By Steve Eighinger Herald-Whig
MOUNT STERLING, Ill. — There was no Brahman bull, nor any sort of bucking bronco.
Only the concrete badlands of Brown County.
Specifically, a warehouse on the sprawling campus of Dot Foods that hosted the company’s 11th annual forklift rodeo national finals. The most talented forklift drivers — aka “mechanical cowboys,” as Dot likes to refer to them — from the company’s 11 food redistribution centers across the country gathered there Thursday afternoon.
Although competing for such prizes as a paid vacation to a destination of their choice, the bottom line was braggin’ rights in this version of a showdown at a modern-day OK Corral — minus the Earps, Clantons and gratuitous gunplay. In their stead was a cast of 44 talented drivers dodging obstacles and racing against the clock.
Craig Post, 32, a 13-year veteran at Dot, was participating in his first nationals.
“The main focus of all this is actually safety,” said Post, a Golden resident.
John Bordewick, Dot Foods director of warehousing for its refrigeration division, agreed that a spotlight on proper safety practices was first and foremost at the forklift rodeo, but he said such a competition is “great for morale,” too.
“Each distribution center around the country has its own competition to see who it will send to the nationals,” he said. “We have strong participation everywhere.”
Bordewick said the national qualifiers are flown into St. Louis, where Dot has a large office, the day before the national finals. The finalists are all treated like kings for a day, then bused to Mount Sterling for the competition. Afterward, they are taken back to St. Louis and fly to their home states.
Along with Dot Food’s home base in Mount Sterling, the company has redistribution centers in Modesto, Calif.; Burley, Idaho; Ardmore, Okla.; Liverpool, N.Y.; Vidalia, Ga.; Williamsport, Md.; Cambridge City, Ind.; Dyersburg, Tenn., Chesterfield, Mo.; and Joliet.
Dot Foods has 5,000 employees nationwide, including 2,300 in Mount Sterling, among them 930 who work in its Brown County warehouses, which cover more than 1 million square feet. The Mount Sterling site is the largest of the Dot properties around the nation.
“What a lot of people don’t realize about these forklifts is how much they weigh,” said participant Austin Schrader, 25, of Griggsville. “The battery alone on some of them weighs more than 2,000 pounds.”
The competitors’ mastery of their everyday job duties and safety practices were put to the test as they navigated an obstacle course on one of four different pieces of forklift-type handling equipment — narrow aisle, sit-down/stand-up forklift, order selector and pallet jack. There were individual winners in each category, and one distribution center would eventually take home overall bragging rights as Dot Foods national champion.
“Another thing that is tricky about driving one of these is where you are driving them,” Schrader said. “Some of the warehouses can have slippery surfaces.”
Dot Foods has refrigerated, dry and frozen food warehouse areas. Forklift drivers must watch for condensation on the concrete floors, which can pose a problem if a sudden stop is required.
Schrader said it takes about a month to learn how to safely operate most forklifts.
John Long, Dot Foods senior vice president of warehousing, has been with the company for 30 years and is amazed at how the forklift rodeo continues to grow in popularity.
“This competition also gives our employees the chance to meet fellow workers across the country — and travel to the mother ship, so to speak,” Long said.
Dot Foods carries 112,200 products from 830 food industry manufacturers. The company distributes food to clients in all 50 states and more than 25 countries.