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At Work With

Apr 30, 2023Apr 30, 2023

As told to Pilot writer Robert McCabe

My career really began when I got a job as an offshore commercial fisherman out of Hampton.

With that came the hands-on use of wire rope, chains and miscellaneous rigging gear.

The short version of all of this is that, while working on fishing boats, I saw an ad one day in the paper, looking for a sales rep for a local company selling wire rigging used in the maritime industry.

The company eventually went out of business, but not before I gained a lot of experience competing with J. Henry Holland in Virginia Beach, which makes all kinds of wire rope, steel cable, lifting slings, links, shackles and sockets used by just about any business or organization that needs to tow or lift very heavy stuff.

After a year and a half or so, I learned that Holland had an opening for an outside salesman.

I applied for the job and got it.

That was in 1983, and I’ve been here ever since.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time in the warehouse, but soon shifted to inside sales – fielding calls and handling orders from shipyards and the like – before becoming an outside sales person, focused on growing the business.

After 14 years, I was promoted to vice president of sales, and then became general manager in July 2005.

Today, our big customers include the Navy, the tug-and-barge industry, crane and dredging companies, steel mills, paper mills and anybody involved in heavy marine construction, among others.

Some of our cables are used on cranes that can lift as much as 7,500 tons.

For years, we’ve done a lot of work with Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. in Newport News, and more recently we have been providing equipment used in the Downtown/Midtown Tunnel project.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard and virtually all of the local, private shipyards are among our customers, too.

I love what I do and am fascinated by the broad customer base, the wide variety of people I deal with.

Equally important, I have the good fortune of having a very seasoned staff. Many of our employees are 20-year-plus veterans.

About two-thirds of our customers are based here in the Hampton Roads area, and the rest elsewhere around the country.

J. Henry Holland was founded in 1953, sold in 1984 – a year after I came on board – and was bought in July 2011 by Mazzella Lifting Technologies, based in Cleveland.

We’re now part of a network of 14 locations nationwide.

We employ 47 people, split between our headquarters in Virginia Beach and a smaller operation in Hampton.

For a while, we thought we might be insulated from the "sequester," the mandatory federal spending cuts that took effect earlier this year, but that hasn't been the case entirely.

We saw government sales soften a little from July through September, which is typically the end-of-year spending splurge period.

Still, we’re spoiled because we’re so close to the biggest Navy base in the world and all of the military activities that go on around it.

When you have a ship getting ready to deploy, it has to be mission-ready.

We help ships get that way.

Also, we occasionally get emergency calls from a shipyard or similar company where a cable on a crane breaks and has to be fixed immediately.

People know they can count on us – at any time, on any day.

I guess what I find most challenging about our work is the impact of information technology and the Web-based government bidding process.

When contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, other things can get lost in the shuffle – like customer service and safety.

It just chisels away at what I call "relationship selling," which we still believe in and practice.

We also pride ourselves in making certain that our customers do their lifting or towing jobs safely.

If I had to give any advice to anybody starting out in the job market today, I’d tell them to be sincere and to work hard.

Learn by observation, but, most importantly, listen.

It's really difficult for somebody excited about what they’re doing to not want to shout about it from the rooftops.

I’ve had to learn to tone that down.

We’re all salesmen, in a way; we’re all selling something.

One of the characteristics of a good salesman, ironically, is being a good listener.

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