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The outcome of a simple phone call may have changed the course of history for Sloan Valve and Chuck Allen. To this day, the Executive Chairman of Sloan admits that things might have been very different had the secretary at the Northwestern Medical School office answered the phone that day back in 1968 when he contemplated pursuing his interest in becoming a doctor.
Instead, he turned his interest towards Sloan Valve, which was founded by his grandfather in 1906 (see sidebar for some historical highlights), joining the company in 1972 as Vice President of Sales & Marketing. He was named President & CEO in 1976, and then elevated to his current role in 2008 when the company established an Office of the President — the role that is shared by his three sons, Kirk, Jim and Graham.
Throughout his 40+ year career at Sloan, Chuck Allen has led the company to new heights and a well-respected position as a leading industry manufacturer. In recognition of his service to the PHCP industry and the value he has brought to Sloan Valve, The Wholesaler has selected Chuck Allen as our Honoree of the Year. I had a chance to meet with Chuck at the Sloan headquarters recently in Franklin Park, Ill., where he reflected on his career and the legacy he has been so instrumental in building.
MJM: I’m so delighted to talk with you today, and sincerely thank you for your time. On behalf of everyone at The Wholesaler, we are proud to introduce you as our Honoree of the Year. You’ve had quite a career, and I’m sure there are a lot of highlights. What are some of the key things that you are most proud of as you look back?
Allen: When I came to Sloan in 1972, it was the market leader in its focused markets. Shortly after becoming President in 1976, our leadership position came under attack from a very strong competitor. In addition, we were faced with an economic downturn that put further pressure on our sales and profits.
Sloan reengineered its internal operations and came up with marketing and sales strategies that maintained its position of leadership. Sometimes we find our finest hours in periods of adversity — and sometimes we need a little push to accomplish things that might otherwise be neglected.
One of my proudest accomplishments — and one not known to many — is the consolidation of the ownership at Sloan. I have always thought that it was important for the survival of a family business to consolidate ownership in the operational family members. Consolidation of ownership is a challenge for a family business, because the funds need to be developed internally. At Sloan, we needed to spend dollars to grow at the same time that we needed dollars for stock redemption. We were able to do that with some very creative assistance from Sloan’s Board of Directors and its advisors. We also needed the support and love of our family members — particularly my sister Penny and her family, and Bill Sloan’s sister Donna, his wife Corinne, and her family. I gave specific instructions to my advisors that I wanted to treat the family fairly in the consolidation and I would hope that they would all agree that we were fair.
I am also proud of my personal contribution to Sloan’s leadership position in electronic plumbing. I specifically recall talking with an employee who was retiring when he asked if I remembered when I told our executive committee that Sloan was going to become the leader in electronic plumbing. He said that he thought I was nuts because Sloan didn’t know a transistor from a resistor! It was his opinion that the decision was the most important one since W.E. Sloan invented the Royal Flush Valve. It certainly has been an important area of growth for Sloan.
MJM: Obviously you’ve accomplished so much when it comes to innovation and company leadership, but what can you share about the feelings you have when it comes to your family and building such a legacy here?
Allen: On a personal note, I am exceptionally proud of the fact that Kirk, Jim and Graham came to work for Sloan. I think that speaks well for the family life that Jane and I had at home. So many sons cannot work with their fathers. But we all work very well together and I am so proud of the great job they have done leading the company as Co-Presidents. They have guided Sloan through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and have taken the company on a growth path that I think will be sustainable for many years.
MJM: Having the three share the Co-Presidents office is such a unique arrangement. How did that come about?
Allen: One day my oldest son, Kirk, and I were driving to work and the phone rang in the car. Our Director of Human Resources told me that Bill Sloan, my cousin and business partner, had suffered a massive heart attack. He passed away later that day. About a week later, Kirk and I were driving to work again, and he asked what would happen to the company if that happened to me. I told him that he should immediately call a Board of Directors meeting and elect himself the President.
A few more weeks went by, and he came to me and said he didn’t think that idea was fair. He said, “I have two very smart and capable brothers, and I don’t think I should necessarily take on the President’s role as my own.” He asked me for suggestions, and I told him I had heard of companies that were led by Co-Presidents. The boys dug into that topic and we worked with the Loyola Family Business Council to come up with a detailed plan of action, written guidelines for problem resolution, succession, and any other issues they might face. It’s worked very well, based upon the cooperative efforts of all three to work together. It calls upon their upbringing of respect and love for each other to work cooperatively together.
