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In 1961, John Guest opened his doors and planted the seeds of innovation that, well, fits. It was his spirit and invention of the first Speedfit push-fit fittings in 1970 that would prove to be the recipe of success for the UK-based company. All around the world, people use JG connectors for a variety of applications. It is through a balanced and intentional engineering and manufacturing model that has allowed for one invention to spiral into a company that excels in innovation and quality of products that have become recognizable.
John Guest USA recently took Byron Woodard on board to lead this legacy. I was fortunate to discuss with Woodard his vision, initial challenges, inspirations and unique background that will help shape John Guest USA’s continued success. Woodard is a well-disciplined, intentional leader who vows to work hard alongside his team and does not plan on treading lightly into the marketplace.
Sarah Cimarusti (SC): Congratulations on your new role at John Guest USA! What are some of the goals and initiatives you will be working toward as president?
Byron Woodard (BW): First off, thank you for giving me the opportunity to provide you with an honest assessment of where we are currently here at John Guest USA, as well as how my role as president will propel us to exceed our goals for many years to come. To answer your question more specifically, some of our goals and initiatives are going to be associated with increasing our top line revenue and maximizing our gross profitability for all our product lines.
Moreover, we are focusing on our plumbing range of products with our newly launched ProLock line, as well as some of our industrial fittings that we sell to all the largest wholesalers and retailers. This includes our recent introduction of some of our polypropylene range into The Home Depot.
With these goals in mind, I believe that we are in a great position to not only dominate the wholesale channel in plastic push-to-connect fittings, but also the retail channel by extending our offering through buying groups, via exports and e-commerce.
SC: What are some of the biggest challenges you face at John Guest USA, and in the industry as a whole, and how will you address them?
BW: One of the biggest challenges that we face is making sure that we not only educate our customers, but also the entire market on the features and benefits of using plastic push-to-connect fittings. Our overall value proposition has to be communicated with the market in order to show how our products help make the life of a plumber, for example, easier. Getting ahead of the competition and extending our market share will also be challenges that we address on a daily basis. Last but not least, we’d like our more innovative products, such as our ProLock range, to reach beyond the first mover advantage and out into the market so that people can see the “Twist. Lock. Fit. Every Time.” and that we are truly “Fitting the Future.”
SC: Please talk a little bit about your industry background. What are the skills and knowledge that you have gained over the last 22 years that you aim to incorporate into your leadership?
BW: Before joining John Guest USA as president, I was the chief marketing officer at Ferguson Enterprises. Prior to that, I was the CMO and vice president of sales of North America at McGraw-Hill Financial, and I’ve also had several vice president and national director roles at various other companies throughout my 22-year career. As a seasoned industry executive, I have a large amount of P&L experience, and I bring more than 10 years of combined distribution, logistics, plumbing, manufacturing, construction, HVAC, MRO and industrial experience to John Guest USA. Previously, I was a C-level executive at a $13 billion public distribution company with a large nationwide team that helped to increase top line revenue and gross profitability for the company. Therefore, given the depth of my overall experience, I believe that it puts me in a prime position to incorporate my leadership to help propel John Guest USA into the future.
SC: Your schooling is interesting to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a president with an ocean engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy. What led you to this education and training? What then led you to Cornell and Switzerland? How has this diverse schooling aided you in your professional journey?
BW: Well, you hit the nail on the head in the sense that it is a large diversity of schooling, starting with my Bachelor of Science in Ocean Engineering from the Naval Academy. Growing up, I always excelled in school, especially within the subjects of math and science. The idea of going to Annapolis was an extreme challenge because not only do you need to have the grades and test scores in high school, but you also need to be a well-rounded, student athlete to be competitive enough to get a Congressman’s approval for admission. I knew that it was going to be extremely difficult to go up against the best and brightest kids in the country. However, I was fortunate enough to be admitted into the Naval Academy, and then I took it one step further and used my math and science background to obtain an ocean engineering degree. I graduated in the top third of my class mainly because of my technical skills, which I have used throughout my entire career.
