Forward Thinking, Forward Moving
If you enjoy any beverages produced by Coca-Cola or Keurig Dr. Pepper and watch the Super Bowl (specifically the commercials), you have likely seen the handiwork of Sentry Equipment & Erectors, Inc. in your hands and on your screen. If you happened to watch the 2011 episode of National Geographic’s show “Ultimate Factories” featuring the Coca-Cola Bottling Company United facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—or caught it later on YouTube—you witnessed Sentry’s impressive array of equipment in action at length.
Instead of seeing their work from a distance, I had the opportunity to visit Sentry and talk with four longstanding employees to learn more about the company’s history, projects, and goals for the future.
Adam and Carole Vinoskey founded Sentry in 1980. Before founding Sentry, Adam was the general manager of an installation company, and Coca-Cola approached him numerous times to build conveyors. Adam ultimately agreed, and Sentry’s first conveyor was built in 1986. “From there, we grew out of the installation company to progress to a full manufacturing facility which grew exponentially,” says Greg Goff, Vice President of Sales. When he retired, Vinoskey sold his stock to the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) through which employees could earn shares of the company in their retirement plan. Now the company’s earnings enrich the employees’ retirement savings.
“Adam could have sold our business to a multitude of different companies, but he and Carole decided early on that they wanted to leave this company to the people who helped build it with them,” Goff says.
The ESOP program has been instrumental in Sentry’s success. “Everybody here has embraced the notion of being an employee owner,” says Les Womack, Operations Manager. “When you embrace that, you know that the outcome is not predetermined; it is what you make it.” In addition to ESOP, Sentry offers no-cost health, dental, and life insurance for employees, their spouses, and their dependents, a 401(k) program with company match, ample opportunities to advance within the company, and college tuition reimbursement. Most importantly, Sentry strives to maintain a family-like atmosphere among its employees. “This company has grown a lot over the years, but we have always been and always will be family-oriented,” says Tim Woodson, President. “We care about our employees and how they feel, and they know they can pick up the phone and call us at home.”
Sentry also strives to treat its customers like family. “A lot of companies that are owned by corporations or are publicly traded are counting and squabbling over nickels,” Womack notes. “Sentry has never brought that approach. The first thing that Sentry does when a customer needs something fixed is ask, ‘when can I get there to fix it?’ rather than ‘how much are you going to pay us to fix it?’” Goff adds that he believes Sentry is “one of the few companies left that will do a verbal agreement with a customer to start the manufacturing portion of a project before getting the banks involved.” Sentry has clearly found a win-win approach for itself and its customers with abundant repeat business.
The factory housed in Sentry’s 250,000-square-foot headquarters in Forest boasts numerous departments that work together to take products from start to finish. “Taking something from raw metal to a top-of-the-line running machine gives you a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction,” says David Woods, Shop Manager. Among the myriad services and products Sentry offers, its bulk depalletizers and conveyors are the most highly requested. “Bulk depalletizers are the flagship of our company,” Goff says. “They are the best and most well-known machines we build.”
Womack adds that Sentry’s conveyors are the “Cadillac of conveyors,” which are ideal for large companies such as Coca-Cola that “run all day and all night seven days a week and need something that’s going to last a long time.”
Sentry’s location in Central Virginia is ideal due to the beverage company’s large contingent from the east to west coast. Sentry’s work is not limited to the beverage industry. “During our installation days, 99.9% of what we did was beverage,” Goff says. “But in today’s market, we’re very diverse. We work with food, gasoline, and even shingles.”
Sentry currently has about 220 employees in Forest and about 37 employees at its robotics group, Sen-Pack, which is located in Deland, Florida. The company is currently looking to hire qualified electrical and mechanical engineers, among other positions. According to management, one of Sentry’s main challenges is retaining young employees who do not fully understand the long-term value of Sentry’s benefits and ESOP program and who aren’t aware of Sentry’s tendency to promote from within.
“One thing that we need to make a little more obvious is the rungs of the corporate ladder and the goals that these young employees can set for themselves,” Womack says. “I think it might be important to those young people who are driven away by an extra dollar an hour to visualize their ability to move up at Sentry. We want to see that next generation clearly identified so that we can hand the business off in the future.”
As they strive to identify that next generation, Sentry’s management team will continue to work together to ensure quality every time and thus uphold the company’s philosophy: “Quality standards change, but quality does not.”
“Our people are the backbone of the company,” Woodson says, “We have relationships that have created a family atmosphere. We bounce ideas off of each other, we disagree sometimes but always come to agreements that are best for Sentry and the employees, and we all consider ourselves blessed to be a part of Sentry’s journey.”
AT A GLANCE
Located: 13150 E Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike, Forest
Employees: 220 in Forest, 37 in Florida