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Seneca pumps profits with turnkey solutions


Seneca Cos., which began with entrepreneur Chris Risewick selling gasoline nozzles and pumps out of the back of his car, is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a half-dozen branch offices around the country.

“We started out in petroleum equipment, and one thing led to another,” Risewick said. “Initially as an entrepreneur, you do whatever it takes to survive. You throw things up against the wall, and hopefully, as time passes and you survive, you become more organized and take a more professional approach to your management and your structure and your business.”

Windsor Heights native Risewick began selling petroleum equipment on a part-time basis to pay bills while he attended Drake University. He decided to leave college halfway through his junior year to focus his attention on the business, which had suddenly fallen into his lap.

“I was working part time for a petroleum equipment company out of Minnesota, and the branch manager here decided he was going to break off and go into business on his own,” Risewick said. “He asked me to work for him, and when he incorporated, the first piece of mail he got was from his former employer, who said they had a no-compete contract. My boss left the business to avoid a lawsuit, and he said I could carry on with the lease if I wanted to give it a try.”

Seneca first operated from a 1,800-square-foot building on Northeast 48th Street, later moved to an industrial park and has been at its current location on East 14th Street for the past 10 years.

Since Risewick took the helm in 1973, he has built the fluid-handling business gradually by building on its “core competency.” Early on, electrical contracting was added to support its petroleum equipment installation. Shortly after, Seneca added automotive service and equipment, ranging from car lifts to alignment equipment. Risewick said one advantage for his company is that many of its products lend themselves well to cross-selling.

“What’s unusual about us is the amount of different things that we do,” he said. “An automotive dealer might have a fuel system, a car wash and service equipment, and not only can we meet those needs, but we can clean the dealership’s septic tank and can help if they have an electrical requirement. We can serve a lot of their needs and requirements in one stop.”

Seneca’s industrial division, created in 1982, sells coating systems for paint sprayers and finishing equipment, which companies like Vermeer Manufacturing Co. and Pella Corp. use on their assembly lines. Its three other divisions relate to the environment and cleanup. Petroleum equipment, the products that started it all – tanks, pumps and canopies – make up a little more than half of the company’s total revenues now.

“These are really kind of micro-industries. All these things involved are not large enough in themselves to justify huge players,” Risewick said. “What we try to do, in the markets where we participate, is to be the No. 1 or No. 2 player – preferably the No. 1, if we’re going to get into it. We try to be a dominant player in a small pond.”

Seneca currently has offices in Omaha, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Decatur, Ill., and Jackson and Tupelo, Miss., and employs more than 200 people. The Midwest accounts for most of the company’s business, but customers also extend south into Mississippi and Alabama. One of its divisions, remediation systems, has customers in 35 states.

“We touch a lot of people each day,” Risewick said. “When you fill up your car with gas in Des Moines, chances are, we installed that pump. These are services we run into every day. It’s stuff we take for granted, but it’s all lumped into Seneca’s services.”

According to Murray Nelson, Seneca’s chief operating officer, the company’s revenues and profits have increased an average of 20 percent in each of the past five years. Several factors have helped business in recent years, Risewick said, especially gas station consolidation.

“Where there were four gas stations or convenience stores serving a trade area, now there are only one or two, but the size and volume of the new ones are three or four or five times what one of them would have been 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s created opportunities for us with new facilities being built, and then in a lot of cases, the old facility is abandoned, and there has to be environmental work with the old equipment going out and the cleanup. We kind of participate on both ends with the old and the new.”

New environmental regulations also help Seneca’s business, Risewick said. When the Environmental Protection Agency decided to regulate underground storage tanks 15 years ago, Seneca was called in to clean up sites and the damage they had done to the environment. Similarly, above-ground storage tanks are getting new regulations this year, which creates another “blast to business,” Risewick said.

Whether the company is selling car wash systems or remediation systems and equipment, Seneca markets itself as a provider of turnkey solutions.

“We sell a system in any of our divisions, and we not only sell the equipment and install it, but we service it,” Risewick said. “We simplify business owners’ lives by helping them reduce the number of suppliers they work with as much as possible.”

Risewick serves on the boards of directors of Junior Achievement of Central Iowa Inc. and ChildServe, but admits that he’s not much of a hobby guy because he’d “rather be doing something that relates to business.” He has invested in a few other companies, including Liberty Bankshares Inc. and a captive insurance company, and he also anticipates additional growth at Seneca.

“I think we’re just getting started,” he said. “I like to try new things to keep it interesting.”

Risewick encourages an entrepreneurial philosophy throughout the company, which he said is another reason Seneca will continue to grow in the years to come.

“Our chief operating officer, Murray Nelson, has put a sharp team of managers together, and we basically empower them to run the business like it was their own,” Risewick said. “We encourage them to take risks, but let’s just be right more than we’re wrong.

“It’s kind of fun doing what I’m doing right now. I’m the guy who can come in a room and pull the pin on a hand grenade and drop it and say, ‘OK, guys, here’s what we’re going to do. Now let’s make it work.’”

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