Their Business Is Picking Up

This company specializes in giving raises

by Will Lindner

northern_toyota0519TJ Lash (left) and Joe Rossetti are the owners of Northern Toyotalift, a Burlington company that sells, rents, and services forklifts and related equipment. The business is a direct descendant of a prescient decision by Rossetti’s father and uncle, the founders of Rossetti Brothers Beer & Wine, to add a forklift division to their enterprise.

There’s a degree of job security for a company that sells, rents, and services forklifts and related materials-handling equipment such as pallet jacks and tow tractors. TJ Lash, co-owner of Northern Toyotalift on Pine Street in Burlington, explains why.

“There’s nothing in your world that a forklift didn’t touch. Your clothes, the food you eat, the chair you sit on, the house you live in [meaning the lumber and steel it’s made of]. Everything, at some point in its life cycle, gets handled by a forklift.”

“Food, shelter, clothing,” Joe Rossetti, his partner at Northern Toyotalift, summarizes. “The three basic needs. They’re all touched by a forklift.”

Furthermore, for most forklift owners, the machine performs an irreplaceable, necessary function, whether it’s in a warehouse, a lumberyard, a construction site, a boatyard, or an apple orchard.

Northern Toyotalift counts some large businesses among its customers. Lash mentions Vermont enterprises Farrell Distributing and Cabot Cooperative Creamery, and Schluter Systems in Plattsburgh, New York, with large fleets of forklifts.

“But three-quarters of our customers are your one-to-five guys — your Tractor Supplys and Ace Hardwares and Aubuchons, with one or two forklifts and a pallet jack.”

Fledgling businesses such as micro-breweries often start out with a rental or lease-purchase, easing themselves into the ownership of machines that frequently cost about $34,000. (Pallet jacks, manual or electric, are far less expensive; a heavy-duty forklift can exceed $50,000.) For these customers, a disabled forklift could bring operations to a standstill, especially where a machine has been outfitted to perform particular functions, such as clamps attached to the lifting fork so it can safely carry and stack drums filled with maple syrup, printer’s ink, or other liquids.

Responsive service and diligent, scheduled maintenance, therefore, are critical for Northern Toyotalift’s customers.

Justin Heilenbach, co-founder and CEO of Citizen Cider, nearby in Burlington, is such a customer.

“We have a handful of forks that are specialized in what we do, and we don’t have another one,” he says. “We have a specialized forklift that dumps the apple bins, and it has unique parts on it. I literally could call them right now and they’d be here in five minutes. Yes, we’re close, but if we were an hour away they’d be here in an hour. That’s an important part of the story of why Joe and TJ are successful. These guys have heart. They’ve helped us on all kinds of weird stuff.”

Heilenbach is struck, too, by the breadth of their business. Citizen Cider buys apples from dozens of growers in Vermont and New York state. “They have forklifts at every orchard I work with, on both sides of the lake,” he says. “Orchards are a generational business, so these guys have relationships that go back 30 years.”

Service and maintenance aren’t some secondary aspect for a company primarily engaged in sales; it’s almost as if the opposite is true. Northern Toyotalift keeps 10 service vans on the road, most of them stationed with technicians who live in and cover territories in north, central, and southern Vermont and eastern New York state. Their vans are continually restocked by UPS shipments from headquarters in Burlington.

“We work hand-in-glove with our techs,” says Lash, “because the techs get to know the customer. If the customer likes their mechanic, they’re going to buy from us. The better the tech, the easier job it is for us to get the new equipment out there.”

Although Northern Toyotalift is the franchise dealer for Toyota forklifts and related equipment like the “walkies” — electric pallet jacks and stackers operated with buttons and handles (“You don’t have to be 6 feet tall and weigh 200 pounds to use these things anymore,” says Rossetti) — its technicians work on all makes and models.

The company started out as primarily an Allis-Chalmers dealership in 1978, using the name Northern Lift Trucks Inc. Lash and Rossetti’s forebears were receptive when Toyota approached them in 1984 about adding the Japanese manufacturer’s equipment to their inventory. That was fortunate, because Allis-Chalmers has gone out of business and Toyota, now manufacturing in Indiana, has gained a reputation for quality and reliability. Northern Toyotalift’ exclusive APR (area of primary responsibility) for Toyota includes the state of Vermont and Clinton County, New York. The technicians can and sometimes do venture slightly beyond those perimeters to service other equipment.

