Fluidmaster’s Todd Talbot talks products, community involvement and opportunity
Celebrating a 60th Anniversary with a Diamond Jubilee isn’t something that happens every day for manufacturing companies. Fluidmaster, a manufacturer of OEM and replacement toilet parts based in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., is set to do just that this year along with the launch of a global marketing effort tied to the Fluidmaster family of brands acknowledging the company’s heritage, family ownership and expanded lines of business. There will also be a sizeable community and employee event later this year to commemorate the company’s incorporation.
Reeves Journal recently sat down with Fluidmaster president Todd Talbot, who provided us with a greater understanding of the company’s philosophy and initiatives.
Talbot, a 35-year veteran with some of the leading companies in the plumbing industry, spent his early years on his Grandfather’s farm in Northern California. He entered his current position in 2011. With five acquisitions in as many years, the company now serves customers in more than 90 countries from manufacturing facilities in Mexico, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, Turkey and China, in addition to a distribution center in Texas.
Reeves Journal: What trends are you seeing in the market lately? There have been a lot of changes and developments in the world of toilets. What’s affecting Fluidmaster?
Talbot: A significant trend of late for our entire industry is just the rapid growth that’s underway. I think we’re enjoying a wonderful time in our business. For everyone I talk with, business is very strong.
One thing about Fluidmaster I would offer is that we touch more parts of the market than anybody. We’re in the OEM sector, we’re with the pro and the wholesaler, we’re in with the retail sector and we’re around the world so we can see the different elements of business that are going on and they’re all running on every cylinder right now. And so it’s an exciting time.
We’re investing, we’re growing our business and we’ll continue to invest to grow in our business but we’ll do so cautiously since the current rate of growth is likely not sustainable forever. But I would say in particular the growth that is occurring in the first quarter is absolutely phenomenal, numbers that I’ve not seen in my entire time in this industry.
Aside from market growth, product trends are definitely something we keep an eye on. As an OEM supplier to the toilet manufacturers, the whole water conservation aspect of the toilet has been increasingly significant. OEMs today are producing technologies that are much superior to that of years ago and getting better and better every day. We are challenging one another and ourselves with things like bowl cleanliness, and electronic activation. It’s all about how we can work together to make the end product more meaningful to the customer.
Obviously, sufficient water flow and flush performance are critical. I think that everybody has mastered the 1.28 toilet and of course, the challenge now is sub-one gallon for a solid waste flush. And with that, again, there are technologies that are moving ahead and moving ahead quite rapidly. This has to be balanced of course with ensuring that we are putting enough water into the system to provide adequate line carry. I think I speak as well for other members of Plumbing Manufacturers International when I say that we must be very careful with regard to unintended consequences related to going too low with water use in flushing toilets.
RJ: There is a move afoot in the current administration to throw some big budget cuts at the EPA. How might that affect your product line-up?
T.T.: Fluidmaster, like PMI overall, has consistently supported WaterSense since its beginning ten years ago. It is unfortunate that just as Congress finally passed amendments in 2016 to authorize this important program, WaterSense funding is now at risk. Regardless of the eventual EPA funding decisions, Fluidmaster will continue to provide a balanced line-up of water-saving products that deliver the best toilet performance possible, whether for our OEM customers or for aftermarket applications.
RJ: Well, let’s talk about design and testing, how do you involve plumbers in that?
T.T.: I think we have a couple of things that are great touch points. First, we offer our PRO Series line of products specifically designed for plumbers. Directly related to this is our Pro Alliance program which is a group of plumbers who have signed up to help provide Fluidmaster insights on current and future products.
Additionally, I think we’re very good at bringing plumbers right into our facility. We’ve got hundreds of hours of videotape of them installing our products, installing our new products, learning, and understanding. Our company was founded on providing plumbers a new way of filling a toilet and through the years, we have remained true to this idea – provide the customer the best possible product. At the end of the day if that plumber is going to accept our product, that’s what’s going to make or break our success.
We have a marketing specialist dedicated to soliciting plumber input at shows around the country. Whether it’s a PHCC show in Seattle or another event with plumbers in Boston, we pull plumbers aside, gather their insights, and then build a comprehensive database with the sole purpose of understanding what the plumber needs.
You know, I’ve been in the plumbing business my entire adult life and select segments have been slow-growth and mundane — there hasn’t really been a lot of change in those areas. What we want to do, even as a company with a strong brand and established products, is to be able to drive effective change to help ensure our plumbing contractors aren’t creatures of habit. They’re looking for new things and understanding what their needs are, creating solutions is what we’re all about.
T.T.: I think the first thing you have to understand is how much our work in the community means to our company. It’s extremely important for us not only to do well in our business but to do well in our community. The Schoepe family has long been supporters of the community and over the past five or six years we’ve really taken that another step further with the activities we undertake. We’ve won a lot of awards for what we do in the community but it’s more about in the positive impact for our community.
This is the case whether it’s swinging hammers for a Habitat for Humanity, supporting the Boys & Girls Club down the road or with Operation Rise & Conquer to help veterans, which I think is something that is near and dear to all of us within our industry. And to be invited to sponsor some of those activities is very humbling for us. For Operation Rise & Conquer, we created a special edition flapper where a portion of the proceeds go directly back to supporting some of those veterans injured while defending our freedom.
