Randy Cowart took up the mantle of 8 predecessors when he became President, CEO and Chairman of the Wm. Powell Company.
In an age when companies change presidents more frequently than burger chains come out with new offerings, it is refreshing to speak with a man who is only the 9th president of a company that has endured for 167 years.
“One thing about being privately held –you don’t have people turnover like public companies do,” he said. “And we don’t have any other business. We don’t own farms or outside businesses, we invest everything back into the company. Our shareholders are not interested in straying outside our core business. We are staying the course. Continuity and focus is really what it’s all about.”
That culture is probably what has helped Powell Valves endure a Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Cowart pointed out that, during WWII and WWI, there were periods where the whole manufacturing capacity of the company was turned over to the U.S. government for the war effort.
Adapting to Adversity
“The point is that, yes, we’ve had all kinds of adversity, and there always will be something going on, but we’re emotional about what we do. We had some very tough times in the early 1980s,” Cowart reminisced. “It was a time when things really changed for manufacturing. Look what happened in the auto industry. North America was making clunker cars that weren’t user friendly at the same time that Japanese manufacturers were coming on, like Honda. Everybody said the Civic was going to go away, and of course we know that didn’t happen. The auto companies realized that the consumer wanted something efficient. Same thing happened with valves.”
He continued. “The quality program that was installed after WWII in Japan that was subsidized by our government changed manufacturing in Japan from junk to quality valves and other industries. The American valve manufacturers had to re-adjust and make better products at a lot better prices.”
Cowart pointed out that in the U.S. and Canada there are very few obstacles that keeps someone outside the continent from competing with us. “We’re open to the entire world, and compared to the rest of the world, there are very few of us. So we have to be pretty damned good now to be successful. In Europe there are a lot of obstacles that makes it more difficult for someone outside the country to come in and compete. Asia is the same, and Japan has never opened up.
“Everybody knows where we are today. The American autos that are made today are higher quality and get better every year. They’re more user-friendly, not just the electronic bells and whistles, but they last longer and now you can drive any car made in America or overseas hundreds of thousands of miles with simple maintenance. They don’t rust, the engines last longer.”
In the Beginning
Cowart has certainly seen the trends close-up during his career, which started when he was very young. He chuckled at the memory. “When I was a kid, in junior high, my Dad said, ‘The toys that you’re buying are getting too expensive and I’m going to get you a job.’ So he did! He got me a job in a hardware store.”
Cowart enjoyed working at the hardware store until one day a man came into the store and offered him a job. Cowart recalls, “This guy came in that owned a pipe, valve and fitting distributor organization. He had 5 locations in the southeast. He didn’t have any children, and he’d been watching me and he wanted me to come work for him. So I did.”
Cowart worked there throughout high school, becoming very familiar with the PVF industry. “I unloaded trucks, loaded orders, delivered to paper mills, chemical plants, and I learned all the stuff that was done in a warehouse. When I went to college I still worked part time, and when I graduated, I ended up opening up a branch in a new location in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I had a good deal and a very small ownership position and I worked hard and did well. With the deal I had, the compensation package was leveraged high on the success of the business. And it was successful.” But, Cowart recalls, the owner didn’t seem to appreciate the fact that Cowart was doing so well financially. One day the owner came to him and said, “You’re making too much money for a young guy.”
That brief discussion made Cowart nervous, so he talked to his father who suggested that Cowart think about looking for another position. It wasn’t long after that that he got a call from the chairman of the board of Powell. “He wanted to know if I’d come see them, they had a position they thought I would fill very well. I told them I was real busy and just couldn’t get away.” Cowart recalled the conversation with a smile. “So he said, ‘Well, how about if we came down there – would you have time?’ So I said yes, and they came down with the president of Powell.”
Cowart was offered a job, but he initially turned it down. As they say, though, the rest is history, and it wasn’t long before he started with the company, working his way up through the ranks. “Eventually I had the opportunity to buy into another family’s business,” he said. “But the great thing now is, I don’t have to look outside the family to continue. I’m very lucky to [my son] Brandy, who’s very capable, who has responsibility and does a great job.”
Longevity and Stability
The importance of continuity cannot be overstated, according to Cowart. He elaborated. “We have a great succession plan, and I think that’s important for the long term success of a company. A lot of companies don’t have a succession plan – they’re not able to keep capable people to step into key positions. For example, our manufacturing manager today, our Senior VP of Manufacturing, has been with the company for 48 year. Our chief engineer has been with the company for 30 plus years. He’s one of the best valve engineers in the industry.”
Cowart believes that it is that kind of continuity that is essential when building relationships in the industry. “We have distributors that have been with us for over 100 years. We’ve built customer relationships with big and small companies that span 50 to 60 years. That means you know your customers well, service them well and make good products. If you live and die on doing the right thing every day for your employees and your customers in spite of better times/worse times, you will remain successful. You’ll be around despite things like wars, fires, and floods.”
In His Father’s Footsteps
That continuity seems assured, as Randy’s son, Brandy Cowart, is currently Executive Vice President of the company. Brandy joined the discussion when asked about his involvement in the business. “I grew up with this company, in this industry. I hung around as a kid, and during college I was co-opting in the summers and during breaks right here. I learned the products and engineering and sales. Before I even graduated I already had a lot of friends that were Dad’s customers. They were like uncles to me. So I looked forward to being a part of it when I graduated.”
It is evident that Randy Cowart wasn’t just going to give his son a golden key to the executive suite, though. Brandy reminisced about his start. “When I graduated, I went out into the field and started from there to work up and follow the same process. I covered territories, called on power plants and paper mills, and end users. As my success grew, my territory grew, and after a period of time I had national and international responsibilities.”
Brandy said that he moved back to Cincinnati to work out of the offices there in 2000, and at that time also went back to school to get his MBA to polish some of his skills and get more formal training in the accounting and financial aspects of business.
“I have young children in school,” said Brandy, “and it’s certainly flattering when they ask, ‘Hey dad, could I maybe work with you one day?’ And you know I gotta say, it’s fun to work with your father, best friend and mentor. I would like it to be the same with my kids.”
It’s not just the business that brings this family together. They share many outside interests. Cowart enthused, “I enjoy my grandchildren and watching them grow up. All three of them are athletic, play sports. I love to be a part of that. Outside of that, we all like to hunt a bit, and saltwater fish. We have a second home in South Carolina with a boat, so we spend time down there on the water and the beach. We have two manufacturing plants down there so I can do a little work while I’m in the neighborhood!”
Involvement in the VMA
The Wm. Powell Company was one of the founding fathers of the VMA, and Cowart seems proud of the fact that it is the only company which has paid dues continually for 75 years. “Companies come in and go out. With good times, bad times, the association changes. But the management of Powell has played an active role, sometimes more involved than others. You play a role and you need to back out and let others get involved. That’s part of the strength of the association.”
Cowart continued. “Sometimes membership has gone down, but it’s on a dramatic upward trend now. There are a lot of good things happening. There is new blood, new companies, new people, and the recent board initiative of opening up membership to distribution channel type folks should strengthen not just the VMA but also the ties between end users and the valve manufacturers. I’m very bullish on where the VMA is today and where we see it going over the next decade.”
While nothing in life or in business is certain, it does appear that the Randy Cowart is doing all he can to insure that the Wm. Powell Company continues its successful presence in the valve industry for another 167 years.