It was mechanical versatility that led the company to diversify into a new product line: advance commercial and industrial floor-care equipment, which ranges from vacuums comparable to those found in homes to scrubbers big enough to ride on.

“You had me and a couple other guys in warehouses working on forklifts, and they’d say, ‘Hey, while your toolbox is out do you think you can fix that?’ and they’d point to a floor scrubber,” explains Lash, who came to the company as a mechanic. “It grew from there. The selling began around 2012, but we’ve been servicing them all the way back to the beginning of the company.”

Lash and Rossetti have made inroads with janitorial companies that contract with schools and hospitals, placing and servicing appropriately sized cleaners in those environments as well. And they’ve added another product for moving bulk materials. Manitou specializes in machines built for rough terrain, but most attractive to Northern Toyotalift is the forklift that hitches onto the bed of a truck so the driver can load, haul, and unload the pallets without extra help.

Toyota, however, is the company’s bread and butter. Toyota’s reputation for making reliable, long-lasting automobiles applies to its forklifts, too. “Like TJ says, we work on every make and model,” Rossetti quips, “because if we just worked on the Toyotas there wouldn’t be enough work to make a living.”

Phil Payne, who owns Vermont Wholesale Building Products in Williston, has purchased his forklifts from Northern Toyotalift for more than 20 years.

“I’ve been around forklifts forever,” he says, “but I’ve got five Toyotas now and I’ve stuck with them. That product is probably not the cheapest, but you get your best value.”

Payne needs rugged equipment in his six-acre lumberyard, because of the unavoidable dirt and dust, and because each load his forklifts move can weigh 15,000 pounds or more. He’s confident his diesel-fueled Toyotas are best suited for those conditions. (Toyota makes other internal-combustion models, too, and its electric forklifts have really taken off, according to Lash). Inevitably, though, the wear and tear takes a toll.

“Anything I buy, what the dealer does for you after the sale is important,” says Payne, explaining his loyalty to Rossetti and Lash. “Their follow-up is what makes a difference.”

Improbable as it seems, Northern Toyotalift is the modern-day incarnation of a business called Rossetti Brothers Beer & Wine Distributorship, founded in the 1950s by Joe Rossetti’s father, Armand, and uncle, John. Joe, born in Burlington in 1961, went to work loading beer trucks, making deliveries, and learning sales soon after high school. When TJ, a vocational graduate of Colchester High School in 1986, came along, joining his father, Robert, who was the service manager for Rossetti Brothers, its main business was still the distributorship. Around 1978, however, the Rossettis, who themselves owned forklifts, had perceived an opportunity in that direction and added a forklift division, stocked by Allis-Chalmers. Lash learned to work on those as well as the trucks. The Rossettis sold the beverage distributorship in 1988.

The company’s ownership shifted over the years, then resolved when TJ purchased his father’s shares in 2000 (Robert had become a partner), and both bought out Rossetti’s brother, Jeffrey, in 2014. “I’m kind of the front end of the business,” Rossetti explains, “overseeing the business end of sales, rentals, and financial negotiations. TJ is the back end, working with the equipment and technicians. He’s on the road a lot.”

“I’m still a mechanic,” Lash says eagerly. “There’s a toolbox in my truck, and a pair of coveralls.”

Rossetti’s son, Cory, joined the company five years ago, working in customer service and sales. Because operator-training is an important part of the business, Cory is working in that realm, also.

Cory’s children, Leila (7) and Eli (4), are their grandfather’s delight. Rossetti and his partner of 25 years, Lynne Bisaillon, live in Burlington’s New North End and have a summer home on Lake Champlain where the kids visit. “They’re into nature,” Rossetti says, “so we catch frogs.”

Lash and his wife, Bianca, also have a retreat, but theirs is a rural cabin in Montgomery. “I’m an outdoorsman — hunting, fishing, four-wheeling. And I’m big into bird hunting with my bird dog, Pepper.”

Daughter Katy, and son Chris, are in their 20s and live locally but are not involved with the business. When they were small, Lash remembers, “I was really into kid stuff, 110 percent. But since they’ve grown, everything besides this place is secondary. That’s what’s always going on in my head: ‘I gotta call Joe. Where are we at? I’ve been on the road for two days, so what’s going on?’ There are a lot of pressures to running a small business in Vermont.

“Because even though nearly everything in our lives touches a forklift, very few people actually own them,” Lash says.

“One-tenth of 1 percent of the population will ever buy a forklift,” Rossetti surmises. “It’s a very small niche.”

The partners, therefore, make sure to pay close attention to it. •