Celebration Corner: Zoeller Company's 80th anniversary
The Louisville, Ky.-based company, which makes equipment for moving water, water treatment systems and system components, marked the occasion with an ice cream social, an open house and a ‘roadshow.’
The Business: August “Pop” Zoeller started designing and building pedestal sump pumps in the basement of his Louisville, Ky., home in 1939. The business operated from there until 1949, when he moved to the location where the company headquarters remains today.
The company developed as both a manufacturing and a distribution business. Pop’s four sons managed the two arms until 1959, when there was a split. Two brothers took the distribution business and the other two, Robert and Jerry, took the manufacturing business. (The distribution business — Masters’ Supply, a plumbing wholesaler in Louisville — is now owned by an ESOP.)
In 1984, Robert bought out his brother’s stake in the manufacturing company. Robert ran the business until 1990, when he retired. Non-family executive Don Fleming succeeded him.
Robert’s son John Zoeller, who joined the company in 1989, was named president and CEO upon Fleming’s retirement in 2003.
Today, the company has 1,100 employees worldwide and eight divisions. Manufacturing is done at four domestic locations as well as in Canada and Taiwan. Zoeller Company products are sold in more than 50 countries. Though Zoeller is primarily a wholesale business, it offers some products to the retail and omni-channel markets through its Star Water Systems brand.
The company headquarters, originally 3,000 square feet, is now 300,000 square feet. Zoeller’s Center for Excellence training facility offers hands-on technical experience and an overview of the company’s products.
The Family: In addition to CEO John Zoeller, four other family members work in the business. John’s son Bill Zoeller runs Zoeller Pump Company. Bill’s cousin Chris Zoeller is the operations manager in Louisville. Another cousin, Anthony Huntchman, is an engineer, and a third, Dale Dueffert, works in sales.
Robert Zoeller and his wife, Clara, had 10 children. Shares in the business have been gifted down through the generations. Bill estimates that about 100 family members own stock in the business. There are 44 members of the fourth generation and more than 40 G5s.
The Zoellers have a family governance body that they call a family business council. The council has about 50 general members, who have voting privileges. There are also auxiliary members, who don’t vote, and associate members, who receive communications but don’t vote or attend meetings.
“There’s lots of attachment to the business, regardless of whether people work there or not,” Bill says.
The Celebration: The company kicked off its 80th anniversary events with an ice cream social on July 25.
Robert Zoeller’s motto was, “Life is short; eat dessert first.” In his honor, the company incorporates ice cream and desserts into its celebrations, “just to kind of keep that memory alive,” Bill says.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert would pack a station wagon full of pumps and set off to drum up business. Sometimes his wife and children would join him. As an homage to those days, John and Bill visited all 28 of Zoeller’s U.S. manufacturers’ representative agencies and customers in what they called a “roadshow.”
“We were using ‘80 customers in 80 days’ as kind of our mantra, but we saw a lot more than 80 customers,” says Bill, who guesses the actual number was more than 200. “We were on the road pretty much the whole third quarter.”
The anniversary festivities ended with an open house on Saturday, Oct. 5. Invited guests included employees and their families, former employees, Zoeller family members and four community organizations the company supports.
“We invited them to the factory, gave a mini plant tour and just had some fun,” says Bill.
A company history book is also in the works.
The Planning: The complicated logistical arrangements for the roadshow began around mid-May. The amount of time spent in each territory varied according to the size of the territory and flight schedules. Customers were notified of the dates when John and Bill would be in the area, and appointments were scheduled.
“Once we got the logistics of where we were going to be, it flowed pretty good,” Bill says. “I only missed one dinner due to a flight delay.”
The roadshow covered 42 states. Bill traveled to 32 of them. “John kind of picked which ones he wanted to go see, and I took the rest,” he says.
Bill estimates the travel budget for the roadshow came to about $75,000. The company’s 28 sales rep agencies, along with some people from the sales and marketing team, were involved in the arrangements.
A team of eight employees planned the open house. The planning process began in February 2019.
The Response: The roadshow was “a huge success,” Bill says.
“Everyone’s been real appreciative of the effort to come into their territory. When you think about business today, so much of it is transactional. So the message that we were portraying to our customers is that we’re owned and operated by the family. We do have a family atmosphere in our business.”
Customers liked the personal touch. “You don’t see presidents and CEOs going out and just thanking customers for their business,” Bill says. “It wasn’t a true sales call; it was a thank-you call. Everyone was welcoming.” Many of the customers’ companies are family-owned as well.
The open house drew approximately 300 people — about 100 more than had responded to the invitation.
“A lot of the younger employees actually brought their parents, to show them where they work.”
Former employees reminisced about the old days. “Those conversations were great,” Bill says.
The Advice: “Go big or go home,” Bill says.
“You only turn 80 once. We kind of swung for the fences with the roadshow.
“It’s really how we started, by building those relationships. And [now] our job is to maintain them on a different level.”
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