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CEO Erin Kiefer Proud to Follow Dad’s Cart PathLock Icon

5 min read

Erin Kiefer knew in high school that she wanted to work at Assembled Products Corp. in Rogers.

Why wouldn’t she? Her father, Bill Sage, founded the company in 1983 after he invented a motorized shopping scooter that is now, along with its doppelgangers, found in grocery and retail stores nationwide.

Kiefer worked for the company as a teenager, answering phones, licking stamps — that was a thing back then — and filing paperwork, whatever menial task that needed to be done. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration at John Brown University in Siloam Springs and returned to APC in 2000 as the company’s product manager.

“I wanted to do a lot of things. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be an accountant,” Kiefer said of her pre-APC dreams. “For a while I wanted to be the international sales manager and travel the world. In high school, I decided Assembled was it.”

Her decision has certainly paid off for her and for APC. After her stint as product manager, Kiefer was promoted to customer service manager and then director of special projects, where she spent 10 years.

“That meant I got every project that didn’t fit with anybody else’s job description,” Kiefer said.

Her years of experience and training didn’t prepare her for her sudden promotion to president and CEO of the company in April 2017 after the death of George Panter, who had replaced her father as CEO.

“The circumstances were not great,” said Kiefer, 41. “Our former CEO passed away suddenly. It was a difficult time for everybody as we mourned his loss. It was not a celebration whatsoever.”

The loss of a longtime leader was a blow to the company, but APC has found its footing under Kiefer. An aggressive marketing campaign has helped boost sales this year by 11 percent over last year and snapped a five-year string of stagnant revenue. APC now has about 150 employees.

“Business is going very well,” Kiefer said. “There is a lot of pressure, I have to be honest about that. But I’m passionate about it. I feel like this is my purpose in life.”

Product Placements
Assembled Products Corp. was founded by Kiefer’s father so he could sell the Mart Cart, which Kiefer said was the first scooter developed for commercial use.

Bill Sage came up with the idea when his grandmother was living with the family in the early 1980s. Kiefer said her great-grandmother had limited mobility, so it was a chore when the Sages went grocery shopping.

“My father had the idea for a little electric scooter that would be suitable for a shopping environment with a basket,” Kiefer said. “Better than a wheelchair because it doesn’t take someone else to push them around the store. It was designed with all sorts of conditions in mind, for anybody who had any ambulatory [difficulty].”

The business took off a few years later with the passage of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities. The Mart Cart and similar products became standard equipment at shopping places.

Kiefer said Assembled Products has sold about 500,000 Mart Carts nationwide in 35 years. It also has a growing global market. Kiefer said the company doesn’t release revenue figures, but the Mart Cart represents about 45 percent of the company’s business.

Kiefer said Assembled Products is developing its fourth generation of scooter, the Evolution 4, which will have Bluetooth technology that will allow software changes and fixes to be done remotely and allow for easier updates to current machines.

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The company’s other major product is its Jotto Desk line, which began, of all places, in a doughnut shop with a policeman in 1994.

That’s not the set-up to a joke; Sage was a doughnut shop regular and became friends with a Benton County sheriff’s deputy, Sam Owen, who was having problems with his equipment and paperwork flying around his vehicle when he was pursuing suspects.

Kiefer said “Mr. Sam” brought her dad a PVC pipe and a piece of plexiglass, and Bill Sage tinkered until he came up with a mobile attachment that could be fitted into cars of law enforcement officers.

The Jotto Desk line, an expanded portfolio of mobile products, took off a few years later and now matches Mart Cart as 45 percent of the company’s business.

“We are always looking toward the future and evaluating what the market needs,” Kiefer said. “We are also evaluating what they need that they don’t know they need yet. We have a long, rich tradition of bringing products to market that had not existed in the space.

“We try our best to not get distracted. It is easiest to go after the markets you are already in and use your core strengths to do what you’re already good at. We do have some little offshoot projects that we do, but we’re careful to not let it be a detriment to the others.”

No Spotlight Required
Kiefer isn’t quick to seize the spotlight as a female executive or the leader of a successful manufacturing company. Kiefer said her role as president and CEO is to make things easier for her 150 employees, who make Assembled Products Corp. a success.

“As a leader of the company, I try to remove obstacles for my team members and elevate them,” Kiefer said. “Leadership is about influence and guidance. There is no need for a spotlight on one person at the head of the company.”

Receiving too much attention as a woman in a leadership role also makes her uneasy. She understands how important it is for young women and minorities to have role models for inspiration, but Kiefer hates the idea of token placements.

“If you can do the job, I don’t care what gender you are. I don’t care what race you are,” Kiefer said. “I know that in my position, people are looking at me as an example of what they might want to become. I take that very seriously.”

You don’t grow up in the Sage house without having a tinkering mind; Kiefer said she has no fear in taking apart a household appliance, fixing it and putting it back together. That fix-it mindset is important to her leadership style.

“I don’t know if I ever will feel comfortable; if I get complacent, there’s something wrong,” she said. “I’m confident in my role but not too confident. There are always challenges to business so every day I try to rise to the challenges.”

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