Commitment to quality, adapting to change at heart of Zoeller Company

Leading a company is a huge responsibility. But when your name is on the door — not to mention on hundreds of thousands of products that are installed around the globe — it can’t help but add to that weight. There is a lot of pressure, both internal and external, to uphold the legacy of those who came before you. And, to put your own mark on the company that will best position it for the future.

John Zoeller, president and CEO of Zoeller Company, has done a tremendous job at the helm of this 75-year-old, family-owned company, expanding the organization through acquisitions, R&D, and physical operations.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Having literally grown up around the business, Zoeller initially approached his dad, Robert Zoeller, about a job when he was just 18 years old. But his dad told him he needed to pursue an education and experience life first. So, Zoeller went to the University of Louisville, where he received a degree in engineering. He spent 10 years with the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District, working his way up to be the Senior Civil Engineer responsible for an excess of $25 million in capitol projects annually.

As Zoeller describes, his father used every opportunity to share lessons with him and his siblings.

"Dad really drove home the fact that our job was to grow, learn and improve. He believed that if you weren’t doing that, you weren’t productive. It made us push ourselves," Zoeller said.

"He had an interesting way of looking at mistakes; his philosophy was to fix the problem that led to the mistake, rather than assign blame. He wanted us to learn from them and move on. So, as a teenager and in college, every Friday we would sit down and he’d ask me what three mistakes I had made that week — and then we’d figure out how I could avoid making them in the future. If I couldn’t come up with three, he’d tell me I wasn’t challenging myself enough," Zoeller added.

Over the next decade, the father approached his son twice about joining the company. In 1989, the son decided the time and the opportunity were right. He was put in charge of integrating an acquisition Zoeller Company was making. Despite the fact that many people in his position would have just assumed they would be in line for the presidency, Zoeller did not.

"My dad was constantly impressing upon us that our job was to serve," Zoeller said. "And that’s what I always tried to do. While being the future president was a goal in the back of my mind, I knew there were a lot of other qualified people in the organization that had as good or better chance of leading the company as I did."

When Bob Zoeller retired, Don Fleming assumed the leadership of the company for 10 years. In the years leading up to Fleming’s retirement, there was never a discussion between the father and son regarding the future or selecting a new leader. In fact, John Zoeller didn’t even know about the plan for him to ascend to the presidency until 2002 — just a year before Fleming was scheduled to retire.

After he was appointed president and CEO of Zoeller Company in 2003, it was a challenging time for the son who wanted to impress his father and carry on the family legacy.

"Dad was always tough on me to do better,” Zoeller shared, very poignantly. “He had a hard time giving me recognition for the things I did right. So that led to some years when we were at odds with each other. Finally, we decided that we needed to sit down together and have regular meetings. But because of the tensions, our Chairman would often join us as a neutral third party and buffer."

“It’s amazing how God works in our lives. I had been asking my dad for a long time to tell me what I was doing right and wrong. He always said he’d get back to me. By about 2008, five years after I took the reins, we were meeting every other week, and I was keeping him informed as to what was going on at the company. A year later, the Pumper Show was held in Louisville and I was scheduled to work the booth," Zoeller said. "When I realized that it was the same day as my pre-arranged meeting with my dad, I made arrangements to have someone cover me at the show for a while that afternoon. I never mentioned the schedule conflict to my dad; something inside of me told me that I really needed to see him. When we sat down that day, he literally shared with me everything he thought I was doing right and wrong — and, even more importantly, he told me I was the right person to lead the company. It was the only time I had ever gotten confirmation from him that I was doing the right thing. It was also my last meeting with him – he died a week later. What a blessing that was."

Zoeller went on to note that those meetings taught him the value of good communication, and the difference between passion and emotion.

"Dad would often ask if we were having a discussion or an argument," he said. "To me, discussion is an exchange of ideas (things you are passionate about), whereas an argument is exchange of emotion. It really got me thinking about how people communicate, and how we can best learn from each other."

That ability to inspire open communication has been a major key to success for him as the leader of Zoeller Company. John Zoeller considers his role as one that prepares the company and its people to face any obstacles that might arise.

“We’ve got the best people in the industry,” he said, proudly. “There are 700 employees at Zoeller Company, and that means 700 families we are responsible for. So, it’s very important to me that we continue to build a company that can meet any challenge it encounters.

"It also means that I find the right people to surround myself with. If you take a look at the people who report directly to me, you’ll see that they are all servant leaders. If they’re not, they’re not going to work here very long," Zoeller said. "That goes for my family members as well. They have to earn their way. I tell them to be prepared for less pay, half the credit and twice the scrutiny. It’s important that we guard against the perception that anyone is ‘entitled’ to a leadership position — or even a job — here. We want the right people doing the right job, and it’s not necessarily family members."

