Watrous Retired No More

May 21, 2007
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KENTWOOD — When Jim Watrous retired eight years ago at the age of 56, he expected to live the “golden dream.”

He spent four years doing the things he long dreamt of as a working man — traveling, golfing, fishing — but it didn’t take.

“I don’t think I’ll ever retire again,” said Watrous, now four years into his second career, Professional Business Services Inc. “In my work life, I’d get excited about playing golf or going fishing. When I was retired, I lost my passion for those things.”

When the longtime veteran of manufacturing management began investigating how to re-enter the workforce in 2002, he quickly discovered a different world than the one he had left in 1999. The economy was rotten, and the manufacturing sector was spiraling out of control. Far from discouraged, Watrous recognized an opportunity: As companies cut staff and outsourced manufacturing functions, they lost the skills and expertise necessary to keep factories and equipment in working order.

“What has happened — especially in Michigan — is that we’re now faced with a world economy, and companies have to look at ways to reduce their operating costs,” he said. “One of the highest costs, and a necessary evil, is skilled trades.”

A typical manufacturer employs several highly skilled, highly paid tradesmen to maintain and repair machinery and other assets on the plant floor. These electricians, machinists and engineers are necessary to maintain production, but are only utilized in spurts.

“You don’t have equipment breaking down all the time, so you have to find work for them that is below their skill set,” Watrous said. “You’re not getting the best value for your dollar.”

Following a lengthy market analysis, Watrous launched Professional Business Services, or ProBusS, with the goal of absorbing the skilled trade functions of local and state manufacturers. While there were plenty of available journeymen in the market at the time, he found recruiting them to his startup a tough sell. Convincing potential clients was even harder.

“The biggest challenge was getting people to believe that we could do what we said we could,” he said.

Watrous had no sales experience, but he did have connections with local manufacturers — enough to get him in the door. An early client was the Fortune 500 company from which he had retired.

One of the largest difficulties was convincing companies that ProBusS was not a staffing company.

“Everybody gets us confused with a temporary staffing company,” Watrous said. “We don’t have people shuffling in and out the door. These are all our employees.”

ProBusS provides a variety of core business services on a contract basis to clients in the office furniture, automotive, plastics, paper and footwear industries. While the majority of these require skilled journeymen, the company is not limited in the work it does. Services range from machine fabrication, preventive maintenance and programmable logic controller repair to demolition and transportation.

“We’re not beyond doing anything,” said Watrous, noting a current contract that has workers delivering washers and dryers as part of an insurance settlement. “Service is paramount. My skilled tradesmen all know how to brush a broom. … If you only need half a man, we’ll give you half a man.”

Unlike many other contractors, ProBusS does not limit itself to a specific trade. Watrous has modeled the company as a one-stop-shop for manufacturing services, a key factor in the company’s success.

“You don’t have to deal with an electrical company, an HVAC company and three other entities,” Watrous said. “We have all that manpower on staff. We’ll take on the whole project; you just tell us the timeframe.”

That has been particularly useful in factory relocations, a growing segment of the business. Generally months in the making, ProBusS can accomplish relocations in a night or a weekend, sparing any interruption of the production cycle.

Now with 39 tradesmen and a total staff of 45, ProBusS is currently projecting its fourth straight year of 200 percent growth. It has never had a recordable injury and takes pride in its training and compensation.

“To me, the thing that is absolutely paramount for any company — whether you sell widgets or service — is to give clients the best service possible,” Watrous said. “To do that you need top-notch employees, and the only way to get them is to pay them very well for what they do. If you really want to grow a company, you need to hire people that you consider to be better than yourself and make them feel like they are a part of the company.”

ProBusS operates an apprenticeship program licensed by the U.S. Department of Labor. The company’s training requirements surpass industry standards in hours and skills, Watrous said.

When he launched the company four years ago, Watrous fielded many concerns about the state’s economy. He still does to this day.

“The state has been in better shape. People say, ‘Jim, why would you want to start a company with the way Michigan is today?’ My response is that if I can launch a company and grow it in a bad economy, imagine what I can do in a good one.”    

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