W&H Systems Logo

50 Years of W&H Systems

Frank W. Hoenigmann and Kent F. Warner started W&H Systems in 1964, and were soon joined by 5 other partners: Henry M. Landes, Leon Kirschner, Alfred (Al) W. Iversen, Gifford (Giff) Kittredge, and Robert (Bob) E. Freeman. Their original office was the famous Rogers, Peet & Co. building at 16 East 42nd Street, New York City. Kent had met Frank at a conveyor company (Lanson Corporation), manufacturer of belt conveyors and automated pallet spreaders that were sold to soft drink distributors and breweries.

Kent and Frank started the company as a Subchapter S Corporation, funded with initial investments from Kent’s family business and money he earned from being in the Navy. Originally the company was named Warner & Hoenigmann, and then changed to W&H Conveyor Systems. As they added more equipment, the company changed the name to what it is today, W&H Systems. Kent knew he wanted to build a world-class material handling business and saw how poorly run other businesses in that space were, and how little the people who ran them knew what they were doing. He knew he would be able to succeed and that high-speed conveyor systems would last and their use would be widespread. Kent remembers that both his wife (Mary Alice) and Frank’s wife helped with the business by typing various documents at home on a typewriter with carbon paper.

When Henry Landes joined the company, he brought expertise in the garment industry and called on the Diana Store, the company’s first customer, in the New York Garment District. W&H supplied their customers with Garment on Hanger (GOH) systems to the apparel industry. GOH systems are overhead rail systems in which garments on hangers travel around a facility to various distribution points. Overhead rail systems have long been recognized as the most efficient means of handling hanging garments by apparel manufacturers and in a warehouse or distribution center. But when W&H came into being, it was an age before automation, when garments were moved manually along their towlines via chains, so the GOH system was a big hit!

Another innovation the company designed was called the WhizLift, which handled bags and boxes vertically. Kent designed the conveyor from pictures he had seen in Europe. Kent used to send his kids around in the WhizLift for fun. In the early days, the company sold a conveyor assembly to Detroit’s auto industry; designed high-speed sortation systems; implemented the first optical scanner for barcodes, which was later replaced by laser scanners; and was one of the first businesses to sell computer systems to monitor the material handling equipment. Kent and Al collaborated on a system, which allowed retailers to batch pick orders, which they called the WhizSort.

In the late 1970s to early 1980s, as firms became specialized, W&H realized its area of expertise would be to understand a customer’s warehouse configuration and distribution needs and then design a plan and material handling systems to fit those parameters. The distribution process has changed over the past few decades, where retailers were buying 1000 white shirts and sending 100 out to the stores. Now, each store gets five shirts and replenishes supplies as shirts are sold so that no one store has to maintain a lot of inventory. When this change occurred, W&H Systems had to change and develop systems to support the new processes. In the 90’s the company developed its RSU™ Tray Sorter, which enabled it to expand into retail and supply companies such as Macy’s.

The RSU™ Tray Sorter provides a durable, inexpensive and accurate method of sorting a wide range of products. Its flexible nature enables unique system configurations that match specific application needs, while the simple design allows for a low up front investment and minimal annual maintenance costs.

In the 80’s, as more and more distributors added automation to their facilities, W&H introduced the WHizard™ Control and Monitoring System. It is a LAN or Internet-based graphical monitoring system that provides a highly effective graphical and visual tool to help monitor – in real time – all aspects of a customer’s complex material handling system. It can be used to monitor equipment performance and productivity, to diagnose system problems, and to assist maintenance personnel in monitoring alarms and tracking spare parts.

In the early 90’s, W&H turned toward the wholesale wine & spirits industry, with one of the first automated label picking systems. Prior to this, orders were collected from each store and brought to the warehouse where a “caller” yelled out orders – four boxes of this, six boxes of that for a particular location. Workers picked through inventory and loaded boxes onto a line and someone further along would put it all onto a truck, which expended a lot of labor. The automated label picking system saved the callers voice while freeing up time and energy.

Through use of advanced technology, W&H systems can now sort orders onto the right truck, with the order for the last stop of the day loaded in first. Today, W&H Systems has more label-based systems installed around the country than anyone else in the industry.

Other technologies in the company’s portfolio include a Warehouse Control System (WCS) , which analyzes through the use of algorithms the needs of a particular distribution facility on a particular day and downloads data on peak versus slow periods. The software is the product of many years of research and practical experience in warehouse and distribution center automation and controls. Key capabilities of WCS systems include relieving a customer host computer of managing a real-time material handling automation interface, maximizing system throughput and performance, and utilizing the most efficient methods for pallet, case and item routing.

In 2012, controlling interests of W&H Systems were acquired by Don Betman, who now serves as President, and Ken Knapp, who serves as Vice President and General Manager. Betman joined W&H in 1993 where he created the Customer Service Department, worked as Operations Coordinator and Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Knapp joined W&H in 1991. He has filled positions from Field Administrator to Vice President of Operations, which encompassed internal coordination of a 100+ person team and sensitive external negotiations with high-level executives in the Retail Distribution Market. Together, their plan is to grow the business and continue to provide innovation to clients.

Today, the wine and spirits distribution business represents about 40 percent of revenues, retailing about 50 percent, and e-commerce about 10 percent. Revenues for 2013 were $38M. W&H’s 80 employees include more than 40 electrical, mechanical, and software engineers. The company has an extensive track record of creative and innovative ideas that have provided bottom-line savings to clients, which include Talbots, Brooks Brothers, Oriental Trading Company, California liquor wholesaler Southern Wine & Spirits, Wirtz Beverage, and many others. Over 60% of their business annually is from repeat clients.  Many of their contracts are from Design/Build projects, where W&H Systems acts as a single source providing systems design and implementation.

W&H now supplies turn-key material handling capabilities including system analysis, system design, simulation, engineering, controls and software, installation, commissioning and post-sales support. Its wide range of equipment features high speed carton station and unit sortation, garment sortation, pick/pack systems, commodity equipment (such as conveyor, merges, loaders/unloaders, rack and shelving) as well as specially designed equipment that provides unique features that complement W&H’s material handling designs. This equipment along with the company’s state-of-the-art controls and software can be integrated to meet any system requirements.

Over 60% of the business annually is from repeat clients.  Many of their projects are from Design/Build projects, where W&H acts as a single source providing systems design and implementation.  The company has a large staff of electrical, mechanical and software engineers, who design the physical system of conveyor, racks and bins — the “muscle” of the system, as well as the information technology “brains” that tells the machines what to do. W&H Systems demonstrates everyday their ability to deliver what they promise and do so while practicing the strongest business ethics.