Generations of Success
The C.I. Thornburg Co., Inc.
For more than half a century, The C.I. Thornburg Co., Inc. has been serving the water and wastewater industry throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the southern part of Ohio. “My grandfather bought the business back in 1958,” remembers CEO Jeff Morrison. “His goal was to supply everything from the raw water source to the home, and from the home back to the raw water source. He wanted to supply anything and everything that would be needed in that process.”
The company has lived up to that goal, delivering a remarkable variety of products. “We have lots of different markets and market segments that we supply,” Jeff reports. “We do pipe valves and fittings, chemicals for water treatments plants, pumps, controls, clamps, couplings, water meters. While some of our competition would be in one of those segments, we have all of that under one roof, which is unique in our industry.”
C.I. Thornburg also stands out because it remains independently owned. “Being a small to midsize family business in today’s climate is a unique thing, especially in our industry. There has been a lot of consolidation in our industry over the years. Some of the big companies are buying the smaller, privately held family businesses like ours. But we’ve been able to maintain our culture and our profitability and survive in our market.”
A dedicated team helps make this survival possible. “We have very little turnover here,” Jeff reports. “We have two or three employees [who have been here] over 40 years. The folks here have become an extension of the Morrison family and they believe in what we are trying to do. Even when it is difficult they are willing to step up and do what is needed to help make us successful.”
This dedicated team is committed to customer service. “We have great relationships with our vendors and with our customers. What keeps us motivated and engaged and always looking for bigger and better ways to do things is that relationship with the customer and being able to provide them with a solution every day. It is about the customer; if the customer is not happy we aren’t happy. We do whatever we have to do to provide that customer service that you might not get with some of the larger big box companies.”
The team also maintains a strong focus on quality. “We pride ourselves on carrying the highest quality products. We don’t compromise that.” This level of quality comes at a price, of course. “We are hardly ever the cheapest in the market and we are okay with that because of the quality that we can provide.” Product quality is tested and improved at the company’s 27,000 square foot panel shop. “We have the capability to do more things than just buy and resell,” Jeff explains. “We have the ability to think about new and different ways to automate things or to enhance things with our abilities at the panel shop.”
An innovative packaging system allows the team to meet the needs of smaller customers. “We have been able to come up with a packaging system that makes purchasing chemicals for small to medium sized water and sewer treatment plants very affordable and very accessible.” The team takes large volumes of chemicals, repackages them into manageable allotments, and delivers them to site. “We have been able to be very responsive and provide very good customer service to the small to medium sized utility districts. Before, they were reliant on big chemical companies where they had to buy [a minimum] quantity to even get the truck to come to them.” C.I. Thornburg’s packaging system has proved remarkably successful. “We have adapted to our customers’ needs; that has been and continues to be one of the reasons our chemical business is growing and grows so much each year. There are only a couple other folks in our region that are doing what we are doing.”
C.I. Thornburg works with both contractors and municipalities, creating the diversity that is needed in an industry that is largely dependent on government funding. “As with any industry that is reliant upon that, it has ups and downs,” Jeff points out. “But with our diversity we have been able to [succeed]. For example, if contractor sales are down, sales in our municipal market may be up with chemicals and meters – things that we can sell directly to municipalities. So the funding has ebbed and flowed, but with diversity we have been able to offset any of the downs in funding over the years.”
The industry’s greatest challenge is finding enough funding to repair America’s crumbling water and sewer lines. “The infrastructure in the United States for water and sewer is desperately aging. Everybody knows that there needs to be money spent to upgrade it.” But, getting that money allocated for infrastructure improvement is not so easy – especially when people can’t see the underground pipes that need replacing. “I think it is out of sight, out of mind. It is so easy for people to just turn their water faucet on and have water. We have to educate the people around us. We have to educate Congress. It is going to be a matter of whether they are willing to sacrifice money in other areas to be able to put it into the water and sewer industry.”
After decades of steady growth and success, C.I. Thornburg is ready to pass the reins from the second generation to the third. “Our biggest challenge is transitioning into the third generation of leadership. It is no secret that transition in family business is [difficult] between the second and third generation. Only 30% of the companies really survive into the third generation and do well, so the odds are stacked against us.” Jeff is determined not to fall prey to the ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’ trap when he takes over. “We have worked really hard on this transition and we have made great strides. Our business is doing better than it has ever done before.”
The generational shift is not just happening in the company’s management positions. “We have lots of highly tenured people, so as those folks start to retire there will be some transition there as well. Moving from one generation to the next is probably our biggest challenge as a company.” As this transition occurs, the team is committed to maintaining the family atmosphere and company values that have made C.I. Thornburg a success thus far. The team is also focused on making the change as easy as possible for their customers. “We [will] have a seamless transition for our customers, while maintaining profitability and adapting to an ever changing market,” states Jeff.
The team plans to continue exploiting growth opportunities during and after the leadership transition. “Right now we are securing and mastering the markets that we are in. I think there is plenty of growth to be had in these markets from a market share perspective… I see some really good growth in our existing territories.” The team is also open to expanding beyond its current market areas. “We are starting to see where we can command more market share in other areas,” says Jeff. “So I think we will have continued growth with products and services.” After 57 years of ownership, the Morrison family – supported by a dedicated team – is well prepared to continue C.I. Thornburg’s decades of growth and success.