Forbes Industries' Mark Sheley on the formula for success

Forbes Industries recently launched nesting catering tables. Photo credit: Forbes Industries (Forbes Industries)

At 100 years old, Forbes Industries (launched in 1919 as the Forbes Brothers Company) has been around through a number of changes in the hospitality segment—but as an old advertising campaign once said, you always come back to the basics.

The company started off making carts for the early movie industry and expanded into housekeeping carts 50 years later. Today, Forbes Industries provides luggage carts, bellman’s equipment, housekeeping carts, mobile bars and food-and-beverage equipment.

Director of Marketing Mark Sheley has been with the company since 1986—three years after the company launched its signature Birdcage cart, now spotted in hotels around the world. Sheley started out as a marketing assistant and was mentored by former president Tony Hudson, who taught Sheley that success is only 10 percent know-how and 90 percent caring. “It’s a very good rule to live by because if you care enough, you’ll learn how to do things,” Sheley recalled.  “He was able to guide me and I took it from there. I learned my skill set through asking a lot of questions and by doing the job.”

Mark Sheley
Mark Sheley. Photo credit: Forbes Industries

Over the years, Sheley helped make the company’s marketing team equally focused on graphics and design. “Our department does a lot of design work for custom models and that has helped us be able to show customers what they get before they sign a contract to buy something,” he said. Emphasizing quality graphics in advance of creating a product lets the customer get a better idea of not only what the piece will look like, but how it will function in the space. The efforts have paid off, and the company’s sales are poised to reach $30 million.

Today, Sheley said, mobile bars, luggage carts and housekeeping carts are the company’s products most in demand by hoteliers, followed by podiums and catering tables. “We just started doing some nice nesting catering tables and those allow for simple storage in the public's view as a decorative furniture piece,” he said. “When not in use, they nest together, and then when in use they open up and you can display a lot of food.” That kind of multiuse product, he added, is growing in popularity as hotels look to maximize every inch of space. “Hotels have a problem with storage availability, so if they can use something and then just store it out in public sight, then they don't have to move it to the back of the house,” he noted. “Plus, it lasts longer because it isn't being rolled all over the property, and if it stays where it's being used, just off to the side and nested, then it doesn't take up so much footprint and storage is not an issue.”

One of the biggest changes that Sheley has seen in his years at Forbes is the idea that getting a good deal on a product means spending as little as possible. “There are times when the budget's tight for hotels and they have to watch what they're spending, but eventually they realized that if you buy something that's cheaper, you get what you pay for and the replacement cost can just outweigh a buying good product right from the get-go,” he said. Increasingly, hotels are demanding higher-quality products that last significantly longer, saving money in the long run. 

After more than three decades with Forbes, Sheley still faces certain challenges in the marketing department, especially when it comes to finding the time to do everything. To that end, he has learned how to prioritize and improve efficiencies. “By learning how to be more efficient, that allows you to overcome the time frames that you have to be able to finish a particular project or handle a particular client's needs,” he said. “We used to draw our custom drawings with a 2D drawing program, which would be on a two-dimensional scale. Now we use a three-dimensional drawing where we're able to rotate our model and build it much faster and more accurate of proportions to simulate the actual product that's going to be manufactured out in the plant.”

Logic in Logistics

"We have daily production schedule meetings to make sure everything's going to ship out in a timely fashion. We have weekly new product development meetings that cover the voice of the customer, so to speak. We try to find a need in a hotel—some kind of a pain point that a hotel is encountering. Then we try to find the solution to fix that or to help them out. So there are a lot of meetings that we have and it's usually team meetings of say six to 12 members and so we get [a lot of] brainstorming ideas to make sure we're covering all the bases and we're seeing it from all viewpoints."

Clicking with Clients

"What we try to do when it comes to working with the general manager or director of housekeeping, we explain to them that we not only make products, but we're making solutions. The whole intent is to help them out with the proper equipment, the proper type of carts that will make their job easier, more efficient and less costly. Most of our catering tables, for instance, are linenless. So you don't have to spend the money to maintain a tablecloth to cover up an ugly table. So with these nicer furniture-style units, you don't have to spend [money on] laundry to clean your linen and maintain it. It's a matter of explaining how the product, or in this case, the solution does what it's supposed to do. The catering tables that we use don't need to be rolled back to the back of the house. They could be stationed right where they're supposed to be used. The whole intent is to keep the back-of-the-house carts in the back of the house and keep the nice display catering tables in the public side."