There is an old proverb that illustrates step by step how the loss of a single nail from a horseshoe can lead to the downfall of a kingdom.
According to the proverb, the horseshoe fell off and the horse could no longer continue, so the rider was unable to deliver a vital message to the commander of a battle. As a result, the battle, then the war and then the kingdom were lost. All for the want of a nail.
In modern times, Motion is a purveyor of that critical nail, providing a key link in the worldwide distribution supply chain. And the company — which is expected to generate more than $8 billion in sales this year — offers this service from its longtime headquarters in Irondale, just outside Birmingham.
Motion does not sell the parts that go into various commercial products. Rather, the company sells the parts that go into the assembly lines and other manufacturing machinery that produce those products. Items such as bearings and belts, chains and cylinders, pulleys and pumps. And, yes, even small nails.
“Anywhere there is machinery, that’s where you’re going to find us,” says Motion Executive Vice President and COO Joe Limbaugh, who has been with the company for 40 years. “We help keep industry operating. But unless you’re in this business, you don’t really know about it. People never relate us to the scale of what we do.”
That scale actually is quite extensive. Motion works with more than 200,000 companies across a wide variety of industries. These include automotive, food and beverage, iron and steel, lumber and wood, oil and gas, pulp and paper, and rubber and plastics.
“Our customers might be good at canning pickles,” Limbaugh says, “but they’re not necessarily good with hydraulic systems.”
Through growth and acquisitions, Motion now has more than 600 locations — counting branches, distribution/fulfillment centers, service centers and such — throughout the United States. In addition, there are approximately 50 locations in Canada, nearly a dozen in Mexico and more than 150 in the Asian Pacific (Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore). Combined, all of Motion’s entities total more than 9,000 employees, with the company stocking or distributing more than 19 million different items. The on-site inventory itself if worth $1 billion.
Keeping the shelves stocked is essential, Limbaugh says, because one of the keys to the company’s success is the ability to quickly provide the parts needed whenever there is a problem.
“More than 50% of our filled orders are unplanned,” Limbaugh says. “That’s why we have to have so many parts on the shelf ready just in case something breaks, so we have the right part and expertise to keep their factory operating. If somebody’s line goes down at 3 a.m., they contact us and we find out what they need and get it to them. We never really go to sleep. We always make sure industry is operating.
“For example, if the deep-fryer line goes down during the process of turning potatoes into bagged potato chips, it’s important for us to have our inventory at the right location. So, when they call, we can get what they need to them very quickly. Because the longer they’re down, the more money they lose. Especially in food production. If the bottling or canning line is down, the longer it’s down, the more food you have to throw away because it didn’t make it into its final container in time. So, it’s very important that we’re on our game.”
The roots of what eventually became Motion dates back a century to the 1920s, when the Owen-Richards Company provided maintenance, repair and operations to the iron-and-steel producers that were prevalent throughout the Birmingham area at the time. Shortly after World War II, in 1946, Caldwell Marks and William Spencer purchased Owen-Richards and set about expanding it beyond its single-building operation, including a major warehouse expansion.
In 1970, Owen-Richards merged with Bearings & Transmission Supply to form the renamed Motion Industries. Six years later, Motion became a wholly owned subsidiary of Atlanta-based Genuine Parts Company (which also owns NAPA Auto Parts and Alliance Automotive Group) and moved into a new 95,000-square-foot headquarters at its current location in Irondale.
Despite the acquisition by GPC, Motion continued to market and conduct business independently. And to grow. By the mid-1990s, sales exceeded $1 billion and the company expanded into Canada. A decade later, sales had tripled and the number of North America locations topped 500. Along the way, Motion began offering additional services, such as inventory management, parts repair and fabrication.
All this outward growth necessitated some internal development as well. Motion’s Irondale footprint has expanded several times over the decades, and three years ago the company invested $10 million in a major renovation of the existing buildings.
Then earlier this year, Motion completed a $5 million investment into its Learning & Development center. In total, with a new repair shop, the AutoStore and the Learning & Development Center, the company has invested close to $35 million in its facilities.
Limbaugh says the Learning & Development Center — which includes multiple rooms for online instruction as well as a 100-seat auditorium — is used to train both the company’s employees and customers on its various products and services.
“There is nowhere you can go to learn the processes of our business that well,” Limbaugh says. “So, we decided to take that responsibility ourselves.”
Motion interacts so closely with its customer base because the customers have significant input to the direction of the company. While Motion executives obviously maintain a long-term strategic plan, Limbaugh says rapid developments in technology make it imperative that the company is open to sudden shifts in direction when needed.
“In many ways, our customers inform what our strategy will look like,” Limbaugh says. “The technology is changing so quickly that one must be agile. You can’t be firmly cemented in your strategic plan, because by the time you get halfway through it, it might be obsolete. Five years ago, the technology in our distribution center would have seemed very forward-thinking, but now you see a lot more of it.”
Regardless of the future direction, Limbaugh says Motion will continue to be there when needed, even as the company remains unnoticed by many people. At least, until a nail or some other crucial component is lost.
“When you walk into your kitchen and turn on your light switch, you don’t think about everything that had to take place in order for that light to come on. But you sure know if it doesn’t come on,” Limbaugh says. “We’re very much that same way. When factories need us, they’re glad we’re here.”
Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.