration was the daily connection with customers or end-users of our equipment.

I've learned to love that over the years and the chance to work more closely with customers is what I'm most pleased about now. Chicago Pneumatic has customers who are not only avid equipment users, but so many of them are extraordinarily loyal to the CP brand, which makes it even more interesting.

Personally, I've always found CP's long and storied history appealing. CP equipment was used during the excavation and construction of American landmarks such as the Empire State Building, Chicago Subway System, Golden Gate Bridge and we even had a CP pump that was used in the Apollo Space Mission capsule; these are points of pride for me.

Moving forward, CP is a critical piece of the Atlas Copco family. And the opportunity to bring more Atlas Copco experience and culture to CP — a company itself so steeped in strong, valuable culture and in product innovation — is going to be among my largest and most rewarding opportunities within the CP team.

Before getting to the goals of Chicago Pneumatic, let's bring the readers up to date on who you are and how you got started in the rental industry? You started with Prime Equipment. How did that come about?

Yes, I started working for Tom Bennett in late 1999 when he was still based in Houston. At the time, I was the second person to be on the joint-payroll for both Prime and RSC, after Tom himself.

I was hired by Tom to design and implement an online rental engine, specific to the early “dot com” growth explosion at the beginning of 2000. In just one year we had our online rental engine up and running for select Prime and RSC customers; subsequent to that, I assumed the management responsibilities of the marketing department, which dovetailed nicely with the eBusiness work I was then overseeing.

What were some of the other things you worked on at Prime/RSC?

My background has always been user-experience focused — how can we leverage the tools we have at hand — and in a lot of cases, how can we leverage technology, to better support our customers?

In addition to developing and launching a series of on-line productivity tools for our customers, our team started the rental industry's first 24/7 full-featured call/contact center in an effort to better support our customers.

Other innovations I'm particularly proud of include our efforts with price analysis to optimize value pricing for our sales leaders in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

I also enjoyed the media and investor relations functions I managed at RSC, as both become increasingly important parts of our proactive strategic marketing communications.

And personally, one of my RSC highlights has to be the launching of the RSC IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, which took place in the company's post-Atlas Copco era.

You must have worked a good bit with Tom Bennett, then Freek Nijdam and you later worked closely with Erik Olsson. So that's three very major personalities in the rental industry, perhaps you can talk a bit about those experiences.

Yes. I reported directly to five different CEO's of RSC during my tenure — Tom Bennett, Art Droege, Freek Nijdam, Tom Zorn and Erik Olsson. There were some very memorable experiences from each of them for sure. I recall when I reported to Freek and it was during that time when I was convinced we truly required a tele-servicing center to better support our customers when our rental branches were closed.

Freek, coming from our Atlas Copco world of decentralization, would not allow the idea of a centralized call center. So I returned again and again, each time with a different business case, demonstrating why I believed it was the right thing to do to differentiate our rental service from the others. Finally one day I started a six-week pilot test with 10 of our rental branches. The results were so surprisingly lucrative that I never needed to say another word. Freek's next instruction was to proceed immediately in launching the call center to bring after-hour coverage for all of the 500-plus branches.

Today, the RSC Call Center is still a thriving nucleus for after-hour support and it's because of the dedicated work from so many of the very good people who are still working there today.

What brought you to Atlas Copco next? You went to Europe with Atlas, so please tell us about that. Of course your relationship with Atlas goes back to the period when Atlas owned RSC.

I believe in our Atlas Copco culture, as much of my rental industry experience comes from a time with their style, and commitment to business values. When the opportunity arose to rejoin the Atlas Copco team, I was thrilled, both personally and professionally; I thought of it as coming home.

I was also looking to re-engage in the global business arena, an opportunity Atlas Copco afforded me in spades. In the past I have lived, worked or had extended visits to India, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, and that real-world experience has both broadened my horizons, personally and professionally, and equipped me with a number of valuable techniques to navigate the rental industry marketplace. The global reach of Atlas Copco allows me to both utilize that global experience while expanding it at the same time.

To put it another way, because the sun is always shining on an Atlas Copco facility somewhere in the world, it brings extra dimension when solving problems or considering ways to reach our peak performance as an organization.

What did you do with A.C., what were your primary tasks?

When I was working in Europe for Atlas Copco, I was responsible for communication and branding, globally, for the Compressor Technique Business Area. In addition to working with the media and hosting internal & external public relations events, I also drove the launch of the Net Promoter Score method of measuring customer satisfaction around the world.

My experience with NPS began with the pioneering of the same efforts during my time at RSC and Prime. Right now this program is being used in 66 Atlas Copco Compressor operating units in 48 countries in 45 customer languages (including Bahasa, Thai and Arabic). What I'm most pleased about is the genuine commitment from our Atlas Copco leaders to study and take actions to help improve the experiences for our customers so we can move beyond mere satisfaction and earn true loyalty.

During my time with Atlas Copco, I was fortunate to report to the business area president, initially Ronnie Leten and then Stephan Kuhn, who also had seven division presidents reporting to them. This reporting line was an excellent way for me to see first-hand the internal executive workings of the Compressor Technique business unit, working for Ronnie Leten before his promotion to CEO for the Atlas Copco Group in Sweden.

My experience also underscores the value of strategic marketing communications inside Atlas Copco, squarely putting our customer's user experience first, from support materials to marketing efforts through to lead generation and eBusiness strategies. I am very pleased to bring that same commitment to our team at CP.

How did you like living and working in Europe? What did you most like about it?

Europe was wonderful. Our family especially appreciated the historical sites and the distinctive architecture in so many areas we visited. Being in Belgium was probably the best part because it is centrally located so it was easy to take weekend excursions to Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Luxemburg and so many more places and still be back at work on Monday morning — just to do it all over again the following Friday.

While working there, I became especially sensitive to finding better ways to live and work in a way that is more environmentally friendly, as Europe is the birthplace of the “green” movement.

That's something that's important to me, personally — when you hear Atlas Copco working on ways to be more environmentally friendly, you can trust it is a legitimate concern and that some of the best engineers in the world are working to support continuous improvement in this area so everybody wins (including future generations).

What I believe is most telling about the Atlas Copco action in this area is that Atlas Copco was “green,” long before it was the popular hype. Atlas Copco has a proven track record of striving to become even greener for more than 100 years…because it is the right thing to do. Of course in business we all win when our compressors use less energy, it means that operating costs are reduced and fewer harmful emissions are emitted.

What are some of your goals and plans with Chicago Pneumatic?

Our CP goals in North America involve action plans to continue our profitable growth. One important area of emphasis is in branding our “CP” name so all who knew us as Chicago Pneumatic recognize we are still the strong team of people with powerful equipment.

Another exciting area we are working on is to develop an even stronger base to deliver world-class customer support to our outstanding team of distributors and customers via phone, through online chats and also with emails and webcam communications (we will adjust to the preferences of our customers).

There's abundant room for CP to grow across North America, and to that end we're focusing new and more determined efforts in both Canada and Mexico to help CP gain better traction in these growth markets. The CP family of products speaks for itself, and from a marketing communications perspective we're working to help tell the CP story in these exciting new markets.