From Zero to $16 Million in Revenue with Just 20 Employees
By Donna Kreutz
Carbon Enterprises Inc. has only 20 employees yet generates an astonishing $16 million in annual sales worldwide. Most of that business is in municipal drinking water and wastewater. Rick Ciminello started the company in Centerville, OH in 1998 and long-time colleague Ryan Carter joined him a few months later. “Both of us did everything: answering the phone, accounting, warehousing. We started out small and we just kept growing,” Ciminello said.
“When municipalities are closing down their filters to switch out materials, they don’t have a lot of time. That’s our niche. We can provide all the materials needed and control when they arrive. That’s very important on a job site. Our average job is 20 to 30 truckloads: first gravel, then sand, then anthracite. That way, the job site is clear and the timing is right for the work that needs to be done.
“We have our own anthracite plant, CEI Anthracite, in Hazleton, PA. When you actually manufacture the product, you not only gain control of the quality and cost, but you can control production to make sure materials get to the job site on time. We also own CEI Logistics, our freight brokerage firm. We cut the cost on freight by working directly with more than 500 carriers.”
Ciminello makes it sound so easy. “Well, we’ve done this for a long time. It is easy. But if you tried to do this just starting out, it would not be very easy at all. We’ve gotten it down to a science. We both have the same ideas about how to run a company, we invest in our employees and we treat customers the way we want to be treated. Our biggest growth came from word of mouth. We gave our beginning customers great service, quality and pricing; they told everybody they knew. Our customers were our best advertising.”
Customers in US, South America and beyond
CEI has grown dramatically every year. “We went from zero in 1998 to revenues of more than $16 million. For many years, our company doubled in size every year.” That was their norm. “In the last five years, it got to the point that the increases were 10 to 20 percent and we were unhappy. Our accountant had to tell us ‘you do realize that’s normal?’ ”
Ciminello has 30 years in the water business, mostly in activated carbon. Carter’s background is in sand, gravel and anthracite. “Because of what we did, we both dabbled in each other’s area.” That’s how they got to know each other. “We work well as a team because we believe in the same values: our honesty and our faith. We have a true partnership. Basically we’re like brothers, so it’s worked out well,” Ciminello said.
“We are probably more old-fashioned than a lot of companies. We have real people who answer the phone. And our two main sales people are the owners. You don’t have to go through a bunch of people before you finally get to the decision makers. We quickly fix whatever problem pops up. We are now the largest company in our field but we still handle each customer like we did in the beginning. Most of our customers are in the US and we do a fair amount of business in South America. We sell to large equipment companies and they get sales overseas. Our product ships with theirs.”
No turnover in 10 years
CEI invests in its employees, all 20 of them. Benefits include 100-percent-paid medical and disability insurance, a 401k program and year-end bonuses. “We both worked for various people in our past and we wanted to create a situation where people want to come to work, not dread having to go. We have great employees and want to keep them. We allow our employees to take off for activities their kids are in without having to use vacation or sick time. We celebrate birthdays. We have a company Christmas party with a Santa for the kids. Faith and family come first, then comes work. Our employees are happy. Nobody has left us in the last 10 years. By treating our employees great, they treat our customers great.
“We also do a golf outing each year in May. It’s a company outing and a charity event. All proceeds go to charities. We invite customers and cover a variety of local charities with the money we make. It’s not a lot; it was around $4,000 last year. We plan on growing that, maybe add a silent action in the future.”
Ciminello said, “Ryan and I really appreciate our staff, Spencer Wellington, Tiffany Pickett, Megan Edgington, Erick Madison, Bob Dalvet, Liz Corch, Dave Shevokas and the anthracite plant workers. It is a team that makes our company successful.”
Ciminello and Carter have a hands-off management style. “If everyone is doing a good job, we will not bug them. We have a general manager who runs the anthracite plant great. We told him, ‘if you run the plant and are always in the black, you’ll never see us. If you’re in the red, you’ll see every day.’ And we haven’t had to visit there much at all, so that’s good.”
Full circle back to drinking water
“We handle things differently than most people. If there’s something we can do by computer, we’ll do that. Erasable boards? We can do that. We tie everything into what is easier and best for the company. We don’t force-feed anything. We always joke about KISS: keep it simple stupid. If something works, that is not a reason for us as owners to jump in and mess it up. That’s really how we work.”
The company’s main headquarters is in a state-of-the-art, 21,000-square-foot facility. The anthracite manufacturing plant is a 26,551-square-foot office and warehouse facility on 2.6 acres in Hazleton. “We are the largest distributor of GreensandPlus. We also offer gravel, sand, garnet, pumice, zeolite, resin, activated carbon, KDF-55, KDF-85 and much more. All our products exceed AWWA B-100 standards and are NSF-approved.
“We are always looking for new filter media as they become available. We have expanded our overseas sales efforts. We do shows. We will have a booth at WQA, AWWA and WEFTEC in 2017. We’re also looking at doing more with drinking water. Municipal work and wastewater sort of took over the business. We’d like to get back into drinking water again and we’re really looking forward to that.”