By Kathy Danforth / Published March 2020
Dick Johnson with Alkota Cleaning Systems has received the Distinguished Service Award from CETA for a lifetime of service to his friends—who started as customers. As a farmer outside of Vermillion, SD, Johnson entered the industry by starting work for the largest employer in town, Electro Magic. “I started with the heady and honorable goal of trying to get a paycheck so my family could eat,” he recalls. After working in crating, inventory control, etc., Johnson made the step to customer service “up front” and was promoted to regional manager in the early 1980s.
Gary Scott, former president of Alkota, knew Johnson through the early years and says, “It became evident he would be good in sales. His forte is dealing with people and developing relationships. He has a great sense of humor and empathy. He likes people, and people like him.”
As regional sales manager, Johnson moved to Oldenburg, TX, for a year and then south of Austin, TX, for nine more years before returning back to the farm in South Dakota. “We moved back because my son wanted to farm, and it’s home; it’s where my wife and I grew up and where my folks grew up. But, I still have the same seven-state territory in the southern region. And, I have worked with the same group of guys my entire career except for three years. The guys I started with at Electro Magic put a business group together and bought Alkota, so I switched from Electro Magic back to Alkota with the same folks.”
Living in South Dakota has not cut Johnson off from his territory; he is on the road usually over 170 nights per year. Scott states, “Dick spends more time on the phone and traveling to talk to customers than anyone in the industry. I would guess that not two evenings go by that a distributor doesn’t call to chat or place an order. His wife is pretty darn understanding.”
Scott notes, “Beyond relationships, Dick is also a problem solver. He will help engineering develop equipment. The gas engine and diesel-drive equipment probably have more of his fingerprints than anything else because he calls on the oil fields, and that’s what he needs for that market. Another thing that makes him effective is that he doesn’t take ‘no’ as an answer—and probably doesn’t give it, either. He is a bulldog in going after businesses and distributors and will do what it takes to earn that business.”
Johnson observes that the goals of a regional manager change a bit as time goes on, though the role remains the same. “When you first enter a region, your goal is finding new people. In an older region, you are keeping relationships smooth between the team and the factory. Someone may need you to correct an invoice or bring a unit when you come,” Johnson explains. “Every distributor has a different set of needs and goals, whether keeping track of orders, trouble shooting, or problem solving. I do anything necessary to keep communication smooth between the customer and the plant. If we get a customer who needs a certain pressure and volume, I can try to get that equipment made. I am blessed because Alkota will make special order equipment, though many manufacturers shy away.”
Johnson assists distributors facing their daily challenges—finding and keeping customers. He notes, “Obviously, with the internet a lot of cheap prices are difficult to match or compete against. Their potential customer now has more ideas of what they think the equipment should cost or do.”
There are also the memorable breaks from routine. “I remember vividly every time the oil market would dive,” recalls Johnson. “When oil goes down, it’s sudden. You can go from numbers in the black to asking your wife to call to make sure your phone is working because suddenly it has stopped ringing. The word in Odessa is that they roll up the sidewalks and turn off the streetlights overnight when oil drops.”
Johnson observes changes in the industry, one being a decrease in the number of company representatives. “I see a trend of manufacturing pulling away from that. It’s expensive to put people in the field, and we’ll rely on the internet and such more. I’m not an expert in this aspect, but I think internet sales will continue growing.
“However,” he adds, “I think the pressure washing business is decreasing overall because the market is shrinking in some areas. Agriculture is one of the largest users of pressure washers, but there are fewer farmers than 10–20 years ago by a substantial number. I see certain demographics dropping, and I don’t see that stopping. In some parts of the country, the independent mobile washer industry is smaller, but in other areas the mobile market is growing. At Alkota, the custom built market is growing because many companies don’t want to build special units.
“I anticipate the market becoming more specialized. There will probably be more regulations covering from how the equipment can be built to emissions to discharges. It remains to be seen if that will have a positive or negative effect; that depends on how far they take it. Pressure washing does save water, but there are places that don’t look at that when making regulations.”
Johnson shares, “My longevity in this job is because of my affection for my customers and my plant, the people I work with and for. This industry has some of the finest people in the world, and they’re unique. I’ve had the blessing of working with fathers and sons and now several sons of their sons. I think that’s a privilege and a joy. It has kept work a lot more interesting.”
Those relationships are mutually valuable. Todd Stedman with Alkota of Kansas shares, “Where do I begin? Dick always puts his customers’ needs before his own and always goes above and beyond to be the best regional manager in the industry. To me personally, Dick has been like a father, a great friend, and a great mentor, not only to me but to my son who is in the business. Dick may not always have the answer or answers you are looking for, but he will go and find those answers, making sure he goes that extra mile in taking care of you. He is not just engaged in your business life; he is also engaged in your personal life. He is very deserving of this award.”
“Nobody in this industry deserves credit more than Dick does,” says Shannon Rushing with American Sales and Service, “even though he will downplay the attention and recognition! He is a close friend whom I have known and done business with for over 30 years. He is a true asset to our success and the success of Alkota. He is not allowed to retire!”
Scott acknowledges, “Since Dick isn’t looking for a lead role speaking, those outside of his region may not be aware of him. Within his region, I don’t think anyone working for any manufacturer or vendor knows more. Part of that is a function of being there so long, but he’s also worked more trade shows, met more people, and evaluated more people than anyone in the industry. He’s a pleasure to visit with and exchange ideas with—I’m sure his competitors would agree.”
For Johnson, it’s serving his friends. “If I didn’t like the people I work with, I’d have left this job long ago. When I get in my truck, I’m saying goodbye to my family—but I’m going to see friends like family. They’re that close. It’s fun to get there. We get business done and then we just enjoy each other. I am very thankful for this award from the industry—it means a lot to me.” Whether they are considered customers, friends, or family, colleagues in the pressure washing industry express their appreciation to Dick Johnson for his dedication to industry members throughout his career.