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Focusing on community

Sandy MacKinnon has built up Yale Industrial Trucks from a money-losing business to one of the area's most successful. Now, he's turning his attention to rejuvenating the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and bringing the 2012 Olympics to the Tampa Bay area.

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
After years with Yale Industrial Trucks, Sandy MacKinnon bought a money-losing Tampa dealership. He's since turned the business around.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


TAMPA -- Yale Industrial Trucks' home is a nondescript cement-block building on U.S. 301 east of Tampa. Downstairs, workers sell and repair forklifts for customers such as Lowe's and Winn-Dixie Stores.

Owner A.D. "Sandy" MacKinnon works upstairs in a simple office decorated with family photos and a bookshelf of toy forklifts. The surroundings offer no clue that he is juggling three challenging, high-profile jobs these days.

In addition to running one of the Tampa Bay area's most successful companies, MacKinnon, 61, has two prominent volunteer posts. He is chairman of the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to the Tampa Bay area, and he's incoming chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Selling forklifts is the easy part. There's plenty of competition, some of it close by along U.S. 301, but MacKinnon has turned Yale into the leader of Florida's lift-truck industry.

It may be far more difficult to woo the Summer Olympics to an area that's hot and humid and lacks corporate clout as it bids against the likes of New York and Los Angeles. And the Tampa chamber is struggling to get back on track after a public spat that ended with the president getting ousted and the group going $500,000 in debt.

It's a tall order for MacKinnon, a relatively little-known leader who lacks a high-rise address or the charisma of a world-class schmoozer. But MacKinnon, who starts his days at 4:45 a.m., isn't one to let up.

His sales mantra: "You have to be selling people all the time, even when they aren't buying."

And MacKinnon has no qualms about telling people things they don't want to hear.

"Oh, he can yell sometimes," said Dottie Berger, the former Hillsborough County Commission chairwoman who married him two weeks ago. "Then it will blow over, but he does have that side of him."

* * *

Alexander Donald MacKinnon III grew up on a tiny island in Lake Erie called Grosse Ile, Mich. His high school graduating class numbered just 38. "It was a place where you knew everybody in town," said MacKinnon, who has always been known as Sandy, the Scottish nickname for Alexander.

With Detroit just 18 miles away, it seemed natural that MacKinnon would love cars. In college, he had a summer job giving tours at a Ford plant. "My goal was always to have a car dealership," he said.

Instead of cars, he started selling forklifts after he graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan. MacKinnon worked for 14 years in sales jobs, running Yale dealerships across the country.

Then, after he served four years as national sales manager for Yale, the company spun off 12 dealerships. MacKinnon decided to buy the Tampa location.

The good news? He got the building in 1982 for $200,000 and could pay service technicians $8 an hour, about half the $15 Yale was paying in larger cities such as Atlanta.

The bad news? Sales were so slow and debt so high that the dealership's net worth was minus $1-million. "You've gotta be dumber than a doornail to get to that level," MacKinnon said.

The operation had 18 employees and $1.8-million in annual sales. Now, it has grown to include branches from Jacksonville to Fort Myers, with 113 employees and sales of $28-million.

So far, Yale's business hasn't been hurt by the slowing economy, a sign that Florida isn't getting hit as hard as other parts of the country.

Lowe's home improvement stores use 200 Yale forklifts in central and north Florida. Last year, Winn-Dixie bought 670 trucks, which cost $16,000 to $80,000 each. Other companies, such as Anheuser-Busch, lease instead of buy.

Sales account for about 40 percent of revenues. The rest of the business -- leasing, service, parts -- carries a much higher profit margin, though.

Yale employees say there was no magic turnaround formula. The forklift business isn't cutthroat; sales are built on relationships with companies that run the state's vast network of warehouses.

Instead, they point to MacKinnon's obsession with detail and how he builds employee loyalty.

"He is very aware of what's going on every minute," said Carol Talone, MacKinnon's administrative assistant. "He also develops people from within."

Yale works to reward employees. At the annual Christmas party, service awards range from clocks (five years) to rings (15 years). The company's three general managers have been with the company for six to 12 years; MacKinnon reviews sales figures with them weekly.

But several years ago, MacKinnon realized he was too involved.

"A consultant told me, 'You get everything going so good, and then you throw hand grenades around so you'll have something to do. You need to do something else.' "

MacKinnon already was itching to get more involved in the community. So he moved his office upstairs, away from the action.

A five-day December trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with Berger was his first trip completely away from work in years. "The cell phones didn't work, which was a blessing," Berger said.

And two weeks ago, the two got married during a ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colo.

* * *

All of MacKinnon's roles make for some long days. Consider Thursday's schedule.

By 6 a.m., he was at the Harbour Island Athletic Club for his daily workout. At 8 a.m., he had a meeting in downtown Tampa with the chamber's finance committee.

