By Kathy Danforth / Published February 2020
Gregg Brodsky, winner of CETA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, has been engaged in the cleaning equipment industry for almost 49 years, with a growing devotion to the industry. Starting in the stock room at Electro Magic in Vermillion, SD, Brodsky recalls, “I was delivering parts to the assembly lines at what was going to be just a summer job, with me going back to school in the fall of 1971. But my career escalated faster than anticipated, working just about every facet of the manufacturing process in a couple of years, so returning to school didn’t happen.”
In 1974 Brodsky was promoted to shop foreman. “Electro Magic went to two eight-hour shifts, and I ran the night crew—everything from sheet metal to welding to testing to assembly to shipping.” Brodsky recalls this as an early challenge—“I was 21 and ramrodding or leading personnel 20 years my senior. I learned very early that if you’re going to manage, you have to first learn to get people to work with you, not for you. Today it would be called bribery, but if we outperformed the day crew in production efficiency, I would buy pizza for everybody at the end of our shift, which ended at midnight. That incentive came out of my pocket, and that camaraderie of having pizza and beer let them know I was working with their best interests at heart. Most were on piece work back then, and functioning together with a common goal made them more successful. I learned fairly quickly that we may carry different positions and job descriptions, but for practical purposes we are on the same level—from the janitor to the CEO.”
When the oil embargo crippled the economy in the latter part of 1974, Brodsky returned to the day shift supervising the stock room. However, he says, “In 1975 I made the biggest transition, from the manufacturing side to inside sales, an order taker or in today’s world, ‘sales administrator.’ At that time, when you went ‘up front,’ from direct to indirect labor, you wore a shirt and tie, no blue jeans. There was a distinct difference in the working environment, and I had a rough time adjusting because my friends and fellow workers were still in the back.”
Brodsky relates an incident in the transitional learning curve. “When I went up front, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the manufacturing process but maybe not the timeline of continual changes to that process I was in charge of. In the 1970s, the industry was very cookie cutter compared to today’s just-in-time manufacturing process; back then you may have had six units in your line up and would run 300–500 units at a time, though most current manufacturers don’t run mass quantities any longer. As well as sales, I was also in charge of the production schedule. In this instance I was making the third production change for the week. That’s easy to change on paper, but in the shop, it means a major undertaking, from changing sheet metal work orders to paint color, etc.”
This change was not well received, and Brodsky explains, “Gary Mount, our production supervisor and a close personal friend who just retired after 59 years in the industry, got a little physical and grabbed my tie, thinking it was a clip-on. It wasn’t, and my tie became a rope in a battle of tug of war, my shirt was torn, and tempers flared. On my short walk back to the front offices I had convinced myself that I needed to find a better way to change the production schedule. I had just had that conversation with myself, and as I opened the door to our offices I was surprised to see the president of our company on his way to the manufacturing area. He asked, ‘What happened to you?’ and I said, ‘Just another production schedule change.’”
“Our president, Charlie Amant, called us in and sat us down like two little kids. I think Gary thought I had abandoned them and wasn’t on the team anymore. I was, but I was just wearing a tie…and I learned really quickly I wasn’t going to do three production changes in a week again!”
Brodsky takes the professionalism of the industry very seriously, and says, “In sales, professionalism is where it’s at. I was brought in by a retired Air Force Brigadier General, one of the principals of Alkota and VP of sales at Electro Magic, and he always wore a suit. People joked that I was a banker when I first entered into my regional sales manager position, but I still dress that way in the field today out of respect to him, for what he stood for spiritually and in his service to his beloved country, family, and our industry.”
“In 1975–76,” recalls Brodsky, “Electro Magic was the largest domestic pressure washing manufacturer in the country. I can remember our first million-dollar month and our millionth unit produced. Everybody was excited on the new records, but also the thoughts and fears were that the market was saturated and we all needed to find another job. But here we are 40 years later going as strong as ever. Kudos to all that got out their creative hats in the industry to help re-form and re-shape the market we know today—without forgetting the continual challenge to strive for tomorrow’s unknowns.”