Then, I wanted to get some type of post-graduate education. I was able to acquire two post-graduate certificates from Cornell University — one in strategic marketing and another in executive leadership. Both certificates helped me to solidify my CMO roles at previous organizations and propelled my career to where I am today.
Last but not least, I received a post-graduate certificate at IMD in Switzerland for international management. I wanted to have an equal pairing and footing on the international business front to what I have domestically.
SC: How will you reflect the history and values of the John Guest model? What would you like the people who work alongside you to take away from your leadership?
BW: To answer the second part of your question first, I would like the people who work alongside me to understand that I lead by example. I certainly wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I know that it’s going to take a village, similar to a family, to exceed our overall mission to be the best fitting manufacturing and distribution company in the U.S. In order to do that, it’s going to take “all hands on deck.” Ultimately, I would like everyone to know that we’re all going to work hard together as a team.
Another key to my leadership involves robust communication from the top-down and bottom-up because that’s certainly going to help us to be clear about our objectives and what we have to do in order to succeed in the business. With respect to the history and values of the company, John Guest is a multi-generational family-owned company that has rock solid values that have been in place for 56 years. The John Guest model embodies the essence of integrity, innovation, respect, profitability and a true regard for employee happiness. As a company, we will continue supporting and taking care of our people while priding ourselves in the innovation that John Guest has been known for.
SC: What are some of your ideas and strategies on remaining abreast on technology and innovation?
BW: We pride ourselves on innovation and making sure that we stay on the cutting edge of the industry. In addition, we have a natural affinity, thirst and hunger to understand what’s happening in the market. So, being able to obtain market intelligence is definitely on the top of our mind. Understanding what customers want and need will help us surpass our overall goal to be as profitable and as large as we possibly can. For this reason, it’s so important to come back to our newest product line, ProLock, because it is one of the most innovative plumbing related products out in the market. And I’m not just talking about fittings. I mean across the board. We are prepared to scale the business, increase market share from our competitors and achieve all our objectives at John Guest USA when it comes to both ProLock and our other product lines.
SC: What are some words of wisdom you have for professionals just starting out in the plumbing industry?
BW: One of the things I would tell any professional just starting out is that you have to get up the learning curve as quickly as possible by learning from the people who’ve already been there for 15, 20 or 25 years. They’re going to be able to teach you about product knowledge, processes, market trends, technology, potential customers and end-users. You also have to fully understand how a business functions — everything from supply chain to the warehouse to back office departments. So, I would ultimately say to those new professionals, be a human sponge and make sure that you can absorb as much information in a short amount of time as you can by asking a lot of questions.
SC: What are some things that motivate you? And what are a few of your non-work related interests and passions?
BW: First and foremost, on a personal note, my two young daughters motivate me. Thinking about their growth and what they mean to me drives me every day in what I do. Professionally, what motivates me is knowing that we have a great company that’s built on great people as well as great products — knowing that we have the opportunity to not only extend our footprint all over North America, but also being able to gain market share is extremely motivating as well.
One of my non-work related interests and passions was being a Pop Warner Youth Football Coach for the past seven years. A couple years ago, my team went down to Disney World and won the Pop Warner National Championship; that was the highlight of my coaching career. Unfortunately, I did have to retire my “coaching whistle” when I took this role as president because of time commitment. However, coaching youth football will always be a passion and interest for me. On a separate note, I certainly love having the freedom to travel and do other things that allow me to relax when I’m not working at John Guest USA.
SC: Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself or John Guest USA?
BW: I’d like to share something about John Guest USA. We are probably one of the companies in our industry that has the most upside potential, but unfortunately, we don’t yet have the type of brand recognition that we want. However, we are constantly working on extending our footprint in the market so that more people understand and know what we do and how we do it. I think the products that we carry are going to serve us well for the future. So, being able to build that awareness out in the market is something that our current customers as well as new prospects will see in the years to come.