By Steve Guglielmo
The material handling industry has changed quite a bit since Virgil Watts opened Watts Equipment Company in 1967. The needs of customers have changed and the company has evolved and adapted with the times. One thing that has been constant, however, is the unyielding passion and drive of the company’s leadership.
From Virgil, who stayed involved in the day-to-day operation of the company well into his 80s and stayed up to date with all of the advancements in the industry until he passed away at 94, to current President Shirley Perreira, who joined the company in 1987 fresh out of college and has never worked elsewhere, and Owner Brock Watts who has grown up in the industry and feels the same passion as his father, Watts has been constantly helmed by leaders whose mission it is to provide the best possible product and service to its customers.
While the industry has changed, the company’s mission has remained clear: “To impress customers and employees with top quality products and service at a reasonable expense and enhance bottom line integrity.”
Then and Now
Virgil’s journey to founding Watts was an interesting one. He was involved with Vaudeville before he moved to California to begin his career in sales. “Virgil was always a go-getter,” says Perreira. After working for another forklift vendor in the Valley, Watts decided to venture out and set up shop for himself, applying that incredible charisma and attitude to his own company. In 1967, Watts Equipment was born.
The company was very small, starting with only five employees in a cramped office space with only eight parking spots.
“The company started out mainly selling forklifts,” says Perreira. “But Virgil always had an idea. He really loved this business and learning all about the changes in the industry.”
When Watts formed the company, people’s understanding of unitization and palletization was limited.
“Back in the day, we used to just stick pallets on top of pallets,” Perreira says. “But over time, the industry evolved in learning how to store better and stack products higher using rack. We had to evolve along with our customers and really become specialists in what they needed.”
By keeping his finger on the pulse of the industry, Watts was able to transform his small operation into the $15 million company that it is today. Though Watts began as simply a forklift dealer, it gradually expanded its offering to include racking, installation, modular buildings and much more.
“Anything that is inside a warehouse, we sell,” Perreira says. “Companies that have been in business for a long time understand that they have to be open to change.”
A Date With Destiny
While Virgil may have had a strange, circuitous route to Watts Equipment, it has nothing on Shirley’s adventure.
When Shirley moved to Stockton to complete her education she was living with four friends, one of whom was working at Watts. That girl’s father ran his own business and was moving the company to Texas and bringing her with him to help run the company. In a stroke of destiny, she asked Shirley to take over the job for her.
“I said, ‘I don’t want that job!’” she remembers with a laugh. “I reluctantly agreed to take it for the summer, because I knew some of the guys that worked there. But after that it would be time for me to get a real job .’”
That was in 1987. She still hasn’t found that “real job.” But what she has done is work her way up through the company, working as a parts runner, counter worker, parts tech, customer service specialist (CSS), parts manager, service manager, and eventually president and General Manager.
“When I was hired, we didn’t have a CSS department,” she says. “I kind of built that from the ground up. I think that’s a great way to learn the business. The more I did, the more I loved it. I can’t tell you how much I love this job and this industry. I’m lucky enough to be one of those people who loves going to work in the morning.”
That infectious passion is shared by all 50 employees at Watts Equipment. It’s one of the things that makes Watts one of the premier dealers in the country.
The Right Team
“I had a customer ask me the other day, ‘Why should I pick Watts Equipment instead of any other Crown dealer?’” Perreira says. “I told him, ‘You can get a forklift from anybody. But you can’t get my staff anywhere else.’ I’ve got the most incredible staff and that’s why we’re so successful.”
At Watts, there is a heavy emphasis on a family atmosphere and hiring people that fit the company dynamic and culture. It is no accident that the company’s mission statement mentions employees alongside customers.
“We’re a family-owned company,” Perreira says. “Brock is very involved with our employees. He loves seeing them evolve with us. It may sound corny, but we’re like a family. When one of us fails, we all fail. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.”
To ensure that they are hiring the best fits, Watts puts applicants through a rigorous interview and training process. First, the applicant has a one-on-one interview with the department manager. Then he has a group interview with the entire management staff.
