As a young boy, James Olson dreamed of becoming a civil engineer and building things. But after graduating from college and getting his first job, Olson latched on to a new dream: starting his own company.
"I had trouble working for other people," said Olson, who earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics, as well as an MBA. "I realized I wanted to own my own business because it was the only way to make real money and be your own boss."
In 1985, Olson fulfilled both dreams by purchasing two established manufacturing lines, which he consolidated under the umbrella of Olson Technologies: W.F. Mosser and Son, originally founded in Allentown during the Civil War, and Homestead Valve Co., which has its roots in the 1890s. Both Mosser and Homestead are well-known brands in the industrial valve market.
Olson said his most memorable challenge was keeping the company open for the first few years after he took over. The biggest struggle, he said, was changing the company's mindset. "When I took over I preached the fundamentals of business, not unlike Vince Lombardi teaching the fundamentals of football," Olson said. "My push was to stick to the basics: Sell it, build it, ship it, invoice it, collect it.
Anything else was a cost that we cut back on." Determined to communicate the goals and problems, and how to get the job done, Olson eventually succeeded at getting the right people on board and moving the company forward. Olson attributes the company's success today to sales of large Mosser valves, as well as to the growth of some newer products for the water and wastewater markets.
"I like the idea that our products help society keep the environment clean and fresh water flowing," Olson said. "It's a big rush for me to see the valves we produce installed and providing an improved infrastructure."
He also takes pride in the company's low turnover, with many employees boasting 35 years under their belts. "The most meaningful part of my job is the knowledge that I am providing a living for a number of employees that allows them to live a meaningful life themselves," Olson said.
In addition to managing a team of 37 employees, with jobs ranging from valve assembler to plant superintendent to recep tionist, Olson said he also spends a big part of his time researching the future direction of the company. As a result, he has been able to find a number of new markets, take stock of those markets, and plan the best ways to enter them. "I was taught in university that the CEO should spend 90 percent of his time looking down the road into the future," Olson said. "I think that's what the Mosser family did, and that's what I'm doing."
Still, Olson is careful that the company doesn't grow so fast that it outgrows its financial balance sheet. This is especially important when taking on big jobs that need lots of cash, Olson said. The secret, he said, is to grow at a sustainable rate.
That doesn't mean he will be slowing down soon. In 10 years, Olson said, his plans are "to be alive and 85" and, hopefully, still driving his Porsche 911. "It gets me away from everything else and makes me concentrate on one thing that gives me a great thrill," he said