At 1:30 p.m., a group including swimmer Brooke Bennett's coach came to his office to talk about plans for an Olympic aquatic facility. And at 6:30 p.m., he went to a charity dinner to benefit Prevent Blindness Florida.

Between all that, he attended to the forklift business.

One of MacKinnon's toughest challenges has been his role in dealing with the fallout from Jay Garner's stormy tenure as president of the Tampa chamber.

When Garner was hired as chamber president last spring, he promised to wake up the sleepy organization. But as months went by, he had run-ins with volunteer chamber leaders and other Tampa business people while the costs of high-priced consultants and staff turnover were sinking the chamber's bottom line.

In November, MacKinnon, public relations executive Dee Ann Roberts and lawyer Bill McBride met with Garner to send a stern message: Shape up, or you don't have a future here. Less than a month later, Garner was out.

Now, with new president Kim Scheeler coming in from the United Way of Hillsborough County, the chamber must repair its image, build membership and add programs, even as it digs out of a financial hole. MacKinnon, who will take over as chamber chairman next year, is deeply involved in the revival effort.

His style tends to be that of a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. For instance, at the Tampa chamber's board meetings, he rarely speaks up while more talkative figures such as McBride andformer Gov. Bob Martinez make comments.

But MacKinnon may need to turn up the volume if he's to convince the area and the world that Central Florida can handle the Olympics.

That effort is taking more and more of his time. After John Sykes resigned as chairman of the Florida 2012 effort, MacKinnon was an obvious choice to take over. He has been involved with the effort since its infancy, and he's been chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority.

The cities pursuing the U.S. bid are New York, Cincinnati, Baltimore-Washington, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The U.S. Olympic Committee will decide its nominee for the Games by October 2002. Between now and then, MacKinnon and Florida 2012 chief executive Ed Turanchik will host everyone from athletes' groups such as the AAU to a group of Olympic officials called the "tape measure team" that will make sure the site plans would work.

Sykes, MacKinnon and others have raised $10-million in corporate cash and in-kind contributions to fund most of the costs of the effort; they need to get $2-million more in cash for the coming year to pay for running a 12-person office and launching a marketing campaign aimed at Olympic decisionmakers.

Many around Tampa Bay laugh about the bid's chances, but MacKinnon and Turanchik talk of building a 6,000-unit Olympic Village, a $40-million aquatic facility and transportation ranging from high-speed rail to extra lanes on Interstate 4.

Critics say the Olympic effort is just a way for Turanchik to advance his ideas about what the area needs to grow, such as a high-speed rail system. But MacKinnon buys into the former Hillsborough County commissioner's pitch that the Olympics would bring infrastructure improvements and a vision for the future.

"There are two ways to get big things for a community," MacKinnon said. "One is to get a favorite son elected as president. The other is the Olympics: The federal government will help you. They don't want your area to be embarrassed."

* * *

MacKinnon's resolve has been tested, and perhaps strengthened, in coping with a series of personal tragedies: Three of the most important women in his life have fought cancer.

Cancer claimed his sister 15 years ago and his first wife, Ardis, 21/2 years ago. Ardis MacKinnon fought cancer for five years before she died in July 1998.

After her death, MacKinnon and Berger often found themselves at the same events. They had known each other for years, since their days as civic leaders in Brandon.

They started dating, but in July 1999, the unthinkable happened. "I just couldn't believe I had to tell him I had cancer," said Berger, 59, who handles development and community relations for Joshua House, a facility for abused and neglected children in Lutz. "When I told him, he was paralyzed."

Berger had talked to friends about how she should handle it. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco told her that at least MacKinnon knew what to expect. "I didn't see that as a good answer," Berger said, "because the outcome wasn't good in his past."

But MacKinnon told her he'd stand by her, "and after that, he was steady as a rock," said Berger, who underwent six breast cancer surgeries.

These days, MacKinnon can joke about the day he found out Berger had cancer.

"I thought to myself, 'Boy, I am going to have trouble getting a date,' " he said with a laugh. "People were going to think I'm some sort of carrier."

The pair has become one of Tampa's premier couples: When Berger threw a birthday party for herself last month at downtown's Valencia Gardens restaurant, Tampa's political and business elite contributed to Joshua House as their admission, raising $17,500.

And MacKinnon's financial rewards are obvious from his address: a waterfront home on Davis Islands he bought from former Bucs coach Sam Wyche for $825,000 four years ago. He loves to spend time on his 24-foot Sea Ray fishing boat, he's building a beach house near Port Charlotte and he goes snow skiing in the winter.

But he insists he's the same guy who used to roam around Grosse Ile, greeting everyone by name.

"I don't get involved in things for my resume," he said.

And in his self-deprecating style, he says there's only one bad thing about all his involvements:

"I wish I could do better on remembering names," he said. "I meet so many people, and sometimes I can't recall someone's name."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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