MJM: Did you always believe that they would make Sloan their careers?
Allen: I had a hope that they would join me in the business. I wanted it to be a choice they made based upon the fact that Sloan was the best opportunity for each of them.
God has blessed our lives and made this opportunity available to our family. Working here is a privilege. All three worked at the plant before they came into management positions, so they have a deep understanding of the business. And the business has a deep understanding of them and their talents.
MJM: Kirk, what drove you to continue the family legacy at Sloan?
Kirk Allen: I think that we caught a fair share of Dad's passion. The three of us get along great, and it makes going to work a lot of fun! We try to treat everyone the way we would like to be treated. We also invest in our culture, so that everyone feels like we do — that we are truly a part of something special.
MJM: Chuck, how did you initially decide to join Sloan?
Allen: Well, if you start from the beginning, I graduated from Oak Park High Shool, got my BA from Dartmouth College and my MBA from their Tuck School of Business. So I was really well prepared for this role.
I started out working for Wheelabrator, Corp., which was owned by my late wife, Jane’s family, in the mid-60s.
But what a lot of people don't know is that there was actually a period of time that I wanted to become a doctor. In fact, one day while I was at Wheelabrator, I called the Northwestern University Medical School to try to get information about admissions and what was required. Nobody answered the phone. I often wondered if that would have changed my life.
In the meantime, I had put my resume out with some connections I had on Wall Street and was given a couple of attractive offers. I came back to Chicago to spend some time and think about my future. Dad and I had a discussion and he said if I decided to go to work for Sloan, now was the time. I decided to give it a try.
As a young man, many dinner table conversations with my dad revolved around Sloan Valve. I would often come to work with him to learn the ins and outs of the business. I also worked here many summers while I was in college.
I’m very fortunate to have had an early career opportunity at Wheelabrator. I had a chance to have my successes and failures there before I came to Sloan.
MJM: Who have been some of the biggest influences in your career?
Allen: First, I think about my father. He was a person of high values and a clear vision of how he saw Sloan’s role in the plumbing business.
During my formative years, I spent many summers at camps, and one individual just stands out — Jack Cheley, who was the owner of Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park. He was a person of great moral character, who led by example and had such high energy.
I also learned much from just sitting at the dinner table of my father-in-law, who was President of Wheelabrator Corp.
And some of my fondest memories during my career came from working with Bill Sloan. We were cousins and close friends from our earliest years. We worked well together, enjoyed each others’ company, and even traveled together with our families. He passed away in 2001, and I still miss him every day.
MJM: As the leader at Sloan, what was your key to creating respect?
Allen: I view a President’s role as one of leadership rather than management, and the major role of a leader is to create an environment where employees can reach their full potential. It’s also important for a leader to put together a talented team of executives and establish measurements so everyone knows how we are performing.
I’m a very inclusive person. I try to create an environment where people are willing to take chances. What some people don’t understand is that while it’s important to allow people to succeed, it’s even more important to create an environment where they are allowed to fail. Failure can be a great learning experience. Ultimately, it means that you have challenged the edges of opportunity. Of course, the objective of business is to succeed and failure is only accepted as a learning experience.
MJM: Now as Executive Chairman, what does your role encompass?
Allen: I guess I could say with some degree of sarcasm that it is whatever I want it to be. But realistically, I want to be a mentor for Kirk, Jim and Graham. As the Co-Presidents of Sloan, it would not be respectful to intrude on their leadership.
I only had a few years to work with my father. Whenever I needed advice or consult, I could always go to him and get his honest and unbiased opinion and recommendation. That’s what I want to provide to my sons.
I am also the company voice of history. I think that helps to keep a focus on where we came from and who we are. I still look forward to coming into work each day. I think my contributions are respected and my biggest challenge going forward is to know when I am no longer in touch with the company’s goals and objectives.
MJM: Jim, what is it that you most admire about your father?
Jim Allen: For us, it's dad's passion that stands out. Even at 74 he still brings more passion and energy to Sloan than anyone else.
MJM: And how about you, Graham?
Graham Allen: I think that the most important leadership lesson that dad has given the three of us is to hire the smartest people you can find, and give them reign to deploy those smarts. It has served us phenomenally!