Today, five members of the Zoeller family are involved in the business. In addition to John, there are four members of the next generation including the Operations Manager Chris Zoeller, Corporate Risk Manager Bill Zoeller, International Product Support Manager Dale Dueffert, and Project Engineer Anthony Hunchman.

Setting the standard

While tradition and history are important roots for any company, the world is changing and people and companies must adapt to ensure a strong future.

"One of the biggest challenges we have is for our people to understand that just because we have been successful doesn’t mean we will be successful," Zoeller commented. "When you’re successful, you get asked ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ a lot. It’s all about being able to adapt to every situation. Being an engineer, I came up with my own formula that I use: 'Discontent with the present X a vision for the future X a process to get there.’ If any of those are absent, there is zero chance for change.'"

"So, part of my challenge is to create a discontent in the present, in a positive manner. When that happens, you can lay out a vision for the future. Once your people buy into that vision, they’ll determine the process. It’s all a matter of evolving. We no long want to be just a pump company — we want to provide solutions and an entire system of the container, pump and control. In short, we want to manufacture any electrical or mechanical system that provides water," he added.

Today’s Zoeller Company has nine operations in five countries. Sales are divided at about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial.

"I feel the same responsibility for each of the people in our facilities around the world as I do the ones who are here in Louisville," Zoeller described.

He typically visits each of the North American facilities three times a year, and the Asian facility twice annually.

"I want to sit down with them, look them in the eye, observe them working and how they work with others in their environment," Zoeller said.

It’s a great source of pride that Zoeller Company is able to meet the demands of a highly competitive market — and do it primarily with an American workforce.

"We’re invested in U.S. manufacturing," said Director of Marketing Mark Huntebrinker. "It’s never been on the table to move overseas. Our plant workforce takes a lot of pride in the fact that our products are designed, machined and assembled in America. You would be amazed at how many times if you’re wearing a Zoeller Company shirt that people will come up to talk to us about our pumps and their great experiences with them."

"We are always looking at efficiencies and ways of doing things better. It’s all about adding value. We’re not the lowest priced product on the market, but if you look at quality, we don’t believe anyone does it better. These are products that have to perform day after day, year after year," Huntebrinker added.

Director of Sales Scott Sweeney added, "We have met or exceeded our growth expectations during each of the last five years. And two of those years have been our largest sales growth margins of all time."

Zoeller executives tie much of the company’s success to the empowerment given to their people.

"We’ve got a balance of genuinely good people on the sales team that care about one another and our customers," Sweeney said. "Our philosophy is the tried-and-true 'treat people the way you want to be treated.' So, we hire people who are honest and do what they say they’re going to do. We empower and trust our people to make decisions."

Huntebrinker went on to talk more about that culture.

"Empowerment is important. People appreciate that they have some flexibility. We don’t have a management style of peering over your shoulder 24 hours a day," Huntebrinker said. "Zoeller Company has that ‘it’ factor. Our people are passionate and there is a lot of personality at this company. People take a lot of pride in the company and feel they are really a part of it. Even though it’s a privately held company, a lot of employees have stock ownership. Everyone feels they are accountable to help the company grow and be more profitable."

Plant Manager Kevin Byrne has been with Zoeller Company for 37 years. When he first came on board, they were building 300 pumps a day. Today, Zoeller Company produces 3,000. And the Louisville plant, which has continually been expanded over the years.

"From the first day, it was instilled in me that we build a quality product," he said. "I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and things just started booming for us. In the ensuing years, no matter how much we’ve grown, we’ve never wavered on our commitment to quality. We’ve even held product up from shipping on the rare occasion it’s not up to our testing standards. That commitment comes from the top down. It encompasses the whole attitude of the company."

When Byrne retires at the end of the year, he will be succeeded be someone equally as passionate about continuing those traditions. Kevin Byrd, who started on the assembly line 12 years ago, has been already appointed as the new Plant Manager. He is a great example of the Zoeller Company philosophy of promoting from within, and noted that most of the plant’s nine supervisors have started on the floor.

"It gives us credibility, because we’ve worked side-by-side with these folks," Byrd said. "We know what they’re doing, how hard they’re working, they have respect for us and know the feeling is mutual."

At the Louisville plant, 220 union employees produce the major Zoeller pump models — as well as Zoeller Engineered Products that are custom built to customer specifications. Among the various departments, employees can bid on open positions based on their seniority.

