Move Faster than Your Competitors — Interview with Chris White, CEO of Fruitland Manufacturing

Mar 15, 2022 | Podcast

The companies that act fast and adapt faster have the advantage. Chris White, CEO of Fruitland Manufacturing, comes on the Sticky Branding Podcast. He shares how his company captured market share by moving faster than the competition.

When the rest of the industry retreated and cut costs at the start of the pandemic, Chris increased Fruitland’s sales and marketing budget. This was a bold move, because Chris had only purchased the company just 10 weeks earlier. Tune into this story of grit, innovation, leadership, and transitioning from a crisis to a comeback.

Chris White is the CEO of Fruitland Manufacturing. Chris joined the company in 2014 as President and acquired the company in 2019. Under his leadership, Fruitland has grown into the global leader of mobile vacuum pumps with the brand, “One Tough Pump.”

In This Episode

  • 10 weeks before the pandemic struck, Chris White and his partner acquired Fruitland Manufacturing. In a matter of days, everything changed.
  • How Chris and his team moved fast and responded to customer demands, and captured market share.
  • While competitors cut their sales and marketing budgets, Fruitland expanded theirs. They repositioned their brand as “One Tough Pump.”
  • Strong leaders focus on their people. Chris spoke the truth about what they knew and didn’t know, and communicated constantly with his employees.

– [Narrator] Brand X, brand Y, brand Z not one sticks. Watch it again in slow motion.

– Welcome to the Sticky Branding podcast. In this show, we are unpacking how companies grow sticky brands. My name is Jeremy Miller, I am the Founder of Sticky Branding and host of this show. And in today’s episode, I’m very excited to introduce you to a client, a friend, a serial entrepreneur, and the CEO of Fruitland Manufacturing, Chris White. Chris, welcome to the show.

– Thank you, Jeremy, pleasure to be here.

– So rather than giving your intro and stealing your thunder. I always like just to reverse this. Tell me about Fruitland, who are you guys and what do you do?

– Yeah, well, Fruitland Manufacturing has been around for a long time, longer than I’ve been alive. And we are a provider of mobile vacuum solutions. And what I mean by that are vacuum type solutions for tanker trucks that you’d use for water haulers, for environmental cleanup trucks, septic trucks, that kind of thing, so that’s our specialty. We started out as a machine shop tool and dye maker many years ago and were asked to build a vacuum pump at one time about 40 some odd years ago, which we did. And then we sort of developed our own vacuum pump and branded it and the rest is history.

– That’s incredible, I’m curious that being the business has been around so long. How did you get involved with Fruitland?

– I was in the material handling business for many years, and family business, and we sold that and I continued to work with the company and reported to our president in the United States. And that worked out well for about six years. Then it was time for me to move on. So long story short, I looked for something different. I wanted to see if, when you’re in a family business, you often think, well, if I didn’t have this opportunity being a family member, would I actually be any good? Would I actually be able to make anything happen? So I wanted to step out and be in a completely different business in a different industry, and just see if I could still make things work. If the principles and beliefs and philosophies, that I espoused were actually worth something. So I’ve been here for 10 years now and I approached… We were put in touch by a mutual accountant that we were using and I was looking for an opportunity. And the former owner was looking for someone to help him run the company. And I said, well, I’d like to come in and be part of it, but I don’t just want a job, I wanna be part of it. And he said, well, why don’t you work with me for a year, and then after the year, if we still like each other we’ll see about doing a deal. So we did and long story short again, here we are 10 years later, and now I own the business so.

– That’s incredible and you acquired the business at the end of 2019, I guess it’s 60 days roughly–

– Yeah.

– Before the start of the pandemic.

– Yes, that was interesting. So I have a business partner, Dawn and she’s our CFO. And we’ll talk more a little bit about that, and how that’s worked so well for us. But yeah, that was a tough one, all your forecasting that you do, and we all do on a regular basis. You just can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. You don’t know. So COVID was one of those things that the whole world had to face and, we had to face a whole new forecast. So how do you budget for something like that? We don’t know what’s gonna happen. You don’t know what your customers are gonna do. You don’t know what your dealers are gonna do, how they’re gonna react, what effects that they’re gonna have to deal with. So, yeah, it was tough, but it’s funny. We got into it, and so as soon as it happened, we started to daily and weekly monitor what was going on, what regulations were in place that we had to follow, what things we had to consider just on the fly. It was just you’d get up and you’d go to work and you think, okay, what are we dealing with today? We just didn’t know. And my colleagues in other businesses were all the same way. So we figured it out, we did a budget, we did a forecast, and she was, you know, we actually came very close to our forecast at the end of 2020. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t what we had originally hoped, but it was pretty much on the target. So, I guess you have to try and forecast, and budget as best you can and we were able to do that. So we managed well, we kept all our employees. We used the assistances that were available, the government assistance that was available. That helped a lot. And we made it through the end of the year and it was okay. It wasn’t great, but we survived.

