All in the family
06 February 2024
Will Exline continues a 150-year tradition
Exline is a family-owned corporation that has been providing industrial repair and manufacturing services since 1872. Recently, the company named Will Exline CEO—making him the seventh previously generation of the family to lead the company. Since joining the company in 2018, he has held positions including vice president of Repair and Manufacturing operations and spearheaded strategies and operational shifts across the company’s portfolio of products and services.
COMPRESSORtech2 recently spoke with Rob Exline about the company, the industry and how a family-owned company can survive for more than 150 years.
Q: Exline has been family run for more than 150 years. That’s a remarkable accomplishment; to what do you attribute that longevity?
A: When it comes down to it, the people, culture and core values really is what got us to this point and we are fortunate to have had five generations of ownership who understood the value of that and continued to capitalize on it and reinvest in the business. Too often follow-on generations lose sight of how the company achieved success and either decide to cash out by selling or strip the company of valuable capital for personal use. It’s incredible what changes have happened in our industry with new technologies, different operational practices…you name it. But one thing that stayed true for us is our core values and the type of people that we try to bring on board—Exline Inc. is a result of them. That’s definitely number one. But of course, along the way, we’ve had to continue to innovate and change with the markets we serve so that we can continue to provide the products, services and solutions that our customers expect from us.
Q: When you joined the company, one of your roles was spearheading innovative strategies. Can you talk about what that meant for the company? And what those initiatives have been?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to take on a few positions since coming back in 2018, one of which was the opportunity to be an account manager for our West Coast territory. That role taught me a lot about what our customers’ needs are. The experiences I had brought forth some different ideas for me, different initiatives I wanted to pursue. So, when I came back to Salina (Kansas) in 2021 and took on the VP of Operations role, one of the first things we implemented was our Rapid Response program. We’ve always had the ability to deliver repairs back to our customers in a very expedited fashion, but we really wanted to market that ability. Not only did we want this program to positively impact our customers, but we wanted it to do the same for our employees. They put forth an extreme amount of energy and effort to meet our customers’ needs, so we felt it was appropriate to reward them for that effort. I think it has been a win-win-win for our customers, employees and the company financially.
Q: How did you let the market know about the Rapid Response program?
A: I think marketing is kind of an interesting facet of our industry being B2B. You’re not going to put commercials out on TV like the consumer industry, so you’ve got to come up with new, creative ways get your name out there. And I’m not an expert in marketing by any means; I’m an engineer, so I’ve relied on others to help with the Rapid Response marketing campaign. One of the first things we did was create a logo for the Rapid Response program. We’ve marketed that logo as much as we can, putting it on shirts, hats, koozies and all of our social media accounts. Of course, our salesmen are out pitching this to our customers as well. I think it’s worked well for us thus far, but plenty more room for growth with that program.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Rapid Response program? Can you talk about the parameters?
A: It very much depends on the project, but with a shortage of labor in our space, the employee incentive piece gives us the ability to work staggered shifts and work around the clock. We can maneuver our labor around to be able meet our customers’ needs no matter what they might be.
So it offers a lot more flexibility—responding a little bit more quickly, that kind of thing.
Yes, absolutely, it’s an expedited project from the very start. Salesmen will mark a project as a Rapid Response opportunity and the wildfire of communication and logistics begin. I would love to get a Bat Signal with the Rapid Response logo in the shop, but for now I guess we will use standard operational methods.
Q: One of the challenges that we see in the industry is finding skilled workers. Is that something you’re seeing? How do you address that?
A: Yes, and I think there are quite a few reasons for it, but all of them are outside of our control so we have no choice but to adapt to today’s climate. Especially since COVID, it’s been a competitive environment with tons of opportunity for people; a buyers’ market if you will. So, it requires us to get creative with recruitment. We’re working with local and regional Vo-techs and colleges to create different apprenticeship programs, scholarships, etc. to get young people on our campus and interested in the type of work we do. We’re also elevating the Exline brand within our community to entice those who are already in the workforce to show them that this is a great place to come and work. That is being done by upgrading our facilities, adding new and exciting technologies people can work with, and so much more. Even our office positions have been challenging. We’ve created several remote positions, that were usually based out of Salina, just so we could fill those open office/middle management roles.
Q: I think a lot of a lot of companies have faced challenges since COVID. It opened up opportunities, but it also opened up the unknown in a lot of ways too.
A: There is no doubt about that. But it makes you sharpen your tools and get better as a company, to provide things that you may not have looked at prior. We’ve done a lot to really improve our employee benefits, which wasn’t as high of a concern prior to COVID.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges or opportunities in the market for both your company and the industry as a whole?
A: One challenge we’re dealing with a bit, and I know our customers are dealing with it a lot, is the brain trust of the organizations—Baby Boomers—are starting to retire. Creating plans to replace them is really challenging, but we are confident we can do so. But our customers dealing with that challenge opens an opportunity for us to step in and be that brain trust. We can be their entire solutions provider—whether it’s troubleshooting, providing failure solutions, upgrades…everything. Our customers are working with so many different types of equipment and hardware, for them to teach and train new employees all those different types of equipment…they aren’t able to get as specialized as we are. Exline has accumulated valuable insights through diverse customer relationships, and we’re eager to share this knowledge with customers who may not have had similar experiences.
Q: So you’re obviously your dad had a successful run as CEO. Has he given you any particular advice before he took over the job?
A: Where could I even begin. My Dad has been my biggest role model and has shown me not only how to be a business leader, but a great man and father outside of work. There have been many times where he could have cashed out and sold the business, but he never did because he knew how much interest I had in the business and continuing the family legacy. That just goes to show the type of person Dad is. So of course, he has taught me many things throughout the years as I prepared to move into this position. I think the most important thing is how you approach the responsibility of being the leader of this organization. He’s done it by caring for our people, listening to the needs that they have, and creating an environment that they love to come and work in each and every day. He’s always said that if you can take care of your people, the rest of it will take care of itself. They’re the ones that do the work and if you’re a servant leader, approach it in a manner that they will respect you, appreciate you, and want to come and work for you. They’ll go out and do the things necessary for you to be successful.
Q: Is there anything you want your customers or potential customers to know about how the company is going to go forward?
A: The way my Dad likes to put it, over the years, 151 to be exact, there’s been a lot of changes in our industry. There have been a lot of new faces and a lot of different companies that have come and gone, but one thing that has remained constant is Exline. We’ve got a culture and people that use a tradition of 151 years, and we’re going to continue to value the same principles we’ve had as we move forward into the next generation. We’re extremely honored and appreciative of what we have in the communities that we work in, the customers in our industry, and we will continue to put forth the energy and effort to serve them the way we always have – by prioritizing their needs first.
Images of Exline, historic photos