RJ: What innovation and toilet technologies have made the greatest impact, do you think, since you’ve been at Fluidmaster?
T.T.: Well, I think the elements of continuous improvement in terms of flow and performance. Those things continue to make a huge impact albeit often a little bit behind the scenes. It’s really about ensuring excellent flush performance as gallons per flush are decreased.
We’ve introduced products into the European market which are actually Bluetooth-adaptable to be able to provide information to building management in commercial applications. Sound, performance, enhancing the sound of the toilet has become even more important as the volume of water has decreased.
We want to continue to improve the way things operate in the toilet. There are a lot of things we feel we can do and our touchless toilet is a specific example. We’ve harnessed the energy of the water itself with the activation of the toilet actually done through the pressure and buoyancy of the water that’s within the tank. This is an area that I believe we can build upon in the years ahead.
RJ: Okay. How involved are you with product development Are you a hands-on, gadget guy or...?
T.T: I grew up on a farm, so I can do some things with some tools that might really surprise you. One thing I’ve enjoyed about being off the farm is finally getting rid of the calluses. All of us at Fluidmaster, including our company owner Robert AndersonSchoepe, pride ourselves in understanding how things actually work and getting down to that level of detail to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
We recently refocused our organization to more effectively manage innovation by separating new product development from our sustaining and quality engineering team. I start off every Monday with two meetings; my staff meeting and then my meeting with our sustaining and new product development teams to make sure that we’re all up-to-date. I provide my input and so does everyone else.
RJ: What do you know about the business today that you didn’t when you became president of Fluidmaster in 2011?
T.T.: I think if I’ve learned anything it is how good people in a good environment can be highly successful if as an executive you just provide them an opportunity to do their thing. Leave them alone, so to speak.
We have a lot of people in the organization that came from outside the industry without preconceived notions however at the same time there’s a lot of industry relevance that we need to ensure we keep close at hand. What it comes down to is for us as business leaders to create a culture that people want to be in. Our communication levels are wide open. We do a huddle meeting with all of our employees every other week where we review all kinds of details. Business details that, particularly for a privately held company, people might be surprised we would share.
I believe if all employees up and down the organization understand our vision, mission and related corporate strategies they can then understand how their individual efforts align and impact the company overall.
RJ: We talked a little about Fluidmaster’s culture but what’s the company’s most distinguishing feature? Is it the culture; is it the products, a combination?
T.T.: Well, there’s no doubt about it. The Fluidmaster brand is our core strength and we talk about this all the time, particularly the importance of sustaining the value of our brand which is a culmination of efforts including product development, marketing, after sales support, being a good citizen of the community. All of those things.
From within our business and the way we operate, I have to put culture right up on top because it’s a positive culture that ultimately creates a great brand. It’s a positive culture that creates superior products. It’s a positive culture that creates new opportunities in your plant to do things in a different way to become more effective, more globally competitive. It’s a positive culture that allows a company to do five acquisitions in five years and have them perform far above what anybody’s expectations would have been. All of it comes down to culture. As we go around the world, we’re bringing different cultures together which is very, very difficult. Different languages, different products, everything is different but we’re bringing people together in support of our global brand through a positive culture.
RJ: I understand you just got back from the ISH Germany show fairly recently. Are you going to ISH China in May and what benefit does Fluidmaster see from attending an ISH show?
T.T.: The show in Germany is extremely important for us, particularly following the acquisitions that we have done. All five acquisitions have been in pursuit of European and UK market opportunities. I think the show really highlighted, as our company owner Robert said when he got back from seeing the booth, “We’re in the race; we’re a player.” It’s very important for current and potential customers to see who we are in Europe and what we do in Europe.
In China, our business is largely focused on the OEM market so our participation in the China shows will be for our OEM sales team to work with the OEM’s who will be displaying there. Our business is just a little bit different on those two continents so our marketing approach is also different.
RJ: If you had one piece of business advice or tips, tricks, whatever that you’d like to pass along to contractors or techs with ambition, what would it be?
T.T.: I think success in life is about continuous learning, always driving toward improvement and embracing change. We do it across our operations every day. We continuously strive to be more competitive and better in all that we do. I think everybody in business needs to do that in every aspect of their business.
I would also suggest that we not just do things the way our grandfathers did just because our grandfathers did it that way. Granted, some of the things our grandfathers did are still pretty darn good, but let’s be open-minded and learn some things working together, “Share with us what your needs are, Mr. Contractor. Allow us at Fluidmaster to provide a solution that you in turn take to the market.”
I think this is where young people have such an opportunity in our industry. We have a hard time attracting candidates to our industry. When Mom and Dad spend hard-earned money for them to go off to college, probably one of the last things they want to hear is that their offspring is working for a toilet parts company. They’d much rather have their kid working for Google or Apple. But if they could understand the great opportunities in our industry they would have a different perspective. Since folks aren’t necessarily flocking to our industry, this provides individual career prospects. Just like this industry provided me wonderful opportunities for the last 30 plus years for which I’ve just been absolutely grateful. Opportunities today are even greater for young kids coming into this business.