By Diane M. Calabrese
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow referred to Massachusetts as “the cornerstone of a nation”—and with good reason. In 1621, the first Thanks-giving was being celebrated in the future state. And several Algonquian tribes lived in the region long before the settlement at Plymouth was established in 1620.
The Bay State claims a number of firsts, such as the printing press. Today, it has a dynamic mix of economic sectors ranging from dairy, fruit, and vegetables, to manufacturing and electronics.
Jim Coleman, a well-known leader in the pressure washer industry, is a native of Massachusetts. He’s also a great representative of the spirit of the sixth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Like his fellow Bay Staters, he has been keen to identify the possibilities and act on them. “I’ve had many opportunities,” says Coleman. Among them have been trials, too. The key, explains Coleman, is to “just go with it.”
Many readers know Coleman as the founder and former owner of Mobile Fleet Service, which he started in 1965, or as the former owner of Power America. Doing is just a way of life for Coleman, who received the CETA [Cleaning Equip-ment Trade Association] Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
“My interests are many,” says Coleman. “I have been a truck driver, a truck washer, land developer, a residential and commercial building developer, vice chairman of a mutual savings bank, groundskeeper of my church, corporator of our regional hospital, and, of course, a business owner.”
Coleman began driving a truck right out of high school. After a few years, he joined the Army. He took up truck driving again when he was discharged from the Army in 1956. What did Coleman do in the Army? “I was a cook attached to the 3rd Infantry honor guard in D.C.,” he explains. The military experience in the nation’s capital linked him to the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president.
In returning to his truck driving job, Coleman found many opportunities for advancement across the ensuing years. “I was promoted several times and ended up running the distribution and transportation portion of a large building supply company,” he says.
Coleman recalls the owner of the company as a “demanding mentor” and a man with whom he parted company cordially and candidly. “When I decided to start my own business, he wished me luck but told me that I had to make it no matter what because I would have no job to return to,” he explains.
“My father was my mentor as well,” says Coleman. “He was a firm believer in being true to a code of conduct. Those two people made me the person I am today.” As for following in the steps of his father and becoming an office manager and accountant, Coleman was not interested in that path. “I enjoy doing things with my hands,” he says.
While at the trucking company, Coleman met his wife, Vera. “She was living next door to the company,” he explains, reminiscing about how much easier it was for prospective spouses to meet and wed then. The couple has been married 58 years, and he speaks about their “lovely relationship” with great affection.
Coleman makes his home in Maynard, MA, where he served as town moderator for 12 years. Maynard lies about 30 miles west of Boston.
When Coleman launched his first business in 1965, his focus was truck washing. “I started off as a truck washing operation going from job to job and covering about a 75-mile radius from Boston,” he explains.
“Because of requests from some of my customers, we took on a line of heated pressure washers in 1973 and became an Alkota dealer for our area,” says Coleman. “In 1977, I sold the truck-washing portion of our company and concentrated our focus solely on selling and servicing cleaning equipment.”
Another turning point came in 1980 when a second dealer for the same brand was put in Coleman’s territory by the manufacturer. “When this happened, I realized that I could not rely on and promote other brands,” he explains. “When several old friends started their own factory, I started purchasing from them and put my own logo on equipment that had my specifications built in. The Power America brand was born then.” The Power America moniker carries special meaning for Coleman. “I am proud to honor our country each time I see that label,” he says.
Refining equipment over the next 17 years was an intriguing experience. “It was an evolutionary type of process,” says Coleman. And he gave an example of it. “When I first started selling, coils were painted,” says Coleman. “Then stainless steel” coils supplanted them. “Then there was a shift to thicker coils.” And so on…
Changes were many, exciting, and challenging at the same time. Each change presented an opportunity to rethink and reconfigure. Coleman enjoyed every bit of it, but he had to pause in his business pursuits.
“In 1997, I suffered a bout of cancer and had a heart operation,” explains Coleman. “I thought it was time to step aside and spend more quality time with my family so I sold the business.”
Coleman would not reconnect with the pressure washer industry for nearly a decade. “For the next nine years, I did a lot of things—some personal and some business related,” he explains. “Late in 2006, I learned that my old company was in financial difficulty and took it back in 2007. With the help of some of my former employees, we were able to bring it back and make it once again one of the largest cleaning equipment dealers in the Northeast.”
Health issues required another adjustment in priorities some seven years later. “Late in 2014, I suffered a massive cerebral stroke, which left me partially paralyzed on one side of my body and, in April of 2015, I retired once again, leaving the company in the capable hands of three of my employees.” The former employees, who are the new owners, have among them a total of more than 90 years of experience in the pressure washer industry.
“My professional life is strongly intertwined with my personal life,” says Coleman. “I have a strong belief in right or wrong. I believe in reaching out to others who may need my help. I believe in God and America. I believe in the goodness of people even when they don’t reciprocate back.”
Many readers had the chance to talk with Coleman at the October 2015 meeting of CETA in Las Vegas. “I think that CETA was very smart in blending their show with ISSA,” says Coleman. “I walked up and down most of the aisles and was inspired by the enthusiasm of many of the show’s exhibitors. In just the first eight aisles, I found at least a dozen ideas that I felt were items that could be added to the menu of products sold by a cleaning equipment dealer.”
Coleman sees the result of the CETA/ISSA co-location as a positive force for the industry. “The exposure to that many qualified people from other venues gave the CETA exhibitors a chance to broaden their horizons and attract potential new dealers.”
Going to Las Vegas for CETA/ISSA was irresistible to Coleman. “I am like the old fire horse who hearing the bell still wants to run alongside the new fire truck,” he says. “I have business in my blood. Going to this show was exciting and rejuvenating.”
Coleman has seen many changes in the industry, and he expects many more to come. “When I first started in this industry, there were steam cleaners and small cold pressure washers,” he explains. “Early in the ‘70s hot water pressure washers began to arrive. The big breakout was machines that produced 1000 psi and plunger-style pumps. Now there are machines capable of 10 or more gpm and pressures greater than 5000 psi.”
In the last five years, Coleman has observed several changes in the industry. They include minimizing water used on a specific job and increased attention to capturing and treating wastewater. They also include Internet sales of parts and equipment and the pressure washer being viewed as more of a commodity to be replaced instead of repaired.
The next five years will bring significant changes, says Coleman. “The major manufacturers will see a consolidation with just a few surviving. The Internet will emerge much more as the dominant force for equipment sales. The smaller dealers will find themselves overwhelmed by lack of finding good employees and the force of never-ending rules and regulations.”
In fact, says Coleman, the days of “mom-and-pop” proprietorships are gone forever. It sounds a bit less than optimistic, but it’s not meant to be. “I’m not pessimistic about the industry,” says Coleman. “I’m pessimistic about a number of dealers’ ability to survive. The manufacturers that have ability to adapt will have a chance to survive.” It’s a genuinely pragmatic go-with-it outlook. It reflects the solution-to-every problem philosophy that guides Coleman.