A Changing of the Guard at BendPak

A Changing of the Guard at BendPak

President Jeff Kritzer and company Founder Don Henthorn share an inside look at their successful four-decade partnership.

It only takes a few minutes when talking to BendPak’s Don Henthorn and Jeff Kritzer to notice what a great working relationship these two have – one that seems to have served them well for many years. As the yin to the other’s yang, Jeff is energetic, self-deprecating and practically bursting with ideas; Don complements this with his calm, affable demeanor and ability to trust his gut when it comes to a solid business idea. Through this rather simpatico working relationship, Henthorn and Kritzer have grown BendPak into a wildly successful business today.

This year marks a milestone both in their friendship and the business. In August, BendPak announced that Henthorn, who founded the business in 1965, would transition to the chairman emeritus role, and Kritzer would be elevated to the role of president. Incidentally, the announcement came on Kritzer’s 40th anniversary of working at the company.

BendPak announced several other leadership appointments at that time as well. Rudy Diaz will step up from vice president of information technology to executive vice president and chief operating officer. Jim Fornear moves from financial controller to chief financial officer. Javier Arias continues as vice president of operations. 

From left to right:
Rudy Diaz, Jeff Kritzer, Don Henthorn,
Jim Fornear and Javier Arias.

THE STORY OF BENDPAK

Henthorn admits it’s not easy to step back from the company he built from scratch. “[It’s] difficult. I can’t find any other word to describe it. It’s hard to let go,” Henthorn said. 

And while he’s looking forward to more time with his grandchildren eventually, Henthorn assures everyone that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. As chairman emeritus, he will continue to serve as an advisor and mentor. “I know it’s going to be in good hands and I’ll be right around the corner,” he added. For now, Henthorn is still the first to arrive at the office, sharing that he gets to work between 5 and 6 a.m. every morning, six days a week.

BendPak Inc. founder Don Henthorn stands in front of the Moorpark, California, location of his businesses around 1982. 

“The leadership is transforming, but the real backbone of this company is our dedicated team of employees,” said Henthorn. “Their commitment to seeing everything through to the finish is incomparable and plays a key role in our ability to stay on course and deliver results we can be proud of.”

Kritzer said announcing the change in leadership back in August was a strategic decision to assure everyone – both internally and externally – that there is a succession plan in place.

“We’re not going anywhere. Don’s not going anywhere,” Kritzer said. “As far as the roles go, Don has been relinquishing a lot of responsibilities and it hasn’t just come in the past six months, but it’s been something ongoing for the past two or three years. One of his famous quotes that we’ve all adopted is, ‘I’m not gonna be around here forever. Are you guys going to continue making these bad decisions or these good decisions?’ He’s always been a coach, which is one of the reasons I’m still here. And so, he’s been coaching me on this next chapter.”

Henthorn’s history as a hard-working entrepreneur began in 1965 in Simi Valley, California, where he opened Quality Machine & Associates (QMA), a shop specializing in precision machine work for aerospace and defense giants like Rocketdyne, Rockwell and Hughes Aircraft. It was there he developed his knowledge and expertise in tooling and machine work. While he kept up the QMA business during the day, at night he continued to work, developing his own specialty tools. One of the first successful products Henthorn created was called the 5ivePak, a patented combination coil spring compressor, U-joint press and gear puller all in one portable package. After that came a patent for a MacPherson strut spring compressor and a handheld portable hydraulic tailpipe extender. 

The business – and Henthorn’s product innovations – continued to evolve over the years. In 1977, QMA built a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Moorpark, California, and began to focus on the muffler industry, which was exploding at the time. Two years later, the company introduced a hydraulic tubing bender for muffler shops, which also led to a name-change: BendPak (although originally the name was hyphenated as “Bend-Pak”).

Just a few years later, in 1982, Kritzer finds his way into the BendPak story. 

“The story of us is kind of comical,” said Kritzer. “Don’s daughter was my sister’s best friend and that’s how I kind of coerced myself into BendPak. I went down there and I was just a skateboarder surfer at the time and I think I showed up for the interview barefoot,” Kritzer laughed.

Kritzer attends an Exhaust Pro event in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1986. 

Barefoot or not, he clearly made a good impression on Henthorn. He not only got the job, he now leads the company, 40 years later. “Jeff’s always been ahead of the game,” said Henthorn. “Ever since I hired him, he stepped up to the plate. He was always there for BendPak, and I really have enjoyed our relationship.”

Kritzer credits Henthorn for taking a chance on him and believing in him. Perhaps it was because Henthorn saw a bit of himself in Kritzer. The two seem to share a penchant for being tenacious.

“When we first started, and he took me by the horns as a young kid, I would go to business trips and he would tell clients, ‘Okay, Jeff, our sales manager is going to meet you there.’ And I would be coming down the airport escalator and they’d look at me and say, ‘Is your dad gonna come? Is your dad here?’ because I was just a little kid. But, he put a lot of faith in me. He should probably have hired a little bit more talent. But, [with] my work ethic and where we are now today, I think I would have exceeded anybody who might have had the credentials because I don’t like to fail and neither does he,” said Kritzer.