– And I think we’ve all gone through those… It was a once in a lifetime, hopefully once in a lifetime event. And to be able to get through that I think is an accomplishment, many companies have not, and there has been those challenges. But when you go back to when this all started, what were you telling yourself and your team to keep them focused on what was important? How did you raise everyone up to help navigate them through this moment in time?

– Great question because, again, we were inventing on the fly, and because we didn’t have a playbook for this. So the best thing, and I would still maintain this in any crisis is communicate. So what do you know, don’t keep it a secret communicate as best you can. And that’s what we did. So we were honest with our employees, we implemented programs, we had work share, we had to cut some hours back, but as I said, we maintained all our employees. And I gotta say our staff, everybody was very accepting of everything that happened and we did and we pulled through. So in one word, I would just have to say communicate. And that isn’t just through sending emails out and letters out, but I would make sure that every day we do the same thing. I go to the floor, I spend time talking with each employee every day. Even if it’s just a hi, how are you doing? But it’s important to make sure. And if they have questions they can just ask, and some will ask very poignant questions. Like what’s going on and what are we gonna do about this? And you say, well, I don’t really know right now, but we’re working on it and we’re aware of it. Or, yeah, I do know and here’s what we’re doing about it so.

– When you say you don’t know, does that create trust? Does that create uncertainty? How did your team respond to, honestly didn’t know, but when you say that that kinda goes counterintuitive to say the patriarchal management style that at least I grew up in a family business then that’s how my dad would run it. But like, how did you find that people responded to that?

– Saying, I don’t know, but saying, when I do know I’ll let you know is being honest, it’s being human. It’s saying, we just don’t– As I said before we don’t have a playbook for this. So I don’t know. And when you come up with an answer that is sort of a fabricated answer, that may not be based on nothing. People know that, I mean, they can sense when you’ve just fabricated something. So the best policy is just be honest. You know what, I don’t know, Jeremy.

– I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s so important for us to say that ’cause that’s part of the challenge of leadership is being able to say, this is what I know today. This is what I don’t know. And this is the choices that we’re making to go forward and giving people an opportunity to come along for that ride.

– Right, right.

– What are you most proud of when you look back at what your team accomplished through this just incredible moment in time? What are you most proud of from what they’ve accomplished?

– Oh, boy, there’s so many things. I’m really impressed with the people. And I’m gonna say that’s most of our employees in this company, I’m gonna say all of them to some degree, but some really stepped up. And so what I mean is that, some people recognize that it’s difficult. We all recognize is difficult, but you know, those who really dug in and really took the time, and you can tell they’re focused on what they’re doing, and they’re looking for opportunities, they’re looking for ways to make things better. They’re communicating and they’re saying, here we gotta think about this, or we have to think about that. And bringing it to you and saying, what can we do about this? And, that’s the thing I think I was most taken with was how many people in the face of adversity stepped up and actually took control and made a difference. And it was that culture that allowed us to get through this whole thing and it’s somehow made us stronger. Like, I think we’re more of a cohesive group than we were before. That’s a good question, I’ll have to ask around, and see if other people feel the same way. But I believe they do.

– Did that culture exist? Was that part of what Fruitland was before the pandemic, and it just was amplified?

– Yeah, good question. Fruitland, of course, that culture that was here was here long before I was here. So yeah, I mean, a lot of people have retired and moved on. And we don’t have a very high turnover rate here at Fruitland. So the culture is very strong, but, we don’t maintain the culture just to maintain the culture. I’m open to change and new ideas. And if that has to shift culturally a little bit, then that’s okay if it’s better for the employees, better for the company as a whole. But yeah, no, we mustered through that pretty well.

– Taking, just changing gears for a moment, looking at under your tenure, under the last 10 years, and even before that, Fruitland has really grown a dominant market position in the mobile vacuum pump area. And for everyone listening, what Fruitland manufacturers is pumps that would go on the side of say a septic truck or another truck that would be able to suck and move material. Am I describing that accurately or did you frame it differently, Chris?

– Yeah, yeah, absolutely, so, we’re solution providers. So even when I came here 10 years ago, we were selling mostly pumps. And then we started to look at, and this was already in motion when I came here about, packages. So whole systems that, were easy to install and put on a vehicle so that people could just say, well, I’ll buy it. And then when they get it, they basically have to bolt it on, hook it up to a power takeoff, which is the drive unit on the tractor and on the truck and then hookups a hose to it. And they’re ready to go. So, as we grow and evolve, we’re trying to listen more to what our customers, what our end-users need, and then provide those solutions. Those are the things that have kept us, ahead of the pack and held us a good stead and our competition is tough. I mean, this is not an easy ride, but I do think the things that we do differently that we listen and we provide solutions and we service really well.

