Tales from the Queen of Parts

Tales from the Queen of Parts

By Mary Jo Tuohy

After spending nearly a quarter of a century finding creative ways to get customer’s equipment, some of it dating back to Big Joe’s early days, up and running again, Big Joe’s original “Den Mother” Mary Jo “MJ” Tuohy is retiring.  She took time out from problem solving to spin a few yarns, impart some wisdom and take a fond look back at the trail she has blazed in an all-boys industry. 

“I’ve always been the girl in a man’s world.” MJ

I was in air freight and then worked as a dispatcher for a brick company before joining Big Joe.  At that time, Big Joe had a service department which operated out of a small warehouse in Addison, IL with a staff of four including our current Director of Aftermarket Ron Winkler and 3 technicians. 

“We were swamped and I needed help,” said Winkler, “My next door neighbor said her friend was looking for a job and referred MJ to me.  When I called her, she was hesitant to come in for an interview, not because of the type of work, but because she was in the middle of installing a toilet!”

I told Ron if nobody else was there, I’d come in and fill out an application, but if I had to get all cleaned up, I’d never get my toilet in, and it was the only one in the house.  During the interview, Ron had to take an extended emergency call from the corporate headquarters.  While he was on the phone with the head office, the service lines kept ringing so I stepped in. I never could stand the sound of a ringing phone … so I answered it!   Of course, the guys were kind of confused by a strange woman answering the phone so I told them I was interviewing for the job and did my best to get their information right. Until that moment, the only relevant experience I had was ordering parts for the hydraulic cranes on the brick trucks.  When Ron was able to get back to the interview, he simply said “You’ve got the job.” And thus, began my twenty-three year long love affair with Big Joe.

Because we were small, we were able to think outside the box.  I’ve always loved being able to think on my feet, and in my first years, boy did we.  A lot of the equipment out in the field dated back to the early years of Big Joe.  If a part wasn’t available, we had to improvise by building our own jigs to fix things or figure out how to adapt available systems to old trucks. Even today, so many people I talk to are thrilled that I can identify the parts for a 50 year old truck – I love to figure it out, to find the part so they can fix their truck.  It makes my day when they say, “I can’t believe it, how did you know?”

“There is no shame in not knowing, the shame is in not trying to find out.”  MJ.

I’ve always felt it’s OK to admit that I don’t know that answer to a particular question.  I think it’s more important to do right by the customer, even if it means taking a little longer.  I might know somebody who knows the answer, then we’ll all learn something.  Sometimes it means going the extra mile to solve a problem and sometimes it means biting your tongue to help a customer in spite the way they behave.  A good example is the “Tractor Story” which has become something of a local legend here in the Parts Department and the source for a good laugh at our Holiday Parties over the years.

The Tractor Story:

I once fielded a call from an end user somewhere up in Michigan who was looking for parts to repair his tractor.  I explained him that Big Joe made forklifts, not tractors, and asked him if he’d dialed the wrong number.  He insisted it was a Big Joe, "It has your name all over it.  Why do you keep calling it a #$@&%* forklift!?  It’s a #$@&%* tractor!” After calling me one more choice name, he slammed down the phone. I calmed myself and called him back. "Hi, this is Mary Jo, from Big Joe. Although we got off on the wrong foot, I really am trying to help you. Let's see if we can figure this out."

He didn't have a computer, so I asked if he could send me a photo of his equipment with his phone, maybe there would be some identifiers. He sent a photo of the uprights:

The customer sent a photo of the uprights from an old Big Joe PDC Model.


I could identify the color scheme and mast crossbar, that gave me a model and approximate year, now we were getting somewhere. He was looking for the "block and pulley"(ramhead and chain sheaves). Fortunately, those components had remained unchanged for several years and we could still supply them.  After a few minutes of research, I was able to pull up the prints and part numbers to repair his equipment.  I put him in touch with his regional dealer armed with the correct part numbers and wished him well.

MJ was able to locate the prints for the parts needed.

A couple of weeks later I got a call from the same guy.  He actually called to apologize for the way he had talked to me and said he would have instantly hung up on anybody who had cussed him out the way he had with me.   He also wanted to say thanks because the parts I advised had arrived and worked perfectly and he was back in business. Then my phone chirped again with a photo alert.

The customer’s field modified tractor / forklift hybrid.


WELL, I’ll be damned, my farmer was right all along, he did have a tractor.  It had been modified in the field with a Big Joe mast section that was being used to lift hay up to a barn loft.

 “Learn something new every day!” MJ

I think of the “Tractor Story” as a teaching moment.  I could have dismissed the farmer as some old crank and simply taken the next call – when you’ve got over sixty years of equipment in the field, there is always another part request to process, but that wouldn’t have helped the customer, and in turn could have hurt Big Joe.  I’d rather take some heat from a gruff old man and solve his problem, than have him telling everybody he knows that Big Joe doesn’t care about its customers and that we have bad service.  I like to tell our new hires the story so they get the understanding that we belong to a larger community and we’re not just a parts department.

That’s what makes Big Joe so special to me. I’ve always liked working here because it has been like a family, we’re always laughing and joking, just a great group of people.  That feeling extends to our distributors and, I think, to our end users as well.  It makes me happy that we’re easy to work with and helpful and I’m proud of our reputation as problem solvers.  Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the Service Managers at the dealers, mostly by voice.  I once had a newer guy questioning my part recommendation, in the background, I heard a familiar voice yell “If MJ says it’s right, its right!”  That made my day.

Of course, I’ve seen a lot of change in my time in the Material Handling Industry.  When I started at Big Joe, we were an independent manufacturer where we’re now part of a large International Corporation, EP.  I was apprehensive at the time of the takeover and it has been a work in process.  The biggest challenge was that Big Joe equipment was dependable, but the company was stuck in the 1950s.  EP brought in a whole new mindset – new ways of doing things that we had to adapt to.  They’ve taken the best of what Big Joe did and modernized the process to make us competitive again.  Back then, I was one of the only women in the business, now there are women in nearly every position in the industry.  EP is very progressive, to have a woman, Sang Tian, as the #2 person worldwide is amazing. This is really a forward-thinking company and I think it’s great.

Looking back on my time with Big Joe, the part that made it so easy was enjoying the people I worked with – it made it fun to come to work.  As I prepare for the next phase of my life, folks are asking me how I navigated 23 years in forklift parts.  It’s really pretty simple:

Pay attention to the details.

Sometimes being first isn’t good, you have to be correct, even if it takes a little longer.

If you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

There is more wine at home!

Good Luck & God Bless Mary Jo, we will miss you!