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Every workday at Liberty Pumps’ Bergen, New York, manufacturing facility begins the same way. As “members” – the company’s preferred term for employees – gather at various work locations throughout the factory and offices, Charlie Cook, president and CEO, travels throughout the plant to greet everyone by name. In the past this was a simpler task. With current employment over 175, the trip takes some extra time – time very well spent in his eyes.
During a 50th year celebration last December, the company presented Cook with a Segway to reduce his time for this daily travel. Riding the Segway, however, doesn’t allow him to be close enough for the personal conversations he is used to. So the Segway is simply used for quick transportation when necessary.
For the fourth time in the history of the company, Liberty Pumps was in need of more space. The plan for this new expansion was approximately doubling the size of the current facility to just over 247,000 square feet. The one-and-a-half year project came to a close with an open house celebration for members, their families and friends, local dignitaries and anyone in the surrounding communities who was curious to see what had been going on during the construction.
The day of April 27 started out like any normal workday for the employees. However, at the end of the day when it was time to go home, not many left the facility. Most of the Liberty Pumps employees volunteered to proudly welcome guests to the new facility.
“In the early years of the company, we just wanted to survive,” Cook told the crowd of several hundred as he recounted how he joined the company in 1972, which his uncle, Fred Cook, opened in 1965. “We kept our heads down, kept doing what we did best and slowly we just grew. We are very proud of where we are today.”
Located in a rural town with a population of only a few thousand, plenty of people were curious for the past year as hard-to-miss construction crews began work on the expansion. The finished work includes additional manufacturing and warehouse space, a new powder coat line, an expanded research and engineering lab with a large in-ground testing pit, a larger lunchroom with an internet café for employees that need access to the web, and a sales and marketing wing with a product training center.
Cook attributes much of the company’s success directly to the surrounding community. During the ceremony, he mentioned that his executive team is made of graduates from local high schools. And, he dedicated the expansion to the memory of Harris Wilcox and Leon Katzen, two local business leaders, early Liberty supporters and company board members whose mentoring Cook said he found immeasurably helpful when he took over the company in 1975.
The company has grown steadily from regional distribution to international sales and from an original building of 4,800 square feet, to now a 247,000-square-foot facility. However, a company that manufactures sump, sewage, effluent pumps, and engineered pump systems wouldn’t be anywhere without the 175 people who work for the company. About half that number can be found in the factory. Take for example, Dave Haymon, who has been on the line at Liberty for 36 ½ years, had just eight colleagues on his first day of work, counting Cook.
“It’s a beautiful thing going from just 10 people to all this,” he said during the tour of the expansion. “We're like family here. Everybody gets along and helps each other. I think that's a big part of our success. It starts from Charlie and it goes down the line. It makes a big difference.”
I also talked with Diane Carpenter, team leader, who, with 18 years on the job, was the “rookie” of the employees we met.
“Teamwork and cross-training is a lot of what helps us get the work done,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter usually comes in a little early to check the orders on the monitors positioned at the various manufacturing cells. Working together with the manufacturing supervisor, the employees are assigned to the lines based on orders and then the products are built.
“It's everybody coming together to get done what we have to do,” states Carpenter.
Off the factory floor, I also met Jeff Waterman, an engineer with 33 years on the job and the one who keeps the company informed on various codes and standards that it’s products must meet. It seems teamwork is a common theme within the company.
“We have an open environment in the engineering department,” Waterman stated. “Everyone is aware of most department projects which allows the team to collaborate more effectively.”
As the company added more members, Waterman said the task of everyone fitting in was made easier since everyone knows a lot about what makes the company tick.
“We are like a big family,” he added. “Everybody seems to know everybody. My hope is it continues to be that way even now with 175 people here. Having that tight integration is great.”
Intent of expansion
“It’s very exciting,” Cook explained. “But none of this is for our self-gratification. The intent of the expansion, plus the way we’ve always tried to maintain a super-clean environment for the manufacturing plant, is to excite our customers and bring them in to see for themselves what we do.”
It’s certainly not the first time the company has expanded due to growing product lines and sales. By 1979, the company relocated to a former swimming pool manufacturing plant. An expansion in the 1980s brought this site to 33,000 square feet. In the year 2000, Liberty built its first site from scratch when its current location opened as a 60,000-square-foot facility.
Around Liberty, most people joke that as soon as the company adds on, it has to start planning for its next expansion. The company, for example, figured it would get 15 years out of that 60,000-square-foot space – but only managed eight years before more room was needed. So, the company expanded in 2008 figuring on another 15 years – only to double again in eight years. This time around, Liberty purposely built a second level above the sales and marketing offices that is currently reserved for future expansion.
“We’ve always liked to keep the administration functions, engineering, sales and marketing, and anything related to the company’s products adjacent to the manufacturing floor,” Cook added. “We like to keep that connection.”
Cook is always baffled when a manufacturer purposely separates the office building from the factory. “The ‘value-added’ is out on the shop floor,” Cook explained. “We’re here to support that value.”
Out on the factory floor, Cook said there’s a “permeating intensity” to get orders built and shipped.
“We track every aspect of our performance,” he added, “and we do very well at every part. We get it built, put it on pallets, place it on the trucks and get it all out the door quickly. It's really a goal of satisfying the customer and having the orders correct. One of the most upsetting issues customers have is an order that's incorrect or incomplete. We work very hard to make sure what we ship is perfect.”
Prior to the open house, I hadn’t heard about the two businessmen to which Cook dedicated the latest expansion.
“I’m trained as an engineer and had worked in the aerospace industry,” Cook said. “So when I first arrived here, I wasn’t really a businessman. During the early years, I was just learning from my uncle and other people who were working in the company at the time.”
But in the space of just three years, Cook went from working for Liberty to becoming the owner after his uncle retired.
“Harris Wilcox and Lacy Katzen had been around the business community for years and they knew the ropes,” Cook added. “I really relied on their judgment and guidance to get through that transition period.”
Now, there’s another transition period heading to Liberty since Robyn Brookhart, executive vice president and Cook’s daughter, will be taking over from her father when he steps down in a couple of years. Brookhart has been with Liberty since 1997, and has already worked in a number of departments from communications, sales and marketing, and, currently, heading up the all-important manufacturing process.
“Getting to this point in my career has been very rewarding. The support I’ve had along the way has been amazing," she said of preparing for the top job. “I treasure all that I’ve learned from my dad throughout the years. He has a business sense that just seems to be part of his DNA. I can also rely on my co-workers for their support and encouragement, and they can equally rely on me.”
To Brookhart, the company has always been about much more than just one person, but rather a team of empowered individuals who enjoy working together to make great things happen and stand ready to make decisions that have positive impacts on customers.
“It's the mentality that we haven’t arrived yet,” Brookhart explained. “We have a frame of mind that says, ‘OK, yes, we did it. Now, what's next?’ We get very excited about what we can do better, and what we can come out with that's going to really excite the customer. The customer is always, basically, sitting in the room with us, as we consider their voice in the decisions that we make.”
One other aspect of the company that we should note is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) put into place just last year. An ESOP is a form of retirement plan where eligible employees will receive shares. The amount of shares received depends on the length of employment. To be fully vested, members must work for Liberty for five years. Every year, employees get a statement with their share information and can sell their shares back to the company when they retire.
Eligible members received their first statements in May 2015, along with an actual piece of pie to celebrate. Cook said he only took one business class from a local college early in his career.
“There were some things that I agreed with, like the fact that if a business isn’t willing to grow, it probably isn’t going to survive,” he added. “The other thing I learned is that the people who create the business are entitled to the rewards of that business. I felt like the people that contribute to the success of the business should share in that success. That's part of the reason we ended up going to an ESOP.”
Or as he put it in a local newspaper article last year, "We have a great bunch of hardworking employees in our company," Cook said. "They act like owners so they deserve to be a part of the ownership."