In the world of ladders, Harold "Hal" Ray Wing, the founder of Little Giant Ladders, was something of a celebrity.  He died recently aged 72, following a heart attack whilst quad-biking.  Hal Wing was someone who truly deserved to be described as a giant among men; in addition to his work founding and running Wing Enterprises he has been the mayor of his hometown, Springville in Utah, has released a CD of him yodelling, collected old cars and was an avid motorcyclist.  He also farmed 63 acres of land in order to keep a sense of balance in his life and retain a connection to the earth.

It's a sad time but let's remember the impact Hal had on the ladder industry.

One step at a time - humble beginnings lead to great things

In the 1970s, Hal was visiting Germany, working for an insurance company, where he met a painter named Walter Kummerlin, who had a new idea for a ladder that would allow him to carry out any decorating task without having to bring several different ladders to every job.  He had built a prototype of the ladder; the first combination ladder, and showed it to Hal.  Hal realised that this ingenious design for a ladder could be marketed very successfully in the USA and on his return in 1972 began to import the ladders from Germany, putting them together and shipping them out from the garage of his home in Utah.  Walter had tried to sell the ladders in the USA unsuccessfully, but Hal was a natural salesman and knew how to tap the difficult US market. He presented the ladders first at trade fairs, putting on a demonstration of the ladder's capabilities to trade buyers and trade users and built up a network of regular customers quickly.

Before long, Hal had the licensing rights to manufacture the design in the USA and was producing the aluminium ladders on American soil. The exchange rate at the time between Germany and USA had made importing the ladders financially unviable so Hal had needed to ramp up the scale of his business. The original small family company (his German wife Brigitte and their seven children helped him build up the garage-based business) had bought a production facility and began to mass-produce what became known worldwide as the ˜Little Giant Ladder'.

Over the years the company has stayed family run, with two of his sons Art and Doug being members of the management team and other extended family members having roles within the firm too.  Hal was noted for his personable management style and non-corporate approach; hiring people with disabilities and criminal backgrounds long before other companies would give people like that a chance.  He was said to be on first name terms with every one of the company's 200+ employees, often greeting them with a hug and asking about their families, interests and anything else that was going on in their life. He was known to be a charitable and kind-hearted man.

Hal and The Little Giant Ladder System reach dizzying heights (after a fall)

His legacy to the ladder world is, quite literally, a Little Giant.  The ladder system is so called because it is both big and small at the same time; some models extend up to 21 feet and the smallest stores away at under 4 feet.  The ladder can be used on staircases, as both sides of the A-frame configuration are adjustable.  It can be used as a step ladder, as a conventional straight (extension) ladder, in place of scaffolding, as a work platform and can be used in 24 different configurations, making it easily the most versatile ladder money can buy.  The ladders have flared feet, making them more stable than conventional ladders and telescopic locking rails for adjustable height, which remains the case even when the ladder is already set up in a certain configuration.  The rung design is also unique to the Little Giant Ladder System.

It wasn't always plain sailing for Hal and Little Giant Ladders though.  In the 1980s Hal sold stakes in the company to two investors, who failed to bring in the equity he needed and later sold their shares to a large conglomerate, who pushed the Little Giant Ladder company into bankruptcy. When the company's assets were auctioned off, Hal bought them back, having secured a bank loan on the strength of his word.  He contacted every supplier they owed and got them all to agree to work with him again and built the company back up again into the success it is today.

In order to boost sales of the ladder to the domestic, DIY market, Hal employed the traditional American selling tool  the infomercial.  Infomercials are usually over-long, full of gimmicks and special offers (which turn out not to be so special) and over-the-top acting. Instead of resorting to this kind of trickery, Hal used his simple, no-nonsense approach to show the benefits of the ladder to the general public, and it worked!  DIY sales soared after the campaign, showing how his hands-on, personality driven marketing style worked for both the trade and retail markets. They also used an actor from the American sit-com "Home Improvements" to help attract people into watching the infomercial.

Since the import of the original style some forty years ago, The Little Giant Ladder company has improved the manufacturing process and design of the ladder system, introducing new lines and models as their research department identifies new ways to make better ladders. They also make fibreglass versions of some ladders and a whole range of accessories to go with them, such as work planks (so you can turn your ladder into scaffolding), platforms which can be used to rest paint or even people on, fittings for the legs of the ladder so you can work on uneven surfaces or over the edge of steps, tool trays and just about everything you could possibly think of to work with a ladder, and a few more!  There is also a step ladder design available in two, three or four step heights which folds down, at the smallest size, to just over 30 inches; more of an occasional use ladder, the Little Giant Safety Step still bears the hallmarks of Wing's thorough and practical ladder design.

The company's website includes an 'owners area' where you can download manuals, videos, register your ladder and also print off a gift document to give as a stop-gap present if you have ordered a Little Giant Ladder for someone.  This easy, instructional and personal approach is typical of the way Hal built and developed his company and how he treated those around him.  Employees at the production plants regularly swap jobs and become cross-skilled, getting a look at the wider process along the way.  Even the managers have to spend at least one week a year on the factory floor so they don't lose touch with the production workers, and to make sure everyone feels like an equal within the company. New employees have a three month trial period, like in most companies. The difference with Hal's company is that the trial period also allows the new worker to decide if they want to work there.  If both the company and the employee are happy after the trial period, the new member of staff 'earns their wings' by being given their uniform and becoming part of the team.  A quote of Hal's which appears on the front of the head quarters sums up his approach to people and business management perfectly: If you concentrate on building a business and not the man, you will not achieve.  But if you concentrate on building the man, you will achieve both.  Hal invested time in creating a positive workplace where employees felt well treated and listened to; regular meetings and consultations with the workforce led to improvements in the manufacture process to the point where it takes less than one man hour to make a Little Giant Ladder, and the employees who came up with the ideas were rewarded with bonuses.

The pioneering design (and later developments) of the ladder has inspired ladder development for the last forty years. The success of the company, attributable directly to Hal Wing, earned him an award for Entrepreneur of the Year (Ernst & Young) in 2005, a title he fully deserved for his hard work and approach to business and development.

R.I.P. Hal Wing