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Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

William C. Portman II

Awarded In 2005

1922 – 2010


A fast-moving forklift is perhaps a fitting symbol for the career of William C. Portman II, the founder and chairman of the Portman Equipment Co.

Throughout his life, Portman was constantly on the go, lifting up family members, employees and Midwest companies toward greater success and prosperity.

When touring the grounds of the Portman campus in Blue Ash with him, it was impossible not to notice the respect he endeared from everyone he encountered.

“It’s been about bringing in outstanding people – training them, motivating them and reimbursing them,” Portman, who was 82 at the time, said in a matter-of-fact manner. “We went out of our way to bring in outstanding people.”

William C. Portman was born July 31, 1922 in Cincinnati. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School in 1941, Portman entered Dartmouth College, pursuing a major in chemistry. Following service in the infantry as a lieutenant in World War II, he returned to Dartmouth, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and a MBA from Dartmouth’s prestigious Amos Tuck School of Business Administration in 1947.

After working in the chemical division of The Procter & Gamble Co. and then for the Clark Equipment Co. as a sales manager, in 1960 the Cincinnati native decided to start his own business – the Portman Equipment Co. – as a distributor of Clark forklifts. Beginning with borrowed money, his wife Joan acting as bookkeeper and with two sales people and two mechanics handling one product line, the company endured a shaky start, losing money the first two years. 44 years later, the company had grown to nearly 400 people providing multiple lines and services. Portman Equipment Co. became one of the largest material handling distributors in the U.S.

By 1972, Portman recognized the importance of operator safety and mechanic instruction and began became the first dealer in the nation to establish a training operation. The division, now called the “Learning Center,” offers 20 industry courses. Portman trainers have instructed more than 80,000 students worldwide, and the facility is the largest regional training site for Caterpillar and Mitsubishi forklifts.

A business decision in 1994 caused another leap in growth – changing from Clark to the Caterpillar forklift line. Within a few years, the company doubled in size. Under the direction of one of Portman’s sons – William “Wym” Portman III – the company emerged as one of the nation’s largest Cat Lift Truck distributors, and was recognized as a Cat “Dealer of Excellence” for eight consecutive years.

Along the way, Portman distinguished himself by giving back to his community. In 1975 he became the first small businessperson to chair the United Way campaign, and did so in a deeply committed fashion. During the year, he visited every agency funded by the United Way – 105 in all. After that, “It was easy to sell it,” he recalled, and the campaign set a new record for fund-raising.

Portman has served on the boards of the United Way (1975-79); Community Chest & Council (1976-80); the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber (1981-85); and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. He also has served as a member of the Cincinnati Business Committee, the Small Business Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and as a trustee of the Hamilton County Regional Airport Authority. He served as the chair of the Chamber’s first Leadership Cincinnati class, helping launch was has become one of the country’s preeminent leadership programs.

Portman and his late wife Joan – an Enquirer Woman of the Year in 1980 – married in 1952 and had three children, Wym; Virginia of Minneapolis; and the Honorable Rob Portman, a U.S. congressman representing Ohio’s Second District.

The Portman family counts nine grandchildren and they often travel together on skiing trips and other sporting adventures. Even in his leisure time, Portman – an avid outdoorsman and fly-fisherman – is always on the go.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with people,” Portman said of his career. “That has been very rewarding for me, and the super motivation from this lady (pointing to a picture of Joan Portman).”

Congressman Portman puts his father’s career in yet another perspective. “He personifies integrity,” he said. “When I have a tough decision to make, I fall back on the gold standard: What would Dad do?”

William C. Portman II died August 31, 2010. He was 88.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization