Depending on when you read this, Santa Claus is either planning or has already made his deliveries. The naughty are either doing some last minute repentance or they're looking for fun things to do with their coal. The nice? They're either dreaming of the toy cars or trucks they asked for or they're polishing the chrome on the latest addition to their collection.

Lift truck operators shouldn't be any different from the nice kids. Plant and warehouse workers should love their rides as much as these kids do. Unfortunately, the pride of ownership adults and kids have when it comes to their toys doesn't always transfer to an employer's equipment, especially lift trucks. In fact, these industrial workhorses are often equivalent to the outcasts on the island of misfit toys. They're abused to the point where they age prematurely and face constant repairs followed by early retirement.

LD Bailey, an asset management advisory firm (Wilsonville, Ore., www.ldbailey.com), says this is the reason most lift truck manufacturers are willing to accept slim profit margins on the sale of equipment. They more than make up the difference on the parts and service side of their business. So here's a Christmas present for all of you managers wondering why your lift truck fleet costs are going through the roof. It's a small but shiny piece of advice: Convert your employees from operators to owners.

Those kids playing with their new trucks under the Christmas tree aren't going to let anything happen to their toys. The kids working for you won't either, if you instill in them a sense of "MINE!"

One of LD Bailey's clients, a manufacturing plant with 54 lift trucks, might as well have thrown money out the window for how little utilization they were getting from their fleet. An asset management consultant audited the company's repair invoices and found that around 53% of all reported costs were for damage or operator abuse, which added up to $309,000 in annual repairs! The firm recommended an operator incentive program to reduce that damage.

You may be thinking, "Don't lift truck operators earn enough not to require added incentives?" Some OEMs and dealers will tell you that they do, in Europe.

"The European mentality is different," says Eric Wisher, used equipment manger at The Lilly Company, a Memphis, Tenn., Toyota dealer. "When they buy a lift truck the operators wash it, wipe it and inspect it every day. They understand that they don't get paid unless that lift truck is operating. Here, if the lift truck breaks down the operator still gets paid."

Another dealer told me about a cotton producer in his territory where the middle-aged lift truck operators baby the equipment. It's no surprise that this company pays them a higher wage than other area employers. In the manager's mind, he's hiring professionals who pay him back for the ergonomic options he invests in, which include customized seats for the operators.

"Few facilities will pay the extra money this employer does, but it's a smart way of doing business," says Dick Knuth, major account manager, Associated Material Handling, a Raymond dealer in Minneapolis. "He's going to spend more money on his drivers to take care of his equipment but he won't have the maintenance costs."

See the kid whose picture replaces mine in this month's column? It's my cousin's grandson (another Andel who loves lift trucks). I recruited him to bring you a little extra Christmas spirit. In fact, consider this kid the Spirit of Christmas Present. Transfer his sense of "Mine" to the operators of your lift trucks and you're bound to save a lot of the money you've been throwing at maintenance. Spend it on good operators instead. And if there's any left over, have a Merry Christmas.