MJM: Sloan is very committed to the environment. Tell us more about your sustainability focus?
Allen: Our company motto is “Water Connects Us,” and we are proud to be one of the industry leaders in water conservation. It drives our product development and how we produce the products that we make. We want to walk the talk. We want to ask people to use our products because they’re sustainable and we want to do that in our processes and throughout our facilities as well.
I have to give the credit on this to my son Jim. He first peaked my interest. That’s just another example of why it’s so important to have this broad spectrum of a multi-generational vision.
MJM: I’m sure all our readers are very familiar with your operations, but if you would, please give us a thumbnail glimpse at the company?
Allen: Sloan has been a market leader for our entire corporate history of 105 years. That’s an advantage and a responsibility. People are always trying to knock off the market leader. But that motivates us to be an innovator.
We are an international company, servicing every major market except Europe. We have more than 1,000 employees in the U.S. Our four domestic facilities include our 400,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Franklin Park, Ill.; a foundry and a rubber molding facility in Arkansas; an electronics plant in Boston; and our Flushmate facility in Detroit.
MJM: It’s been very important to you to retain operations in the U.S. Why?
Allen: Over the years that I’ve been President, many companies have transferred their facilities offshore. I personally feel that it’s important to America to have a strong productive base — that’s been part of what has made America great. We’ve always been looked at as a country of innovation with a can-do spirit. I think that’s reflected at Sloan Valve. We could have chased the cheaper labor dollar but we always felt we had the commitment to our employees and their families. We continue to strive to manufacture our products in the U.S.
MJM: No doubt, part of that commitment has been reinvestments in improving manufacturing processes. Talk about some of the things you’ve done here?
Allen: When I came to Sloan we were basically a manufacturer of flush valves. I told my dad that I would not be happy just continuing to roll the ball forward. His response to me was that I was going to be the President and had the responsibility and opportunity to move the company forward in the market and in our operations. I’ve always had an interest in innovation, and thought it was important to Sloan’s growth and profitability. Kirk, Jim and Graham all share that belief.
In addition, my dad always said you can’t hire all the great brains or generate all the great ideas internally. So we have consistently reached out to establish strategic partnerships with other companies. We have recently launched two that we think are very exciting:
• A line of waterless urinals with Falcon Industries. At the Greenbuild show this fall we debuted our new hybrid urinal, which I think has the opportunity to redefine the waterfree urinal market.
• SloanStone® solid surface sinks that are used in combination with Xlerator® high-speed hand dryers. produced by Excel. It is an extremely innovative concept and the reception of it from customers has been fantastic.
We have other new product concepts we’re working on in our labs that I’m equally excited about. So keep your eyes on Sloan — there is more to come.
MJM: Kirk, how do you balance the need for speed and trend toward electronic communication with the traditional value of relationships?
Kirk Allen: The day-to-day is at the speed of digital communication, that's the world we live in; but the industry affords us a lot of opportunities to be face-to-face with the value chain, which helps us maintain and grow those relationships.
MJM: Graham, you are inheriting a history of innovation here at Sloan. How do you keep that spark alive, and what inspires some of your new ideas?
Graham Allen: We are fortunate enough to have the trust of the value chain, and that results in many inputs to our ideation process. We also have very strong Marketing and R&D folks that keep the hopper full of great creative ideas.
We are 100% commercial. So when the new housing starts really hit their stride again, our customers know that we will be single-mindedly focused on supporting their commercial activities.
MJM: You also have a rather newly appointed Director of Culture. What was the impetus behind creating that position, and what are your goals for Peggy Gilmore in that role?
Jim Allen: Mary Jo, you have met Peggy, she's a force of nature! We said, "We want every employee to know how important their individual roles are to this company. Help us make Sloan an incredibly fun and rewarding place to work."
Graham Allen: That was it! Every day she finds and develops a new point of engagement; it's truly amazing! She also has great leadership from our Vice President of Human Resources Margie Rodino, who is one of the best HR leaders in any company of any size.
MJM: What are your thoughts when it comes to the future?
Allen: There are times when the biggest challenge facing a company is survival. But looking back on Sloan’s history, our biggest challenge was changing the company’s culture from a single product company to being an innovator. Our mission of sustainability has given us a focus to develop products that build on that culture. Looking forward, we have several exciting products that are just now being introduced and products that are in our labs that I think will build on our legacy as a market leader