“You can tell a lot about a person when you see how they interact in a group dynamic,” she says. “It’s easy to be your best in a one-on-one setting. But in a group, I may catch something that my parts manager didn’t see. I want to see how they interact with a variety of personalities.”
Once a candidate is hired, they spend time immersing themselves in all facets of the operation. They spend a couple of days in each department, learning how each department impacts the others.
“They get integrated into everything,” Perreira says. “They ride along with our techs and our sales staff. They learn from each person. I think that really breeds the attitude that we’re all in this together.”
Of course, that philosophy of fostering close relationships and teamwork extends beyond Watts’ 50 employees. It is also an essential part of the company’s manufacturing relationships. The company has represented Toyota since 1971 and Crown since 1984.
“I don’t think we could be any luckier, if you want to call it luck,” she says. “It takes a lot, too, to keep those lines that you have, because they’re the best. They both do such a great job including the factory. I know a lot of forklift companies that have different lines and there is no factory representation.”
For Perreira and Watts, that representation fits their culture like a glove. Both manufacturers have reps that come to the dealership regularly. They ride along with Watts CSS reps, meet with the management staff and talk about things that are going on in the industry and with the customer base.
“That’s a huge deal for customers, to see somebody from the factory,” Perreira adds. “I think that’s a lost venue these days. A lot of people, when the recession hit, cut CSS and factory reps. Or somebody would quit and they just wouldn’t replace them. But Toyota and Crown never did that. In fact, they’ve grown on both sides.”
Another advantage of having such widely-respected brands is that they have undergone the same evolution that Watts has.
“Both of those companies do a great job of promoting internally,” says Perreira. “People that I have dealt with in the parts department have moved up the ladder just like I have. That’s nice, because you’re with the same group of people.”
While Watts Equipment has been excellent at adapting to the changes and evolution of the industry, there has been one development that they have been reluctant to follow.
“With the Internet, the industry has gotten so much quicker. Customers want things quicker,” she notes. “I think relationships were built a lot more successfully in the past. It’s kind of a lost art today, because people want things so fast.”
But in this frenetic world, Watts understands that there can’t be an effective relationship without trust. And trust isn’t built over the phone or via email. It’s developed through open, honest communication and earned by following through on your promises.
“You have to be able to have a business relationship so that trust is there,” she says. “I think some of that is missing today, with the Internet, because you don’t meet people. On our website, we have lots of pictures of our employees because I want customers to know who they’re dealing with when they call in. Sometimes I send someone out riding with our CSS reps so that they can meet certain customers that they talk to on the phone. Face-to-face communication is important.”
And once those connections are made, it’s even more important to operate honestly and with integrity.
“I tell all of our customers when we’re making a sale that we may not be able to do everything right, because we’re only human. But our integrity is impeccable. When we make mistakes, we own them and we fix them,” Perreira says. “I think our longevity shows that our core values are the reasons that we have sustained for so long.”
Another thing that the company strives for is partnering with its customers to do the right thing for their operation, not just the easy thing.
“Our goal is to partner with them. Find things. When we go into a warehouse, if we see that a customer is asking for an 80 truck fleet, but they could get by with 60, making just a few tweaks, we communicate that,” she stresses. “We can’t just be a “me too” dealer. It has to be in our customer’s best interests.”
While top of the line integrity and a willingness to adapt has carried Watts for more than 45 years, Brock and Shirley aren’t content to sit on their laurels. They are constantly strategizing and planning for the next move.
“We have a succession plan in place,” Perreira says. “In the next several years Blake Burnham will be close to taking over as General Manager. He started from the bottom and has worked his way up. And I see that he is starting to love this business.
“For me, this has been my whole life, so in the transition to the next generation, it is important for me to make sure that whatever was coming was going to sustain Watts Equipment and the people that are working in here for the next generation coming up. That’s one of the things that we’re doing really well with right now.”
To allow for future growth, the company moved to a new location on May 13. They are still located in Manteca, servicing the center California Valley, but have expanded to a 24,000-square- foot building located on more than three acres.
While the company has evolved and changed since its founding, it is still only the beginning of the story for Watts Equipment Company.