We had the good fortune of connecting with Bill Anderson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Bill, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I was working in the equipment rental industry and grew tired and frustrated with the corporate politics. I knew I didn’t want to work for another company in that kind of environment. Having a degree in accounting and years of experience in management I knew I was capable of owning my own business. I started researching possible opportunities in franchises but they seemed to have a very common theme. Adhere to someone else’s rules. In the end I found this small manufacturing business through a broker. The owner was ready to retire. When we met we found out we have a lot in common. There was almost an instant friendship. He made me an offer to buy the business from him which was hard to turn down.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Prairie Dog Boring manufactures underground boring machines used mainly for the installation of utilities such as water and sewer lines, conduit and any other pipe or cable that needs to be installed with minimal surface disruption. Since acquiring the business in 2008 we have grown almost every year. 2008 was particularly difficult. Right after I bought the business Hurricane Rita hit and caused damage to my building. Combined with power outages we were down for over a week. Soon after the economy came to a halt. I did anything I could to make a dollar. I had experience working on equipment from engine rebuilding to hydraulic cylinder repairs and had friend who kept me busy doing some of their repairs. I continued to market the Prairie Dog brand and at the time had about 40 years worth of good reputation to keep me going. Some competition moved out of our segment and we looked for ways to improve our machines to make them more attractive to new customers as well as those seeking to replace an older machine. What sets us apart is that we build a simple machine to do a simple job. Municipalities all across the country love our machines as well as utility districts, the companies that manage them, plumbers, electricians and contractors. One thing I tell out of town customers who are worried about maintenance and repairs is “If you can work on a lawn mower you can work on one of our machines”. Any kind of improvements we make to our machines is done with that in mind. Most of the competition we once had has moved away from that and their machines are far more expensive. One thing I pride myself in is the number of customers who willingly offer testimonials and will give some time to tell prospective customers about our machines. I do have to be careful of distance when offering another customer as a reference. It would be typical nature to find those who are closest to them but our machines offer many contractors a competitive advantage. I have a customer in the Northeast who loves his machine. I called recently and asked him if he would give a reference and possibly even let the prospect watch a job. He wanted to know who the prospect was. When I told him the name he was familiar with them and agreed to the reference because they were in another state but he asked me to please call him in the future about any references because he wouldn’t be willing to give one to a competitor because he didn’t want them having the same advantage he had. I think that says a lot about the value of our machines.Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This is difficult for me to answer. My wife and I like to travel abroad so we really don’t get out in town a whole lot. I will say that Houston is very diverse so I guess it would depend on the friend’s interests. I don’t know of any place that has the number of restaurants we do. I’m not much on night life so I’m not the best resource for that. I like to be entertained, sporting events and live theater are always of interest. For those who are more outdoor oriented we have good fishing very close by whether it’s salt water or fresh water. Hunting is big here and there are plenty of guides available for both hunting and fishing. Texas has some pretty good State parks that offer a variety of camping styles as well as lots of wide open spaces. I guess my favorite place to have a drink is around a campfire with friends. The location isn’t nearly as important as just having friends around.Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Wow, so many people have shaped who I am professionally. As a young accountant in the equipment rental business two people stand out. Leonard Jeter was very successful and well respected in the equipment rental industry. He eventually partnered with someone else as a manufacturer’s rep selling to equipment rental businesses and that’s what he was doing when I met him. Ron Swonke was a heavy equipment salesman who we bought almost all our earth moving equipment from. What always stood out to me was how they would both always take time to visit with me even when I had little to do with buying decisions. One day, after I had become a manager and began having input in buying decisions, Ron told me “now you see why I always took the time to talk with you. I knew that one day you would be in this position.” I’ve never forgotten how their encouragement helped give me the confidence to make a change when I needed it. Some time after becoming a manager I picked up the book “From worst to first: Behind the scenes of Continental’s remarkable comeback” by Gordon Bethune. Up to that point I didn’t really have what I would call a management style. I would listen to people who worked for me and make decisions the best I knew how. I learned from my decisions. Customer service was important so I tried to make customers feel important. Bethune’s book is really about how he empowered his employees to make decisions in the best interest of the customer to build loyalty but also keeping in mind that the business’s stability added to their individual stability. That style really gave a framework for how I tried to manage from then on. I believe most people want to do a good job and want to be paid accordingly. I also believe that if you have an employee who doesn’t fit that mold then they are not going to last long. It’s better to make that separation as quickly as possible. One other person was my first real boss, James Horsely. I learned a few lessons from him as a manager and now I understand some things as a business owner. One lesson is that a manager has three responsibilities and only three. Everything a manager does should fall into one of these three catagories. 1) Create Customers, 2) Eliminate waste and 3) Hire, train and motivate the best people you can find. It’s simple to write but difficult to do but part of the reason is because of another lesson I learned from him. You can change a person’s bad habits but you can’t change a person’s personality. Being able to discern the difference and make tough decisions is one of the toughest challenges any manager faces. Lastly, and I didn’t fully understand this until I owned my own business, a small business owner never really has a day off. He has his entire life invested in himself and the problems that come up day to day stop with him. It’s 24/7 most of the time. I appreciate ideas but ultimately I am responsible for the direction of my business so if someone is too critical of how I run my business it’s probably best that they find somewhere to work that is more to their liking. One final person was a customer many years ago. I forget his real name but knew him as Bear. One day I completely blew scheduling the delivery of some equipment to him. He had a crew waiting on that equipment. It cost him time and money. This is a common problem in the rental industry, due to over-promising, so contractors are somewhat used to it and usually have something else their crews can do. This was no different but when Bear called me on it I made excuses just like I had seen others do. Bear came to visit me the next day and what he told me stuck with me. He said “I know things happen and I can deal with that. What really upset me was that you wanted to make excuses. What you needed to do was say ‘I’m sorry’. I learned a valuable lesson about accountability from that incident and have used the words ‘I’m sorry’ more times than I care to admit but it really does mean something if it’s sincere. One thing I would like to add about apologies. I hear it a lot now. An apology comes as a qualification or worse a non apology. Many times someone will apologize for how something they did made me feel. For instance, “I’m sorry you felt like your time was disrespected because your delivery wasn’t on time.” It’s almost as if this technique is being taught to younger employees. What it does is completely shifts the focus off of them for screwing up and attempts to put some kind of guilt on the receiver for feeling a certain way. It dodges accountability for the failure to deliver on a promise. It’s very poor customer service.
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