Manufacturing & Technology

PROFILE: Williams Beck & Hess Inc.: Demand fueled growing pains When quality suffered, Camby firm slowed down to work out the kinks

April 16, 2007

Williams Beck & Hess Inc. Demand fueled growing pains When quality suffered, Camby firm slowed down to work out the kinks

At 24, Harry Beals turned down a job working for a once-prominent petroleum tank company that had lost its luster following its founder's retirement. Four months later, he bought it.

After 30 years under Beals' control, Williams Beck & Hess Inc. has grown into a business that generates nearly $1 million in revenue each year-not a bad return on an initial investment of $65,000.

Still, Beals is the first to admit the early days weren't easy.

The Purdue University graduate had worked for Mobil Oil Corp. before realizing he didn't like the corporate politics-"I am more of a field-oriented person," he said-and purchased the company following the 1977 death of founder Bob Williams.

Not only did his employees doubt his ability to run the company, but potential customers expressed reservations as well.

"I had a lot of direction, drive and a noquit attitude," he said. "But people looked at my experience level and age and they didn't believe I could do the job."

But he persevered, assuming $70,000 in company debt and bringing his brother David on board as a co-owner.

Williams Beck & Hess installs underground fuel tanks used at gas stations, as well as above-ground fuel reserves and commercial tanks. Each year, about half the firm's time is spent on six large-scale installation projects, with the rest devoted to upgrading existing systems.

The company has grown over the years as fuels have evolved, driving a need for different dispensing systems. Beals and his crew work to stay on top of the changes and prepare for the next big thing-like biofuelcompatible tanks.

But growth came at a price. During the 1980s and 1990s, a huge spike in business affected quality, and Beals' crew spent a lot of time redoing their work.

"The gross profits were higher, but the net results weren't by the time we went back and did it again," he said. "Today, we have little recall and we are profitable."

Once the kinks were worked out, Beals marketed the business through training seminars. He also built his clientele by joining several professional organizations and starting the Indiana Petroleum Equipment Contractors Association.

Indianapolis-based Kennedy Tank and Manufacturing Co.'s Tim Noise works closely with Beals, often recommending him for jobs or talking over new materials.

"I have known Harry for about 10 years and [he] is able to apply his engineering knowledge to little things that matter on a job," Noise said. "They may not be the cheapest company, but they are the best. They cover every angle."

With only about two dozen petroleum tank companies around the state, Beals said he and his competition get along very well, often referring jobs to one another.

"We are competitors, but we are also friends," said John Mill, manager of Gentry Co. in Lafayette. "They are very reputable and they do what they say they are going to do."

With business going well, Beals said he isn't concerned about the future. He hopes his son will come into the business so he can begin to think about retiring.

When it comes to advice for entrepreneurs, Beals said anyone interested in starting a business might want to consider buying an established enterprise rather than building one from scratch.

"You can work a lifetime building something that your children will reap the benefits of or you can find a business that has been around a length of time and has a good reputation," he said. "Whatever you do, don't get yourself in a business that you don't have a background in."
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