Diana: [00:01] Good afternoon, this is Diana Schad, CEO of Family Business Alliance. Today’s guest is Tom Duisterhof with Gordon Water System. Tom it’s nice to see you!
Tom: [00:09] Good afternoon!
Diana: [00:10] Thanks for coming today. I was thinking we would get started by doing some brief facts about the business [Gordon Water Systems]. Could you tell us the year the business was started?
Tom: [00:18] My father, Gordon Duisterhof, started the business in 1973.
Diana: [00:23] Do you have a website?
Tom: [00:24] We do. http://www.gordonwater.com/.
Diana: [00:27] How many generations are currently involved in the business?
Tom: [00:30] My brother and I are in leadership roles, so second gen. Then, we’ve got some third gen involved as well.
Diana: [00:37] How many employees existed when it was started in 1973?
Tom: [00:42] One. Well – maybe two if you want to call Dad and Mom [employees]. Then he contracted out work to some other guys until he got enough business going where he had to hire somebody to do installation of water treatment equipment.
Diana: [00:56] Okay, and how many employees do you have today?
Tom: [00:59] 47 I do believe!
Diana: [01:01] Okay, well let’s talk a little bit about the history of Gordon, with your Dad starting out. How did the business get started?
Tom: [01:08] Well, that’s a really good question. My dad was very much the man of the house during the World War II years because his father died in World War II, so at a young age he took on a lot of responsibility. Then, he was off to college, and in college he did ROTC, so he was in the military after college. He became a salesman once he got out of the military, he worked in the paper industry.
He was involved in some cooperate stuff, my dad was one that liked to be in control of things a little more. So, he said, “I think I’m going to try [starting] my own business”. He had never been around the water industry, but he saw an opportunity in the paper and responded to it. A company was looking for manufacturers in Kalamazoo, MI at that time and he raised his hand, and communicated out, and said “Hey, this sounds like a nice opportunity”. He started small, and it’s been 45 years.
Diana: [02:14] How did he start? What did the business start as, and what has it evolved into today? What services do you provide now?
Tom: [02:20] He started out strictly as water softeners. That’s the only products that Lindsay Water Conditioning had at that time. Over the years, my brother joined in the mid-80s, and he started a bottle water service. The five-gallon bottles, the coolers, deliveries to homes and offices. We’ve been doing that for 30 years. I joined in the mid-nineties, Dad retired right about the time I joined.
We have grown from a Kalamazoo location to soon to be four locations, fourth being north of Rockford, south of Cedar Springs and 14 Mile. The locations are part production, part people and office space, and a couple of them (the one in Portage and the one soon to be in the Rockford area) are for customer convenience, if you want to pick up products. So, we have grown a lot and the source of it was my dad, he was fiercely independent. He did a good job starting a business, because he had three kids in private schools, every week he knew how much he had to sell to cover the payment for the house, the education, and the car.
Diana: [03:29] So he was very motivated.
Tom: [03:30] [Laughs]
Very motivated! Very motivated.
Diana: [03:33] I enjoyed reading about the history of the starting of the company. Do you have any memories of what it was like growing up in a family business and how your father integrated you and your brother into the business?
Tom: [03:42] Yeah. Early on I remember he first started out of the house. So, after about a year or so, he rented some space, not big space, but space. We had to get it ready to be an office. At that time, it wasn’t anything fancy, a couple of desks, maybe a third desk, a couple of phones. We had to clean the space out. I remember as a kid, I was about nine years old, maybe 10, we were brooming and cleaning and painting, doing all that stuff. That was the start of the office outside of the home.
Then, it was not only brooming and doing things around the office, but it was going out on service calls and installations with the guys. My brother and I would do that, Steve remembers my dad sitting on the edge of the bed at night making phone calls to people and making notes, trying to set appointments. There’s a lot of family involvement. My sister and my mom, my mom was the office person, and us three kids did whatever we could to help. Quite frankly, we had to be around the office because they were both down there. In the summertime we had to be down there too!
Diana: [04:54] Now, I know you have some young adult and teen children. Have you done the same with them, getting them involved with the family business?
Tom: [05:01] A bit, yes. Brother and I again are the ones that are involved, my sisters family less so. Steve’s kids are older than mine, all of them have worked at some capacity, they now are all professionals. One of his daughter is now back working with us as they moved back to the Grand Rapids area. So, she is involved with us full time. My daughter is in college and is here for the summer doing some things that we need done.
Diana: [05:29] Did you always know you wanted to come back and work with the family business, or did you venture out elsewhere?
Tom: [05:34] My brother and I both swore it off after college.
Diana: [05:36] [Laughs]
Then what brought you back?
Tom: [05:38] Never say never. My brother spent three or four years in engineering and sales stints, as did I. We are both engineers by training. I worked for nine years doing other things, and at that time I said “Dad, brother, it’s yours, I’m doing my own thing, it’ll be great”. But again, never say never. I was working for a small family owned manufacturing rep firm doing technical sales and industrial applications. There was a father and two sons involved in the business, and I went “Hmm, maybe I should help my father and my brother”, you know? So, we talked a bit, worked things out, and we have been here…good heavens, 22 years last week. It’s worked out so far.
Diana: [06:25] That’s great! That’s a great next question. What resources have helped navigate those family and co-owner and colleague relationships?