Promoted as regional sales manager in 1976, Brodsky moved to Kansas City. The combination of a newborn, plenty of travel, and a new town was not a good family fit, and he thought his sales career was doomed to be a short venture. After a couple of years, Brodsky’s wife, Bonnie, was looking for a change.
In 1979 a transfer to cover the West coast became available. According to Brodsky, “Bonnie, my wife of 4 years then and 44 years now, was not happy 300 miles from South Dakota, so I was assuming that Spokane, WA, was going to be worse. After getting a map out to even see where Washington State was, we made a trip to investigate. My wife and partner in life has always been very supportive as well as a great sounding board to discuss the small to the large issues of life. Without her, my family life and sales career would have never materialized to what we have today. We fell in love with Spokane, which is nothing short of an overgrown cow town. This big move created the opportunity for a very positive turn in my career, as I was reassured and re-energized knowing that I had Bonnie’s unquestioned support.”
When Electro Magic was sold by Kidde in 1981, the Brodskys bought a distributorship and changed the name of the distributorship from Electro Magic Sales to EM Sales, carrying the Alkota brand. “The original seven Alkota owners had been employed at Electro Magic and started the rebirth of an old company,” notes Brodsky. “It took the Alkota team a couple of years to get in a position to afford an outside sales staff, but in October 1987 I rejoined forces again with the same team, just under a different plaque on the door.”
During his time as a distributor, Brodsky found, “The distributorship makes the brand; the brand doesn’t make the distributor. If we had multi-million-dollar advertising driving customers to a dealer, that would be great; but most don’t. We have to pull business to the distributor, and the majority of that is through earning trust and word of mouth. None of us have the purse strings to become the Coke or Pepsi of pressure washing or the cleaning equipment industry.
“Recurring business has always been a blessing,” comments Brodsky. “It gives opportunities to develop relationships. I struggle with this as I approach retirement—there are third-generation customers whom I have dealt with for decades, and I find it difficult to turn these relationships over to a newcomer. They are friends we just happen to do business with.
Everyone claims that their most important asset is their people, but that’s something that we earn. It’s not a given. I’m proud that I stayed with the same team for my almost 49 years—it’s the same people regardless of the label or the color of the equipment. It’s an old cliché, but I love that it’s true for me—‘If you do what you enjoy for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.’”
Gary Scott, past president of Alkota, has known Brodsky since his early days at Electro Magic. “When some of us left Electro Magic and acquired Alkota, we needed somebody to call on the West coast, so we called Gregg. He’s been an integral part of our success ever since. He’s great with distributors—helping them get set up and helping them grow. He’s also got a great inventive mind, so he helps us design equipment.”
Brodsky sees himself as an ambassador not just for Alkota but for the industry as a whole. “I have accumulated more than 3 million miles flying as well as 4 million miles driving while growing relationships in the industry I love,” he reports. “The sacrifice of just the travel time away from family has been huge, but to see the ultimate outcome of all those early mornings and late nights bear fruit is priceless.”
“In my earlier years, talking with the competition was taboo. Now I have no complaints about competition—competition makes me better. That’s why I get out of bed. Through CETA I’ve met a lot of friends who just happen to be competitors. When you look at the Lifetime Achievement Awards, I don’t think people see the recipients as just a company employee. They see someone who has thrown their life and their blood, sweat, and tears into the industry. That’s what CETA has done.”
“Without CETA, I don’t know where the industry would be today,” observes Brodsky. As CETA president for one term, the primary accomplishment he spearheaded was benchmarking. “Profit doesn’t just happen. Benchmarking with CETA, ironically called Planning for Profit, uncovers those weak spots and puts you in control of identifying your issues as well as your strong elements of business. You just have to fix or eliminate your weak spots. Benchmarking can help a business to find where a majority of their business is coming from and focus on that high element—possibly agriculture or transportation, as an example. No one in our industry has the time or the resources to become an Amazon with an endless line of products.”
Brodsky projects new challenges and possibilities for the industry. “One challenge comes from the overseas market,” he notes. “We like to say we’re proud of American-made products, but it’s becoming harder to compete with price on mass-produced products coming out of China, Mexico, and even Canada. Find a niche and capitalize.”
