Many companies are involved in helping industrial giants do business more effectively, and Hyster-Yale Materials Handling (HY -3.68%) helps customers with internal logistics with its forklift truck manufacturing prowess. With interest in its products linked to the health of their respective businesses, Hyster-Yale's customers have generally come through with orders when times are good.

Coming into Tuesday's first-quarter financial report, Hyster-Yale investors weren't certain that the good times would last, and they were expecting a drop in earnings from year-ago levels despite solid sales. Hyster-Yale's results were actually stronger than expected, with earnings soaring to reflect greater demand as well as smart internal financial management. Let's look more closely at Hyster-Yale to see how its results were and whether the future looks equally bright.

Lift trucks in a row.

Image source: Hyster-Yale.

Hyster-Yale takes it up

Hyster-Yale's first-quarter results indicated a strong start to the year. Sales climbed 18% to $713.1 million, which dramatically exceeded the 10% growth rate that most investors were looking to see in the company's top line. Net income jumped more than 80% to $18.1 million, and that produced earnings of $1.10 per share. That was double the $0.53-per-share consensus forecast among those following the stock.

Taking a closer look at the numbers, there was a lot of good news for Hyster-Yale to report. Unit shipments of lift trucks worldwide came in at 23,300, which was 2,800 higher than it shipped in the first quarter of 2016. Bookings stayed strong, climbing 200 to 23,700, and the value of those bookings showed even more dramatic increases of $60 million from year-ago levels to $550 million. Backlogs inched higher to 30,000 units, representing $710 million worth of business going forward.

The big game changer for Hyster-Yale came from improved internal operations. In the lift truck segment, operating profit nearly doubled from year-ago levels. Gross margin overall jumped by a percentage point and a half to 17.7%, and although some of those gains came from a lack of acquisition-related costs compared to the year-ago quarter, Hyster-Yale also made considerable progress in keeping costs down and developing production efficiencies.

Geographically, Hyster-Yale saw relatively consistent sales performance across the globe. In the Americas, segment sales were up 12%, with the new Class 5 internal combustion engine helping to drive growth. Europe, the Middle East, and Africa saw 11% gains on the top line, and the Asia-Pacific region enjoyed 10% growth. However, Hyster-Yale's profit growth came solely from the Americas, where segment profit nearly doubled. European operating profits were down by a quarter, while Asia-Pacific still lost money, albeit a smaller amount than in the year-ago period.

Once again, the other businesses under Hyster-Yale's corporate umbrella had mixed performance. The Bolzoni attachment business enjoyed net income of $1.5 million, but fuel-cell subsidiary Nuvera kept generating losses, posting red ink of $5.7 million on revenue of $2.6 million.

What's ahead for Hyster-Yale?

Hyster-Yale has high hopes for the future. It believes that the lift truck market in the Americas will remain as strong as it was in 2016, and better market share should boost the segment's prospects in 2017 with higher operating profit coming from greater production volumes. In Europe, however, higher sales will face the prospect of cost inflation and higher operating expenses, and Hyster-Yale believes that overall operating profit will decline. Better conditions in Japan and other Pacific markets should help drive improvement in the second half of the year. That should add up to solid revenue growth and modest operating profit gains. Bolzoni should also help foster growth.

Yet one question investors continue to have involves the fate of Nuvera. Going forward, Hyster-Yale has decided that integrating Nuvera into its lift truck business should allow the two units to align their efforts while still retaining their own focus on individual strengths. Nuvera still hopes to develop a full range of fuel-cell engines for lift trucks, and Hyster-Yale sees offering fuel-cell options as essential in order to compete effectively in the forklift market going forward.

Hyster-Yale's stock has seen some pressure so far in 2017, but these results should restore investor confidence in the forklift specialist's fundamental financial health. With good chances to capitalize on growth opportunities in the future, Hyster-Yale is doing its best to lift its sales and profits to new heights.