Most that have run the gauntlets involved in launching a business will recall the days of their founding with some degree of nostalgia–the tough hours, the list of places visited long enough to warrant a “World Tour” shirt. Every successful firm or product at some time required a majority “YES!” vote from customers and suppliers. Granted, an entrepreneur’s reputation can provide a “leg-up” but it will only get one through the door. Dave White’s SitePro story is one of boldness. After 25+ years with Chicago Steel Tape, Dave built a catalog of more than 450 new products alongside a network of 300+ dealers, all from the ground up.
The Early Years
The Chicago Steel Tape and Berger brands, commonly known as CST/berger, are familiar to most surveyors. Long-time producer of survey accessories, from chains and tapes to locators and automatic levels, there’s a good chance you’ve come across their products. Acquisitions of these groups by The Stanley Works (2004) and subsequently the Bosch Corporation (2008) brought about the change you’d expect when a mid-size manufacturer of specialty tools is absorbed into a mega-corp.
Dave White joined CST in 1984 and quickly found success. Over the next few years, he built an impressive product catalog, starting with nothing more than photos and spec sheets. Impressed by his work ethic, company owner Dennis Nardoni promoted him, but gave him plenty of room to learn the business. “Early on, Dennis let me know that he didn’t have time to hold my hand,” Dave recalled. “He told me to spend his money like it was my own and that he’d tell me when to stop.” Dave soon encountered Ash Puri, an MBA standout that came as part of an innovative intern program. Run by the Illinois governor’s office, the initiative paired a handful of small businesses with a willing MBA or JD. Ash selected CST because of its proximity to his home in West Lafayette, Indiana. This marked the beginning of a 20+ year partnership that drove CST’s worldwide expansion.
“Dennis was a vision guy–it was Ash’s job to sweat the details,” Dave explained. And sweat the details they did. From 1990 to 2000, the duo grew revenues from less than $4,000,000 to more than $50,000,000, lessening CST’s dependence on accessories as they evolved into a more complete instrument manufacturer. Their formula for success was no secret: year after year, they added products and improved quality consistency. Early on, they began a Guaranteed Delivery Program for the top 200 products that promised delivery within ten days, or the customer received a 10 percent discount. Throughout the 1990s, Ash and David parlayed their manufacturing know-how and key customer relationships with companies such as APE, FL&T, Lengemann, Hayes, Forestry Suppliers, and others, industry stalwarts that remain at the top of the game some 20+ years later.
Major accomplishments under Dave’s tenure included the acquisition of Berger (1994), a legacy brand of builders’ optical instruments that was struggling at the time, and the David White line (2002), a premier brand for builders and contractors instruments based out of Wisconsin. “I learned the value of branding during the Berger acquisition,” Dave remarked, reminiscing of the near-instantaneous boost the acquisition brought them.
The 2000s brought sales to levels previously unimaginable, thanks to booming construction and housing markets. In 2003, Ash solicited The Stanley Works as a buyer and closed the sale of CST/berger for $62,000,000 in January 2004. Just over four years later, Bosch would pay $205,000,000 for CST’s measuring tools division. These numbers speak to the complexities of valuation and the heady expectations of the time. After successfully guiding the firm to Bosch, Ash Puri departed in 2009 to support the group as a consultant, with Dave leaving soon thereafter.
Put Yourself in My Shoes
Dave initially interviewed with survey industry manufacturers who were quick to court his deep knowledge of product manufacturing and distribution. Knowing virtually every aspect of the business, he ultimately decided to establish the company himself–after all, the work would be the same! In June 2011, SitePro was founded with a whirlwind drive across the United States. Dave quickly found that the recession of 2008-2009 had not been kind to survey equipment houses. With credit hard to come by, the uncertain market had forced smaller dealers to minimize inventory; this made fast turn-around and logistical excellence from equipment manufacturers imperative. Dealers needed someone that answered the phone every time. Even though orders were smaller, service and support were still expected. He recalled Ralph Lengemann saying, “Make it easy for me to order, to do business–put yourself in my shoes.” It was decided shortly thereafter to control growth in a manner that allowed for orders to be filled in no more than 24/48 hours. This required careful product selection and inventory management.
While it was easy to work with someone they knew, Dave’s empathy for the dealers themselves proved critical. Early on he formed a “sounding board” between key partners, including Hixon Manufacturing, Lengemann, Easy Drive, Lewis & Lewis, and Genesis, to name a few; Cliff Sheehan, president of Genesis, is credited with recommending the name SitePro. “Each product entails a storyline,” Dave remarked. Key early hires included Steve Baker, a longterm CST/berger & Bosch employee who became available after a round of restructuring, and Mark Fleming, the marketing and graphic design expert responsible for SitePro’s vast catalog and internet presence.
Dave went on to explain: “Cash flow and working capital turns remain critical for survey equipment distributors–this is where SitePro provides value like no other company in the surveying accessories market.” He and his team regularly visit with major manufacturers on a global basis to audit both their capabilities and product quality.
Evolving the Product Line
Between 2011 and 2014, Dave focused on creating products at competitive price points, starting with tripods, levels and magnetic locators. He worked with former CST employees John Davenport and Duard Wilson to develop SitePro’ s “SmartTRAK”, a state of the art locator at a tough margin (current MSRP $539).
In 2015, SitePro acquired Gammon Reel upon the founder’s retirement. The entire Gammon Reel production line was moved in-house. Later that year, acting upon a tip, Dave attended an auction where he purchased tooling for a well known Universal Level-Transit, as well as tooling for a Line Transfer Unit which is used when aligning pipe lasers and other straight line applications. This allowed for complete vertical manufacturing of these products.
Another leap forward came in 2015, when SitePro acquired the rights to the David White line of products from Bosch Corporation. Founded in 1895, the brand enjoys considerable respect amongst contractors and brought another 40-50 dealers into the network. As he’s often asked, sharing the David White name is a complete coincidence although most would regard his ownership of it as “meant to be.”
During our visit, Dave showed us a prism target recently brought to his office by a manufacturer’s rep. Offered at a significant discount, it was hard to tell the difference between it and other offerings. Dave called our attention to the slightest of imperfections within the glass and explained that the copy that makes it to his desk is as good if not better than it will ever get–therefore, if this error exists, the normal shipment will contain errors of far greater range. He went on to explain, “Containers don’t always come in perfect; you have to get good at filtering product–otherwise anyone could do this!” He recounted receiving a container of tripods with incorrect locking levers. They worked, but weren’t what his dealers were accustomed to. Each unit had to be unboxed, stripped of the locking mechanisms and adjusted.
The company is currently 85% focused on surveying. With the rental market opening back up and construction economies improving, they are seeing increased interest from the contractor supply space. “Contractors use what their fathers and grandfathers used,” he said, which is why branding remains critical even in the largest of markets. Nothing is rushed.
All in the Family
Of more than 14 employees, family members fill several of SitePro’s key posts. Earlier this summer, Dave’s wife Michelle took over as CFO after a long career with a Fortune 500 firm. Sons Cody and Josh oversee instrument calibration and inventory management. The group recently completed a move from Otterbein, Indiana to a larger facility in nearby Lafayette, bringing total square footage to 30,000+.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter famously theorized that “creative destruction” is a constant, as market forces incessantly destroy existing economic structures while creating new ones. Much rests on the shoulders of the businessmen and women willing to face change and build; the pressures they face often result in improvements for the rest of us. At the end of the day, customers tend to reward those committed to service born of empathy–SitePro is a shining example.
Allen E. Cheves is publisher of the magazine.