How Hal Uhrman takes a long-term approach to lead State Industrial Products

Hal Uhrman, State Industrial Products

Something Hal Uhrman has learned in all his years of running 14 full and six half marathons is that you have to pace yourself. With that kind of distance, you can’t sprint out of the starting line or else you’ll run out of gas quicker than you think. It’s a steady, consistent approach to the race that will get you to the finish line.

He uses this same approach to run State Industrial Products, the cleaning products company where he’s been president and CEO for more than two decades. The $111 million company celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and to stay in business that long, you have to think long term.

Build on cash

One way Uhrman does that is by only buying in cash.

“There are all kinds of four-letter words, and the only good one is cash,” he says.

His cash-only policy even goes for buying other companies and facilities — one of which was 11 years old and sat on 10 acres of land.

“If we can’t pay for it, we don’t buy it,” he says.

“You can never get in trouble if you don’t owe money.”

He bought six companies before the recession started, but when it did kick in, he stopped because he didn’t want to run out of money.

Now that the recession is over, Uhrman is looking to make acquisitions again.

Two types of companies that he targets are family-run businesses, where owners are looking to get out, and struggling organizations.

Once he buys a company, he wants to keep as many of the field employees on as possible as well as the owner, if he or she still wants to be involved in some capacity. But there are certain areas where there’s duplication and he knows he won’t need some of those people.

“We don’t need their billing system or their collection system, so some of their employees would get eliminated,” he says. “Anybody who’s out in front of customers, we need all of those. Our payroll is all done here, so if they have a payroll department, we don’t need that.”

If he has good people who he doesn’t need but may be effective in other areas, he’ll look at moving them to a different position.

“If we can find them other jobs, we will, but we have to do what’s right for the company,” he says.

He says it’s key to make these changes right away instead of letting them linger on your to-do list.

“I try to do it as quick as possible because a lot of these companies aren’t making much money,” he says. … “You can’t do it [from the heart]. You have to be objective on who stays and who doesn’t. If they’re a good worker and there’s a place for them, we absolutely want them.”

Hire the best

Having good workers who are dedicated to the business is crucial for State Industrial’s success, and he’ll only hire people who fit that mold, because you can’t build a strong team if people aren’t dedicated to helping the company. He starts with people who are willing to take the time — even sometimes outside of work hours — to handle problems that arise. Getting these people starts with taking your time in hiring.

“You look at their track record to see what they’ve done,” he says.

If they come in right out of college, you don’t have a way of knowing for sure, but he says you can see if they’ve been involved in team-oriented activities in their past, such as sports.

He’s also dedicated to making sure they’re taken care of. This starts at the most basic level with making sure they have their job, even when times are tough.

“Most companies, when things get tight, they start cutting back people because they don’t have any money, and if you have money, you can kind of wade through, and that’s really what we did,” Uhrman says.

It goes back to his cash-is-king mentality, so he was able to take care of his team through the downturn. Beyond that, he says that good benefits and a 401(k) program are important, but it’s even more than that.

“The best culture for employees is one where they have the opportunity to help the company achieve its goal and achieve its personal success,” he says. “As you provide a large group of people with challenging work and the responsibility to get the job done and reward them for a job well done, the enthusiasm is contagious.”

He says that taking care of people also comes down to looking out for their long-term desires and needs.

“You have to be honest with them in everything you do, and if you get somebody out of school, if they don’t see a position with you where they can move up, they’ll leave you,” he says.

Additionally, he says you have to make work a fun place for them. One way State Industrial does this is by regularly participating in the Corporate Challenge program where companies compete against other local companies in various athletic competitions.

“We get nonathletes to do something,” he says. “They really contribute. When they have this Corporate Challenge, they have a cookout down there. We do things to try to make it fun.”

When you have a strong culture like that, it will show in how your employees treat your customers. A huge part of State Industrial’s success is that it takes care of customers well.

“If you do the right things for your customers or employees, it works,” Uhrman says. “If you take advantage of either one, it doesn’t work.”

One way he and his team takes care of customers is by looking out for their best interest. Every quarter, his team goes to each customer and shows them exactly what they’ve spent and what they can do to control costs better.

“Trying to make more money off the customer is narrow-minded,” Uhrman says. … “You have to take care of the customer.”

Taking care of the customer ensures you don’t lose that customer.

“If you don’t lose customers, you have to win,” Uhrman says. “Every company for one reason or another loses customers. We really try to do a job on them to convince them they’re spending less money.

“If a customer thinks that he is being treated fairly, you won’t lose him. … If you take care of customers, they will stay with you.”

In addition to treating his customers well, he also strives to make sure the product offerings they have are the absolute best. About six years ago, as he and his team went to different trade shows, they started to notice a trend: more and more companies were starting to come up with environmentally friendly products.

“Our challenge is to do it better than some of our national competitors and knock them out,” he says.

That meant that State Industrial needed to start adapting its product line, as well, so that customers had safe, effective and environmentally friendly products to choose from.

For that to happen, he had to get buy-in from his team. He started with his top people to lead a change process.

“Bring them in, indoctrinate them on what has to be done, and we train them, and their job is to go out and train their people, and it’s easy for us,” he says.

Overall, he says you have to continuously encourage and gently push people into changing.

“You can’t do it with a sledgehammer,” Uhrman says. … “If they don’t change, one by one they’re going to lose their customers. If it’s not to us, someone else will come in and convince them.”

How to reach: State Industrial Products Corp.,