Interview with NPE Owner Ken Prince
By Robin Putich
Let’s face it most kids don’t dream of being a used electrical equipment dealer, what job did younger Ken dream of doing?
Depending on how far you want to go back, in junior high, an astronomer, in high school, a Martial Arts instructor/Nautilus Gym owner. I also worked in auto garages, helped my brother working on large diesel engines and I also did some side work with my Dad repairing TV’s and VCR’s. I always liked science and technical stuff as well as get your hands dirty mechanical stuff. My family was all blue collar and outdoorsmen. When I started college at Kent State I was a business major but shortly thereafter I got into breakers and ended up with a BS in Industrial Technology with a Business Minor. It all worked out in the end.
How did you start out in this industry?
I was looking for work while going to Kent State and I knew the owner of North American Machinery through a martial arts class we both attended. He needed help, I needed work. I immediately saw potential for this industry when many around me didn’t. I’ve always said that success comes from hard work recognizing opportunity. I seized the opportunity and worked my way through college. Even though it meant almost an hour commute each way during the school year, and slowed my degree down, I’ve never regretted it.
Did you have to make any sacrifices or did you have any obstacles in starting your own business?
I’ve always known that this business is about both who and what you know and how you treat people. I spent my first 11 years learning the trade and making business connections on both sides of the equation. When the company I worked for was sold to a division of a big business, I recognized that it was time to go. I started NPE in 1994 and I was fortunate enough to be able to continue the relationships that I had previously established.
It’s true when they say that being your own boss means you never stop working. It’s also true that when you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I like both the technical aspects of the industry, love the people and am obsessed with the planning, creating and growing end of things. So from my family’s perspective I think it’s a double-edged sword. Lots of time away, but I could always sneak away when needed or be reached at the shop. Lots of family vacations were skipped/missed but I tried to make up for that in other ways. On a personal side, gray hair, sleepless nights and hypertension. Overall, I love it all and wouldn’t change a thing.
What parts of your job do you find the most challenging?
Constant planning and shifting of priorities. I learned a long time ago that you need a short, intermediate and a long-term plan. It will never be written in stone because life will always come into play, but as long as the overall focus is kept on the long-term goal, you’ll get there. The daily grind is also a constant battle of shifting priorities based on things that pop up last minute. We still have to meet our obligations and commitments to orders we’ve already taken, but we’ve also gotten very good at juggling three things with one hand and last-minute orders. There is truth to one of our motto’s, “the right part, the right price, right now”!
What parts of your job do you find the most satisfying?
Finding round pegs for round holes! Seriously, it’s all about technical sales. You have to know the equipment and how vintage changes affect interchangeability so getting the customer the right part is not just a sales line. In a more general sense. I like to help people solve problems. As I said earlier, this business is all about repeat customers. I try to treat them like family or at least good friends lol. I’ve been dealing with the same people for over 30 years. Some of them I know better than my next-door neighbor and many I’ve never met face to face.
Has this industry changed much from when the time you first started to now?
Technology has made huge changes. I started in 1983. Back then if you couldn’t describe the part accurately enough on the phone we would take Polaroid photos and ship them next day air! Thinking back, it really taught me to have great communication skills. This has never been the kind of business where you could look up a part number in a catalog. Later when fax machines came out, it helped but the internet and good quality digital photo’s really changed things. I no longer have to travel to look at equipment to finalize purchases and customers have answers in seconds rather than hours.
Does the economy affect this industry?
Traditionally, we are considered a counter recessionary business. That means when the economy is down, people look to maintain and upgrade used equipment rather than buy new. In general, though, people are always watching the bottom line and it is normally much more cost effective to maintain what is in service rather than to replace it – that’s even if it is still available to replace. With this current boom and the new laws regarding capital expenditures for business, I’m very optimistic.
Is there one experience with your company that stands out the most, good or bad?
In retrospect, no. There have certainly been ups and downs but in general this has been a great ride. I’ve made some great relationships with both customers and suppliers, and have been blessed to be able to work with very talented, caring people. Of course, there have been some bumps in the road but you won’t get anywhere if you dwell on them, I try to stay focused on the long-term objectives.
Did/Do you have a mentor in this industry?
Interesting question, yes, I did and still do today. Dealers tend to be “friendly competitors” meaning we depend on each other for support but also occasionally bump heads. That support can range from technical stuff on equipment, trends in the business or financial issues. Some of my best memories are of the older dealers that are no longer active or even with us. I can recall some sage advice just before I opened NPE in 1983 and I pass it along whenever someone is thinking about leaving the comfort of a regular paycheck to jump into the world of owning your own business. That same advice has also taught me to never look back with regret, only forward. You can’t change the past, but your future is built on it.
How does your company differ from your competitors?
In some ways not at all. We are all buying and selling the same stuff. I try to differentiate NPE with long term relationships, getting things shipped quickly and to keep adding more innovative products that we develop in the aftermarket part sector. We also work very hard to keep our inventory databases up to date so we can spec equipment and ship it as fast as we do.
Do you see this industry changing much in next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
In 1983 I couldn’t have imagined the changes that I’ve already seen and to plagiarize, a quote that I like to use, “the only thing constant, is change”. However, as long as we have a dependency on electricity to power factories, utilities and large commercial enterprises, there will always be a need for us. As a small business we can react faster and adapt better to changes than the manufacturers. We will also always be the first call in emergencies. When power is down and the OEM’s have a lead time of weeks or months, ours will always be hours or days. That’s what we are here for.
If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way?
Wow, that’s a good one! There are changes that I’d make, but that’s not the way this works. Overall, I’m pleased with the last 30+ years. This business has been good to me, my family and my employees. I‘d also like to think we’ve had a positive impact on the industry although that may not be for me to say. Getting back to what I’ve said earlier…with short, intermediate and long-term goals- the path may not be a straight line but it has always moved forward, so I feel fortunate.Ken Prince, NPE Owner pictured with Duke, NPE Head of Security