Fortiline Waterworks

Fortiline Waterworks has grown rapidly over the past 19 years and attributes its success to maintaining a relationship-based culture it developed from the beginning. “We started with one branch and six employees in 1997 and we have maintained a family and small company culture through today,” says co-founder and CEO Tim Tysinger. “In the early years you run very entrepreneurial, and as we have grown, we have maintained that spirit while becoming operationally sophisticated.”

The Concord, N.C.-based company, whose vision is to be the preferred and most trusted resource for utility infrastructure product solutions, was founded to offer contractors and municipalities a better source for their underground utility supplies. Fortiline distributes underground utility products for installation in both the public and private sectors. 

The company distributes more than 75,000 SKUs to a diverse base of more than 4,000 contractor, developer and municipal customers through 38 branches in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. 

“Waterworks distribution has been in place for more than 50 years,” President and COO Mike Swedick says. “Prior to that, manufactures shipped directly to contractors who after a period of time began to demand a higher level of service, which ultimately led to the creation of companies like Fortiline. Along the way as the industry evolved, we’ve enhanced our business through internal training and technology solutions to provide increased value and superior customer service.” 

Fortiline’s customer service philosophy has helped it grow into an industry leader. “Our philosophy and approach to customer service can be summed up by the phrase ‘Diggin’ Deep,’” Tysinger says. “We dig deep into our customers’ business, solving their problems, anticipating their needs and answering the questions they don’t think to ask. Our knowledge, responsiveness, flexibility and teamwork are our real products.”

Team Approach 

“One of the things we are known for is our relationship-based culture,” Swedick says. “We value our relationships with our vendors and customers, and most importantly with our employees. We understand it takes relationships at every level to be successful and we work daily to be sure we have the best relationships in the business.” 

Fortiline maintains long-term relationships with contractors and municipalities by providing properly trained and educated employees. Salespeople are trained to add value to customers, Swedick says. “We continue to build the best employee base and then educate them to have the knowledge base to do what’s best for the customer,” he adds. “We have the ability to work in partnership with vendors to provide the customer what they need when they need it.” 

At Fortiline, the inside and outside sales teams work together to bring value by working with one customer on a project from start to finish. The outside sales staff develops an intimate relationship with the contractor or municipality and are involved in each project before the job bids and throughout the life of the project. Support comes from all areas of the company, including branch and regional managers, estimating staff, and inside salespeople who assist in managing project logistics.

“Our customers have one primary point of contact in our outside salesperson, but behind him or her is an entire team of support people, all of whom are a part of the process,” Swedick adds.

When a new project begins, Fortiline’s team provides what the company calls a “takeoff” of materials to the customer. A takeoff is a list of materials generated from the blueprint that the contractor or municipality will need to secure for the project. “Our technology allows us to monitor material quantities on a project,” Vice President of Sales Frank Seymour says. “If they request additional materials that were not a part of the original scope of the project, we can alert them and help make sure they bill the owner for the change.”

Fortiline is known for providing accurate takeoffs, managing the logistics of material delivery, billing properly and offering service after the sale. It also helps identify value-engineering opportunities for their customers and suggests alternate materials than those specified that may be less expensive or of better quality. “All of this is done through our personal, one-on-one relationship,” Tysinger says. “This is not simply done behind the desk. It really takes a team effort to offer this level of service and it’s what we’ve prided ourselves on giving to our customers since our inception.”

Easily Adapting

Residential and commercial construction is on the upswing and Fortiline has adapted to this change by ensuring it maintains proper inventory levels at all its locations. 

“A higher percentage of material for the private markets come out of our inventory, whereas materials for public jobs are more often shipped direct,” Swedick explains. “There has been a shift in our industry over the last few years due to a shift from public end-use to more residential and private end-use.”

Because private projects use materials from Fortiline’s stock, the company ensures it has an adequate supply and can deliver products in a shorter lead-time because private project customers often order materials in smaller quantities, rather than in bulk. 

Fortiline uses an inventory management system to monitor usage by SKU and branch. “Our inside and outside salespeople and branch managers are key to that,” Swedick says. “They are in constant communication with contractors on a daily basis in regards to what they need and when they need it. For us this is the key. We can manage the shift in business needs because of the intimate relationships we have developed with our customers.”