– And so is it in that is where customers are choosing you first, it’s in that connection that support those relationships, or is it in the product? Or how do you see like, when you just take it to the simple side? why do customers choose Fruitland’s pumps first?

– Yeah, okay, well, again, it’s the brand. So I think the brand is really strong and we’ve been able to provide solutions that have outperformed our competition. And, it sounds trite when you say that, but we really have. Our vacuum pumps are known for lasting a long time. We have videos and pictures of people that bring pumps to us that have been in service for 20 plus years. And they look like they’ve been through the war, they’re beaten up, there’s no paint anywhere on them. They’re rusted, they look horrible, but they still work. And, that’s a good testament to the brand, and, to our company, it’s a good product. That’s probably, we don’t have a lot of– What’s the thing, some manufacturers they build in redundancy or, so that after five years or 10 years the warranty runs out and that’s it, you’ve got to buy a new one.

– Planned obsolescence.

– I’m sorry, that’s it, planned obsolescence. Yeah, yeah. .

– When you create a product that lasts 20 years. Is that in the manufacturing? Is that in the design? Like, why do your pumps– Why are they so durable? Why would they last so long?

– Yeah, the founder of the company, Helmut Bader. When he came here from Germany 60 some odd years ago and set up Fruitland. He had a very specific objective. I didn’t know him actually, but I worked with his son, Rodney for a number of years, and we’re still friends today. He just had that old world mentality of make it really, really well. Make this thing perform really well. And, that has kind of stuck with us through the years and that’s what we do. We just make it to perform really, really well. We have a new product that we’re developing. We’ve been developing it for five years, and we are not going to release it to the market. It’s imminent now we’re ready to go with it. But it’s taken five years for us to get to the point where we’re really comfortable with its performance. That means not only shop testing, and putting it through the hoops and abusing it. But putting it on actual equipment in the field, and seeing how it performs. And also, abusing it so that we know what it can tolerate, how much abuse it can take.

– It isn’t that, I think this both from a values perspective and a brand perspective is such a unique element to Fruitland. And it’s contrary to what so many marketers and businesses do today. The idea of the minimum viable product and companies and manufacturers are often shipping product that is underdeveloped, has known flaws, and they’ll deal with it in after support or other issues. And it’s baked into that business model. And there’s that cheapness or the build quality that is going out, and we can see it in many of the products we use all the time, but to take the time to get it right before you even release it really is a value system for Fruitland which is, I think is remarkable.

– Yeah, thank you, it is. And again, that’s culture was here long before I was here and our people have continued to develop that culture. So when the phone rings and something goes wrong, and believe me, stuff happens. We’re not perfect, things break. there are manufacturer defect sometimes, sometimes you have a casting, maybe that’s flawed that you can’t see it might come apart and cause the pump pump to fail. That happens rarely. But when it does happen, everybody knows about it and we’re all on it. Like for me, right down to everybody shipping, the whole company knows about it. And we jump in and we say, what are we gonna do? How are we gonna fix this? And is this a problem that we need to think about that’s going to be a systemic problem? Is this something that potentially is gonna happen in a whole bunch of pumps. So these are things that we have to consider. And I think that’s held us in good stead because we don’t like it when stuff like that happens.

– Right.

– And the other side, you have to be careful because sometimes, and most of our customers are really good, but sometimes there’s abuse in the field. And some they’ll do something like suck up a bunch of rocks or something into a vacuum pump. Well, that doesn’t work very well. And then they’ll try and say, well, this thing failed. And then, well, okay, tell us about it, and then we find out later all this stuff. What has really happened, but until that point, we take it really seriously. Like, is there a problem with our pump? Did we do something wrong? And we try and build on that.

– Amazing and I think that is the other side of the value is that you build it right and you support it right. And it’s the total solution that creates the product that people rely on.

– Right.

– What are you most excited about when you look forward onto say the next year to two years? What are you most excited about with Fruitland, and what’s ahead of you?

– Wow, there’s so many things. we have developed this R&D mentality. We’ve taken advantage of some of the programs with National Research Council and IRAP and so on. And they’ve been very, very helpful. And we’ve expanded our engineering team and our R&D team. And we’ve come up with some really cool ideas. So in the last few years we’ve developed several new pumps. We’ve developed some components that we didn’t have before. Some of the stuff that we wanted to take more control over. And then there are one or two products that I’m particularly excited about that is gonna be– I think it’s gonna be revolutionary. And these are iPeds and they’re very cool. And that’s all I’m gonna say at this point so.

– So we need to keep following you to see what’s down the pipeline. and as these products come on board, I’m excited.

– Right, me too.