Online sales and the prevalence of pressure washers has also impacted the role of distributors. “The brick-and-mortar stores will always have to identify the industrial/commercial users who rely on equipment and service,” according to Brodsky. “Pressure washing is now a household word, and many products are consumer-market oriented. The consumer market is classified as a satisfied customer returning only when convenient; what we are looking for is the loyal customer who will return because of the high-quality service before and after the sale. That is the challenge for the industry—finding niche customers. You have to carve out your market segment where you’re going to focus.”
The workforce is another changing piece of the industry that Brodsky has noted. “In my age group, we changed jobs maybe two times and careers maybe three times. The new generation may change jobs and careers dozens of times. This creates a challenge in retaining loyal employees.
“When I was 12, I was wiring houses with my dad, and I am happy to report those houses are still standing and didn’t burn down,” recalls Brodsky. “He taught me work ethic. I didn’t plan on being here 49 years, but a career is what you make of it. You take the tools of what life offers, and you decide to go horizontally from company to company, and just make numerous employment changes, or you can grow vertically as a loyal employee with a loyal employer. My internal instinct was to grow vertically with the team that I chose.”
Wastewater treatment has been an area of interest to Brodsky, and he shares, “Ninety percent or more of users of pressure washers are in violation of the Clean Water and Clean Air Act. If the washing is without containment, it’s in violation, especially if the water goes on the ground. So is there potential for impact on the industry? Yes, I would like to think wastewater would be a huge part of where we go, but I’ve been saying that for 20 years. The main ones complying are the large companies that are under the magnifying glass. In California’s Bay area, as an example, we have multiple publicly owned treatment works (POTW) with different discharge rules and regulations with very little street enforcement, but we built more treatment plants 15 years ago than we do today. The enforcement teeth are gone, and I don’t see wastewater being a larger part of where the industry is going unless enforcement steps up. As with many enforcement issues in our country today, it is not the law itself that is the problem but the lack of knowledge while ignoring or enforcing it.
“I love the idea of wastewater treatment, but I’m not going to use scare tactics to get an end user to buy a piece of equipment—but we are going to need to educate and re-educate. One thing we did successfully that we are going to reinvent is the open house. Almost everything has gone to high tech communication with Facebook ads and social media, but we’re going to go back to knocking on the door and letting folks kick the tires. It worked well when we would go to a distributor, contact the local television stations, and bring in the POTWs, the regional water control board, and potential end users. You have all the people in one small area with all the solutions, and you prove to people who thought treatment would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that it can be much simpler and cost effective.”
Brodsky also observes the changing landscape of the pressure washing industry, with mergers and acquisitions consolidating both manufacturers and distributors, but suspects that may set the stage for regeneration of smaller entities. “We constantly see acquisitions, and then we’ll see competition spring out of it. When you bring seven or eight brands under one umbrella, one ends up being the focus. Some will fall off, and entrepreneurs who are continually looking will pick it up and reenter the market.”
Looking at the past, Brodsky remarks, “No one has been on top, fallen off the ladder, and retaken the lead; but I think there will be a rebirth of a pivotal brand that will impact the industry in the next 15–20 years. But no one will take a controlling or dominating percentage of the market—it’s too segmented, and everyone that has a specific niche will survive.”
Brodsky states, “When you’re proud of an industry and the company you work for, and you truly enjoy what you do, it becomes you. I wish I could share the pure emotion and love that I have for the industry. You can’t explain it with simple words, but it’s very special, and for those of us who have children, I would compare my feeling as close to that special, overwhelming, unconditional love for your grandkids.”
And for Brodsky, the industry is our people. He shares, “I’d like to think that all of us are a bunch of family and friends, whether on the same team or working with a different company. In this industry, you can still have a different opinion and move on and continue your friendship, which is becoming rare these days. The Lifetime Achievement Award was just a cherry on top, to be recognized by the industry as a whole and not just the peers in my own company. My greatest achievement is the friendships I’ve acquired—competitors, distributors, and key members of this industry. I’ll carry that with me until I pass on.
“My cup runneth over because of the people I’ve worked with,” says Brodsky. The industry is pleased to respond with a token of its mutual appreciation with the honor of CETA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.