Fortiline has identified the necessary SKUs for each of its branches because it understands the local specifications. The company uses forecasting to determine where business is going from a public, private and geographical perspective. “The systems we have help us understand from a historical perspective what the future holds in terms of the amount of inventory we carry,” Vice President of Operations Ben Cagle explains. 

Fortiline’s nearly 20 years of experience in the industry is also beneficial when it comes to managing inventory because the company knows what products require a longer lead-time to deliver. “We have learned over the years which products are made by manufacturers that can be delivered in a day or two and those that require more time,” Tysinger adds. “That’s factored into our system. If a project requires a specialized item that has a six- to eight-week lead time, we have to get that order in right away versus something we know we can get delivered in a day.”

Fortiline has also been focused for the past 18 months on re-developing its treatment plant division, which was launched in 2007. “We reorganized the structure of that department to focus more on communication and customer relations and we’ve seen great results,” Swedick notes. 

Constant Contact

Fortiline prides itself on being a flat organization, meaning it does not have many layers of bureaucracy. Regional managers have operational and sales oversight within their territories, which are divided geographically. Swedick, Tysinger, Seymour and Cagle make up part of the company’s executive team, responsible for constant contact with regional management and collaboration on decision making at the regional and branch level. 

“Our entire sales team has access to all levels of the organization, including the executive team when they need it,” Swedick notes. “We spend a lot of time with our employees and make a point to get to know them on a personal level.” 

On the vendor side, Fortiline executives schedule frequent meetings to maintain contacts and better understand their business needs. “We have longstanding relationships with all of our preferred vendors, most of which we’ve worked with since opening in 1997,” Swedick says. “We value these long-lasting relationships and the continual contact has provided us mutual benefits over the years.”

Continuing Education

“Company-wide we have an online training initiative we call the University of Fortiline,” Cagle explains. “It’s just like a university with curriculums and courses that each employee throughout the company can utilize.” 

Every employee is offered a wide range of courses that compliments their current skill set. They can also access other courses if they are looking to achieve a new position within the company. “If an inside salesperson would like to become an outside salesperson for example, he or she has access to the outside sales curriculum and can voluntarily go online and take the courses associated with that position,” Swedick explains. “We have 276 courses offered within the University of Fortiline, many of which were developed by our internal training staff.” 

Because of its culture, Fortiline frequently receives calls from potential salespeople looking to better understand how the company does what it does. “We’re one of the fastest-growing waterworks companies in America,” Swedick says. “We pride ourselves on maintaining a solid reputation and culture in our industry that attracts the best talent.” 

The Future

In mid-2015, Fortiline announced the creation of the HDPE Fusion Group within the company to provide customers with complete solutions for their high-density polyethylene needs. “HDPE pipe is a growing product segment within the industry and with many of our customers,” Seymour adds. “Fortiline created an HDPE Fusion Group to better focus our resources in this area and respond to our customers’ growing HDPE needs.”

In late 2015, Fortiline was named a McElroy distributor – a distinction given only to a limited number of suppliers around the United States. The distributorship allows Fortiline to sell and service McElroy’s wide range of fusion machines throughout its territories. “That was a big win for us and allows us to focus on a new area that adds new customers, markets and vendors,” Swedick says. 

Fortiline is conducting operator training for McElroy’s equipment and pipe fusion process, which has become a widely accepted method for joining two pieces of thermoplastic pipe together with heat and pressure. To further support this initiative, Fortiline recently hired a tenured expert in the HDPE industry.

For 2016 and beyond, Fortiline is focused on opening new branches throughout the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest U.S., primarily through greenfields and acquisitions. Growth through a greenfield happens when one or several salespeople are interested in joining the company and Fortiline opens a branch, based on the expertise of those people and their knowledge of, and relationships in that area. 

“We don’t look at a city or state that is booming and say we should be there,” Swedick explains. “Because of our relationship-based culture, we look at building potential branch locations around a sales staff that has solid relationships in the area and wants to be a part of Fortiline.” 

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