Tom: [06:32] Really good question. I think part of it was need. Dad needed family in the business to make it go, to start it. He didn’t have the resource of FBA at the time, but my dad was huge on networking. He was very much interested in getting influence and input from other people. He reached out and talked to people, other families. I can think of a car dealership in Kalamazoo that’s a family friend. I played tennis with one of his sons, another son was a friend of my sister’s, and the parents were friends of my parents, and the grandparents if you will, were mentors to my dad. It’s leaning on people who have been through it before and asking the right questions, doing the best you can. You’ve got to muddle through it.
Diana: [07:21] I think that’s the way it’s been done for generations, is looking for people in similar situations and finding people who are facing common [issues].
Tom: [07:27] My dad had a couple of really good quotes, and one was “Never reinvent the wheel”. Go pick somebody else’s brain.
Diana: [07:38] What do you think makes Gordon Water Systems services so special?
Tom: [07:43] That’s something that as a family business we are a little bit, maybe bias. We are based on three things. One is the customer focus. We realized early on that without a customer, you don’t have a business, so it’s customer satisfaction. My dad, when he selected the equipment, [what] he selected early on was unique as compared to the only other name that people really know, and even still know as a nationally recognized name in water softeners and water treatment. The equipment that he had was better than their equipment. He quickly, within a matter of a few years, was out selling them in the Kalamazoo area, [he] just was really helping people save money and be efficient with salt and water and having clean soft water in their homes. It was high quality equipment.
Then, he took on the Kinetico product line shortly after starting, a few years later. Kinetico has turned out to be a wonderful product line for us; it’s unique, it’s efficient, it’s made in America, it’s got a great warranty, I mean it’s everything you want in a company. We really value that relationship and product line. The third would be the service and the integrity, Steve often refers to it. We went to a high school without locks on lockers, that was our life. We were raised to be honest, with a work ethic and to be respectful and, to appreciate people’s position. We’ve carried that into our business. I think that people can see that, because it is natural to the corporate character of who we are. The customer is first, we’ve got great products, and we serve with integrity.
Diana: [09:25] How has being a family business help lead to the success of the company?
Tom: [09:30] My dad passed away in December, but his name is on everything that I touch and see every day. He is looking down, if you will, from the sign, or the letterhead, or the business card, or on my shirt. His name is there. Part of that is – in fact, most of that – is super motivating. It is our business, it’s what my dad started, it’s what we poured our lives into. One of his words of advice, was “Don’t tube the business!”. That meant, you’ve got good customers, good products, serve with integrity. All of that.
Diana: [10:09] What do you find the most satisfying aspect of being part Gordon Water Systems, and a family business?
Tom: [10:15] I think the biggest [satisfaction], and it can sound cliché-ish, it’s the people that I work with over the years. We have had the opportunity, as small business owners, you become friends with your employees. Not all of them, but a good share of them. You become a counselor and sometimes you provide some financial assistance, sometimes you allow for extra time on something, or you offer up whatever it might be to help that person you care about with a problem or situation they have in their life.
In turn, most people impact us by doing an amazing job in representing Gordon and the Duisterhof family, Gordon Duisterhof and the family, to the public in ways that are better than what we ever expected. Maybe even do their job way better than I can or Steve can. We’ve just got great people. It’s very rewarding to have the online reviews reflect that, when they say “‘Oh, Chad did such a great job!’ or ‘Phil was so honest, and he was upfront, he fixed our equipment rather than trying to sell us something'”. I need that, and it just brings a smile and a warmth to me, that satisfaction.
Diana: [11:31] I saw five stars when I was looking online, so that must make you proud.
Tom: [11:34] Yeah! That’s a big part of it, there’s no doubt about it.
Diana: [11:38] So, you mentioned integrity and community. What are some community outreach projects that you and your employees have been involved in?
Tom: [11:45] Well, we do a bunch of water donations to events. Walks, runs, more recently mud runs!
Diana: [11:53] Oh, fun!
Tom: [11:55] Stuff, like triathlons, we just did a triathlon this last weekend by supplying them with water. There’s lots and lots of people that enjoy our water. May through September, and throughout the year, but in those warmer months where there are more outside activities. Marathons, the Kalamazoo marathon, Grand Rapids Marathon, and a number of others. My brother, via rotary, has been to Haiti three time, he has had impact there. We have also, through the Grand Rapids rotary, been involved with, gosh, over 100 of the bio-sand filters we provided.
Diana: [12:32] Oh, that’s amazing.
Tom: [12:33] We recognize that we are helping people have clean, safe water. It comes to their homes here, but there’s a lot of people in this hemisphere and other parts of the world where they don’t even have running water, let alone clean water.
Diana: [12:52] The things we take for granted, it is so easy to turn on a tap.
Tom: [12:55] Yeah, exactly.Diana: [12:56] One final question: what does it mean to you to be able to carry on your father’s legacy?
Tom: [13:01] Mmm. That means a lot. It’s not a burden, it’s a joy, it’s a motivation. Not everybody has that. As second gen, or as family in a business, it’s a motivating factor that I think Steve and I both take very seriously. It’s our dad’s legacy, it’s our legacy, it’s who people know us as. As a business owner, a small business, a family business owner, it is who you are. People know you as that, you can’t on weekends just disappear and not be “Tom from Gordon Water”. I do the radio ads, so people hear this voice and go, “Hey, I heard you on the radio!”.
Diana: [13:44] [Laughs]
It comes with a lot of responsibility.
Tom: [13:47] It does, but good responsibility.
Diana: [13:49] Well, thank you so much for joining us today, it has been a pleasure talking with you.
Tom: [13:53] It’s been fun, thank you.