By Donna Kreutz
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Michael Figoff had just met Jerry Hollander, owner of Filtercor (founded in 1978) in California and spent a few weeks consulting about what the small water filter manufacturing company could do to function more efficiently. Then they learned that United Filters in Texas and Mexico was for sale. Figoff, with a depth of corporate and international experience, was asked to evaluate the prospect and make a recommendation. “So I made several trips to Mexico. A few months later, I presented a number of scenarios to Jerry. He looked at me and said, ‘Okay we’ll buy it, but only if you will run it.’ We shook hands and it’s been a sleigh ride ever since.”
That was in 2004. With Figoff at the helm, they closed the manufacturing plant in Queretaro in central Mexico and brought the business and jobs back to the US. In 2009, they earned their first NSF certification and expanded their government and international client base. They changed the name from United Filters Inc. to United Filters International and incorporated the American flag into a new eye-catching logo. The two companies have seamlessly joined, with new online information systems in place, operations consolidated and streamlined and new water filtration products on the market. Since the acquisition and consolidation, the company has enjoyed an average of 18-percent growth year after year.
Figoff brings a wide range of life experience to the table. He spent eight years traveling the Pacific Rim, flying helicopters in the US Army, serving in Vietnam. He then began working as a civilian contractor for Lockheed Skunk Works on a number of programs, including the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft. “For eight years I was very seldom in the US.” However, his heart remained in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up. Ultimately he returned to California to marry and raise a family. For 10 years, Figoff was President of Puroflow Corporation, a publicly traded aerospace manufacturer of filters used in surface, subsurface, space and aircraft vehicles.
Simple, cost-effective solutions to complex problems
Perhaps the biggest challenge Figoff faced was bringing the United Filters manufacturing operations back from Mexico. “It was at a time when gas was $5 per gallon and fuel surcharges were incredibly high. By moving everything back to the US, we were able to save $20,000 to $30,000 worth of transportation costs per month. This action resulted in improved cash flow and profitability.
“With the move we changed the traditional logos to incorporate the US flag into today’s well-recognized UFI branding. We saw the trend to buy ‘Made in America’ products. Thus we capitalized on the move of our manufacturing back from Mexico with the logo change. Much of our success has been brand recognition. It is not uncommon for people at trade shows to tell us ‘I know who you are, I’ve seen you before, I have heard of you.’ We put a lot of effort into trade shows and advertising to put the message out.
“We have built a solid reputation of being service oriented. We pride ourselves on our ability to offer simple, cost-effective solutions to complex problems. Our staff as a whole provides complete quality care to each of our customers. We don’t just solve problems, we create long-lasting relationships. We excel at custom designs, rapid prototyping, short runs and private labeling/packaging as needed by each customer. The facility in Texas, founded in 1988, originally had its feet firmly planted in the energy industry. As a team, we felt the need to diversify; we spent a great deal of time expanding our product offering. Today, a large segment of our market is serving major OEMs with private-labeled and package products used in a broad market segment. We enjoy continued growth within the water industry via our expanding network of dealers and distributors. We continue to service and provide new emerging filter products to our existing customers in the oil, gas and energy market sectors.”
‘He pushes us in a positive direction’
UFI recently introduced the new Ultra-D sub-micron, depth-filtration series, which is highly effective at removing lead, heavy metals and pathogens. “The media is the magic,” he said. “We’re addressing a market need heretofore served by much higher-priced products. We also developed a systems approach to filters. We recently introduced both a twin under-the-sink POU system and a whole-house POE triple unit called the Trident System. We are targeting a deeper market with filter cartridges that are selected based on the demographic needs of our customers. These products are targeting the needs of today’s sophisticated consumers. We once again are attempting to be at the right place at the right time.”
Figoff’s successful management style is soft spoken and upbeat. “I try to make sure everybody is empowered and knows they can take responsibility, make a mistake and learn from it,” he said. That is a challenge for him as well. “One of the most difficult things for me to learn was to let go,” he said.
Kim Elzinga, manager of the California facility, has worked with Figoff since his Puroflow years. “Mike empowers us to make the right decisions and move us forward. He’ll offer opinions if asked, but allows each of us to grow from our mistakes and make our own opportunities. He pushes us in a positive direction. He goes to bat for us 100 percent. He’s the first to jump into the foxhole. This isn’t about selling a box of parts, it’s about keeping our customers happy and knowledgeable. With their growth comes ours.”
After 12 years, Figoff remains exuberant. He generally arrives at the office by six a.m. “And then someone will say what are we doing for lunch? It is absolutely amazing how quickly the day has gone.” There is a brief lunch punctuated with politics, news events and upcoming ads due too soon. “It seems I no more than go back to my office and the sun’s going down. Everybody I’m surrounded by operates in the same mode. These people, whether in our Texas- or California-based facilities, are absolutely focused and dedicated. They claim ownership. They have an amazing work ethic,” he said.
“The thing that makes this market so exciting is that every day you are confronted with new opportunities or different problems, ranging from keeping the customer happy to working to improve a manufacturing process or initiating a new computer system. It’s what keeps us moving forward and providing new chances to reach a new customer, a new market, a new product. Our ability to evolve to meet merging trends and still keep a strong foothold with our customers is what keeps us one of the most relied upon filter manufacturers in the country.”