– I’ve had the opportunity to work with you, and the Fruitland team now all through the pandemic and the crisis. And from my perspective, I would love to share with our listeners, what’s it like for you and your team to work with me and Sticky Branding?

– Yeah and this is really honest, and I appreciate this. When we started working with you, and I had known you for a number of years, but we hadn’t actually engaged in any sort of a business arrangement. But when we started working with you and Sticky Branding, I found that there was more than just sort of marketing going on. Marketing was the result that we wanted. Like that was sort of, okay, we’re gonna be better at marketing. And we’re gonna really focus on marketing, but the questions and some of the work that we had to do to get to that point of making a good marketing decision were really cool. So some of the things that you guys were able to do for us as you dig deep on some of the business issues and, not uncomfortably, just some of the things that okay, what about this? And then you’d share your experiences about, well, in a similar industry with a customer that I’m dealing with, these sorts of things are happening and it’s been my experience that such and such and such. And that really helps us sort of not go down the wrong rabbit hole. So, when you don’t know something, you’ll make assumptions. And then, he said, well, this is what we need to do, based on what I know. I don’t know what I’m talking about. So that’s why we have you. And so I think with a good broad understanding of marketing, and especially in certain industries like ours. It’s really helpful to sort of help steer us in the right direction so we don’t make bad decisions.

– Wonderful, well, and I do, I really appreciate that, thank you and I look at this too, as we do it together. We take all of our ideas put them together, and that’s where great ideas come from. It’s that collaboration.

– Yeah, it’s also helped us to just as an aside with our marketing team. It’s more of a team, more of a focused effort. We see results, we get data, we see the data provider that we get gives us a really great indication of how we’re doing. And, that’s really held us well through this whole COVID thing. So we’ve been able to really focus on some areas that have helped us sort of get over the finish line and make it through.

– Yeah, I truly believe that, if our work isn’t moving the needle, then we’re not doing the right work. But having the ability to measure that and see it. And I think that’s one of the things Dawn brings to the table is just, you have great visibility on your business and your market. And so having just that capability in house is an area that sets you up.

– Exactly right and I mentioned Dawn earlier, so she’s our CFO and my business partner. And she is very good at providing, that data that helps us to make good decisions. And as we’re involved every week with our marketing discussions so.

– Final question for you, you’ve been a serial entrepreneur, you’ve worked in family business. Now you’re bought and taken Fruitland up to the next level. What would you share as your best advice to other business owners or leaders, especially as we navigate such uncertain times?

– Yeah, I like to read and read a lot of different books, and some you and I have talked about, and you’ve suggested, and we’ve shared. The common theme that I keep getting and I know this from experience too, is really bring the best to your team that you can even if it costs more. Like if it’s more expense you have to try and figure out how to do it. Get the best you can, and really look after your people well and manage them closely. And I don’t mean micromanage, you know what I mean? Stay close to them and it’s through people and with people that you get results. It’s not by building great stuff. You can build the… You can build the best rocket in the world and get nobody to go on it because you just haven’t really considered all the people involved and you know how to properly promote it and how to engage people, how to get people, to feel excited about it. All those things are so important. So it’s with, and through our people that I think that that’s been our biggest success. So that would be my advice to anybody that’s starting up or going through difficult times. You have to bear down, you have to get the best. There’s a really good book to Jeremy. I don’t remember the author, but it’s called “From Good to Great.”

– Jim Collins.

– Yeah, there you go, so you already, of course, you and I have spoken about this, and I took quite a bit away from that and the book was written, based on public companies, ’cause data was available for the pump public companies and not for the private companies, but the results were pretty consistent right through, and that is hire the best, stay humble, work hard and foster your people. I’m kind of summarizing a few things, but that’s basically what I took away from the book anyway.

– I think it is so brilliant. And we’ll put a link in the show notes to “Good to Great” as well, ’cause it is one of the best business books you can read, but all great brands are built by people. And like your Chris it’s… If you don’t focus and emphasize and develop your team, your brand starts and stops on that because that’s your ability to create something. That’s the ability to support your customers. It’s your ability to navigate uncertain times that resilience is all baked into the people. What is the best place for people to find you and Fruitland? If we were gonna look you up online, where can we find you?

– It’s, 1-800-663-9003. I don’t phone myself, I don’t know, but our website, It’s all there, I’m reachable through there. Chris white, at

– Wonderful.

– So that’s us.

– Again, we’ll put some show, some links up in the show notes. Thank you, Chris, for participating today, it was such a great conversation. And thank you everybody for listening to the Sticky Branding podcast. Be sure to subscribe, wherever you get your favorite podcasts. We’re also available to watch the YouTube videos and the full recordings here and visit us at for more ideas, best practices and services to grow your business and to a sticky brand.

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