UNSTOPPABLE GROWTH

A year after Kritzer joined the company, BendPak entered the car-lift market with its first four-post lift. Today, BendPak is one of the world’s leading vehicle service equipment suppliers with locations around the globe. BendPak’s Santa Paula campus has five main buildings, including four manufacturing and distribution warehouses and one administrative building totaling more than 400,000 square feet. An additional location was recently established near Mobile, Alabama, and includes two distribution warehouses and office space totaling 190,000 square feet. Overseas, BendPak operates four factories totaling more than 500,000 square feet.

BendPak’s portfolio of brands and divisions today include BendPak, Ranger, Autostacker, Cool Boss, QuickJack, MaxJax, Dannmar, Ergochair and Bolt Transport – with more to be announced soon, the company shared. 

When asked what the secret is to the company’s continued growth and success, Kritzer said it all comes down to one word: stubborn.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we excelled where others didn’t – we worked harder. We still work harder than anybody,” Kritzer said.

Henthorn agreed. “We outwork everybody. I think we still do,” he said. “A lot of our competition folded. If you think about the last 40 years, how many different lift brands have come and gone?”

Not only does the leadership at BendPak work hard, they also work smart, and have a knack for rather prescient planning. An example of this forward-thinking leadership would be the company’s decision to add to its footprint in California, and then again in 2020, when it made the decision to expand near Mobile, Alabama, giving BendPak better access to customers east of the Mississippi, and saving them a massive chunk of change on freight charges.

Kritzer crunched the numbers and easily justified the decision after determining that the company would save enough money in freight costs to pay for the new Alabama building in a very short time.  “We definitely built our new California and Alabama buildings ahead of the curve,” Kritzer said. “Just in the last three years, we’ve grown over 40%, and in the last 10 years, we’ve grown over 230%. Don invested in our expansions before we saw that aggressive growth. He just knew where BendPak had been, where we’re going and how to get there. He’s always built ahead of the curve, which is very smart. That’s why we’re anticipating adding to our Alabama location for a third time soon.” 

THE COURAGE TO CREATE

This kind of strategic thinking isn’t isolated only to the company’s physical locations, but its product innovations as well. Always keeping an eye on changes in the market, BendPak is skillful at anticipating customer needs and maybe even creating solutions they didn’t know they needed … yet. 

“A lot of our growth is due to the new brands and new products that we’ve been coming out with,” Kritzer said. “But it’s funny, back in the early 1980s we sold pipe benders. There was a muffler shop on every corner. Well, if you sell a pipe bender, you might as well make muffler racks also. “[Back then] it wasn’t called a four-post lift, it was called a muffler rack. So, we did make a muffler rack. I remember coming back from a tradeshow, and I was as hyper then as I am now, and I came to Don and said, ‘I just sold a four-post alignment lift.’ Don replied, ‘We don’t sell, we don’t even make the alignment lift.’ I said, ‘Well we’re going to have to make one because I sold it.’ So, we were kind of forced to take our muffler rack, throw turn plates on it and slip plates on it and make an alignment line. And it’s been like that ever since.”

In October, BendPak made two new product introductions – not quite as extreme as the story of selling a product that wasn’t even created yet, but solid products nonetheless.

One is the EV2400SL EV battery pack and powertrain lifting system. The patent-pending design offers all the benefits of BendPak’s former SL24EVT lifting system with several user-friendly enhancements. This push-around full-rise scissor lift table is designed to make replacing both electric-vehicle battery packs and internal combustion powertrain components more efficient, anticipating the needs of busy repair shops that work on both EVs and ICE vehicles.

The other is its new Ergochair brand. BendPak has reinvented the traditional mechanic’s creeper to create a patent-pending crossover work seat that offers a 75-degree range of adjustment with six locking positions, so it can move from a completely flat creeper position for under-vehicle work to fully upright – and everything in between. BendPak said the new product aims to make performing awkward tasks in the shop more ergonomic, reducing stress and strain to deliver greater productivity and fewer injuries. 

Earlier this year, the company’s Cool Boss Division rolled out an expanded lineup of portable evaporative coolers as well.

Whether it’s a product that’s addressing the oncoming presence of EVs in repair shops or a chair that makes a tech’s life on the job a bit easier, BendPak’s leadership isn’t afraid to put new ideas out there. “As we’ve gone through this evolution, we’ve had a lot more successes than failures,” Kritzer said. “That’s what gives us the courage to continue trying these new directions. I remember Don saying in the past, ‘Just when you think you have the Midas touch, beware because reality’s going to hit you in the face.’ So, we’re still courageous; most of our new ventures have succeeded. We’re cautious, [but] we’re not stupid. We’re not afraid to try.” AMN

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