Byrne noted, "Some find their niche and want to stay in those roles indefinitely, while others enjoy learning new processes and moving around."

Byrd said, "There are different skills levels among the departments. For example, Quality Control and Maintenance require more training than some of the others. They all have great pride in their workmanship. Our plant is very self-sufficient, with all of our maintenance being done internally — including design and build of assembly lines and programming equipment computers."

The success of production revolves around a lot of communication.

Byrne described, "We’re assembly line driven."

Assembly line rates are established days in advance based on when raw materials are received at the plant. That tells everyone in the building what needs to be accomplished and supervisors can determine what, if any, adjustments to their lines have to be made. And it happens quickly. If a raw casting arrives at the plant on a Monday, all of the parts, paints and materials needed to build the product will be already assembled to turn it into a pump by Wednesday or Thursday. It is a constant environment of planning and adjustments.

Sweeney, who has been at the company for 16 years, emphasized the importance of relationships with distribution and the trade.

"When you’re 75 years old, it’s only natural that you’ve developed some long-term relationships," he said. "It’s families selling to other families; there are a lot of familiar faces, dealing with multiple generations of customers. We’ve built a lot of trust over the years. We’ve got a professional-grade product that we won’t sell into retail or home centers. We also try to be a good corporate partner, participating in industry associations and buying groups to support our customers."

Huntebrinker added, "I figured out pretty quickly when I got into this business that you’re either all in or you’re all out. It’s a partnership. We want to gather customers’ feedback. We work hard to be visible. We pick up the phone. At the end of the day, we’re not perfect. We make mistakes, but when we do, we’re really good making them right."

In 75 years of business, there have been a lot of changes — although some of the most important things remain the same.

Sweeney described, "We still have a pretty traditional distribution model. But customers do expect a shortened delivery times — days instead of weeks. This fits our business model perfect, although we’ve had to develop some tools to react to that. We’ve invested heavily in our website with all of our brands. We’re having them translated in French, Chinese and Spanish. Some of the most popular things we post are the video series on installations, product benefits, quality, core values and service integrity."

Zoeller Company has been involved with industry buying groups and trade associations for many years, another factor that has helped them build strong relationships.

"We’ve enjoyed long-standing partnerships with both independent wholesalers and large national organizations," Huntebrinker said. "We see the opportunities for so many value in customers of all sizes. The trade has gotten us to where we are and we’re loyal to that."

Training programs are extraordinarily important to Zoeller and its customers. They put on sessions at their Louisville headquarters multiple times a year. And, they’ve listened to customers to change their format and make improvements. Among the most important changes are to provide a more hands-on model than just seeing a page in a catalog. In fact, 95 percent of the people who attend training programs hold various positions at a wholesaling firm.

And in Summer 2015, a new Training Center will open that will be a place both internal and external customers can learn. Currently in the final design stages, there are just a few approvals left to finalize. According to Huntebrinker, there has been a great deal of involvement from the R&D Department, along with ensuring that there will be a great deal of flexibility with the products to feature.

“It’s spacious,” Huntebrinker said. “It’s user friendly. Has state-of-the-art media opportunities. And it’s a huge commitment for a company our size. We are looking at bringing in about double the amount of people who have been at training sessions in recent years.”

Zoeller Company has also recently made an investment in its corporate office space, ensuring that they have enough room to facilitate growth over the next 10 years. They are also continually investing in R&D to develop the most state-of-the-art products for the market.

"It’s an in-depth process," Huntebrinker noted. "We do a lot of research and development, and we’re doing more and more every year. Zoeller is making a huge investment in product development. We had been involved with it but only peripherally. Now we have really ramped it up. It’s all about a passion and enthusiasm for our products. That’s a big commitment."

Sweeney took it a step further. He said, "A lot of it starts with a drawing on a napkin, and then going to contractor to see what they would think of it. That has driven most of our new products in the last few years. We’re getting guys to try things out for a few months and do some field testing and get more feed back than ever before. Long story short, it’s about getting more products launched, quicker, and hitting the mark."

Everyone I talked with at Zoeller Company had an optimistic outlook on the future.

"Remote monitoring, smart devices and automation will be a trend," Sweeney predicted. "That is an opportunity for growth. However the overall outlook is good and we like where we’re at."

As we were wrapping up our interview, I asked Zoeller what he is most proud of as he considers the legacy at Zoeller Company. That was easy, he said.

"It’s our core values — things like quality, service, innovation, integrity. If anyone comes away after spending time with us and don’t get that message, then we’ve failed," Zoeller commented. "Those values transcend generations, cultures and nationalities."

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