When some people retire, they use their newly found free time to travel the world. But for Joe Watters, who recently retired from Hoffman International, spanning the globe was his full-time job.
On Dec. 31, 2005, Watters ended a successful 38-year career at the Piscataway, NJ-based company.
“You hit 69 years old and you begin thinking, ’wow, I’ve been working a very long time, it might be time to do something else … stop and smell the flowers a little bit,” Watters said.
Retiring was not an easy decision for Watters.
“It was very hard for me because I really loved what I did. I enjoyed my work enormously, never leaving the office feeling like ’Oh my God, I hate to do this,’” he said,
Watters confessed that his first few weeks of his retirement are going “OK,” but when he recently went into the office to help out a bit, he could “feel the juices start to flow again.”
Currently, Watters is acting as a consultant to Hoffman, “I’ve agreed to come in one day a week, but it’s not like anybody is saying to me that ’you have to be here every Tuesday at a certain time.’ I’m helping with the transition of my job to other people who’ll handle various parts of it,” Watters said.
“This may go on for six months or so; then we’ll take another look at the situation and see how that’s going. What I do know is that I won’t be the day-to-day manager anymore. You have to cut the cord otherwise people will look at you and think that you’re not really retired, I’m really retired,” he added.
Watters started his career at Hoffman as sales manager in 1967. Working for Hoffman, however, was, at the time, an opportunity he neither thought would happen, nor would be something he’d even be interested in,
“The company was a family-owned business, and I swore that I would never come to work here,” he said “My wife is a Hoffman. We got married right after college and I was a commissioned engineer officer in the Marine Corps from 1958 to 1962. The first years of our marriage were spent at Quantico, VA, and Camp Lejune, NC. Coincidentally, while in the Marines, I had responsibility for cranes and dozers and all kinds of construction equipment typically employed by a Marine combat engineer company.
Upon leaving the Marines, Watters entered the mortgage banking business, which was his first love on leaving college.
Watters confessed that he had always resisted working for his wife’s family’s company as he wanted to make his own way in life, But a merging of set of circumstances in 1967 would finally bring him to the family firm.
“I was about to relocate for a new position in Baltimore when my brother-in-law approached me about joining the family company, then known as Hoffman Rigging and Crane Co.
Watters talked it over with his wife and they both decided that he would try working at Hoffman on a trial basis — six months or so.
“Well,” Watters said, “that was 38 years ago. I guess it wasn’t so temporary.”
The 1967 Hoffman Rigging and Crane Service Co. was very different from the Hoffman International of today.
“We were then an operating company,” he said. “We were deeply involved in rigging and heavy hauling, dealing with major power plants; petro-chem refineries and similar large construction projects. We had a very substantial fleet of rental cranes, which were extremely active in Port Newark-Elizabeth during the embryonic stages of containerization as it first arrived at the Port of New York. “Our cranes played a critical role in the transformation of Port Newark-Elizabeth to the container capital of the world,” he continued.
“That lasted for the better part of seven or eight years and as containerization exploded around the world, the maritime industry provided us our first taste of the international marketplace as we rented cranes to load and unload vessels in various world ports such as Bermuda, St. Thomas, St. Croix, Panama, Haifa and elsewhere.”
Business began to change and, turn down by the early to mid 1970s.
“Our activity in Port Newark began to decrease dramatically. As we saw the development of fixed-type container cranes rising throughout the area; we were becoming functionally obsolete and this problem was compounded by the disaster at the Three Mile Island Nuclear plant which had an enormous dampening impact on the nuclear power industry,” he said.
Faced with these declining markets, the company initiated new marketing programs promoting equipment rentals to major contractors working around the world.
“It was an entirely new venture for us,” said Watters, “and, despite only limited initial success in the Bahamas, we stayed the course and submitted a comprehensive proposal to rent 150 pieces of equipment to a petro-chemical engineering company located in Rome, Italy. This company was about to start construction of a major refinery for Ecopetrol in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.”
Watters confessed that, at the time, he thought the idea might prove to be a big waste of time, as well as money, but concluded that they would try anyway, to see what would happen.
“And, lo and behold, in November 1974 we heard this crackling noise on our telephone,” he recalled. “It’s an overseas call from the company in Italy, wondering if we could immediately come to Rome to negotiate a contract. Frankly speaking, we were thunderstruck.”
For Watters, who bad never been out of the country except during his time in the Marine Corps, this chance was a big opportunity.
“I didn’t even have a passport,” he said.
Accompanied by his future partner, Bill Hoffman, Watters boarded a 707 and flew to Italy to negotiate a contract to rent all the equipment for 18 months, with an option to purchase.
“In addition to the equipment, we provided engineering, rigging and technical assistance. This was my first overseas project. The equipment consisted of all kinds of lattice boom and hydraulic cranes, heavy hauling tractors and trailers, concrete trucks and pumps, wheel loaders and all types of other equipment and spare parts. The largest crane we shipped there was a Lima 300-ton truck crane, which at that time was the largest mobile truck crane in the world.”
The venture proved successful. Approximately a year later, the engineering company expanded the original job to include an optimization plant. Hoffman sent an additional 150 pieces of equipment south to Columbia.
“Finalizing this contract was a significant turning point in the company’s history. The future of the firm changed dramatically as we attempted to expand this new business model,” said Watters. “I became senior vice president of Sales and Operations and focused the company’s attention almost exclusively on the global marketplace. Shortly thereafter, with Watters leading the way. Hoffman International signed another equipment rental supply agreement with another Italian contractor for a pipeline project in Iran.
“We sent 175 pieces of equipment,” began Watters. “When we signed up for this job, the Shah was still in power. I’ll always remember this because we negotiated a Standby Letter of Credit to guarantee the payments and the value of the equipment, and our customer in Italy did everything it could to avoid posting that Letter of Credit because he said, ’what could be a safer place than Iran under the Shah?’
"Well, six months later, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran from France and deposed the Shah and we were sitting there with 175 pieces of equipment and the job shut down. It was a disaster for everybody involved,” he continued.
“Fortunately, with that Letter of Credit as leverage, we were able to negotiate the sale of all the equipment to our client and exit Iran fully intact. That was quite an experience for us, and taught us a lot about international risk, which is an inherent gradient of international business.”
That was 1978. a very significant year for Hoffman International and Watters. The company opened an office in Milan, Italy and representative offices in Seoul, Korea and Leiden, Holland. More importantly, the company reorganized its structure with both Watters and Bill Hoffman becoming equal co-owners of the company’s shares.
Exports were still the name of the game for Hoffman until the early 1980s when, as Watters put it, “The international economy went to hell in a hand basket.
“The whole model of our business to act as a turnkey supplier for packages of equipment to major global contractors began to deteriorate,” he said. “We had to turn our focus back to the domestic scene and that was when we really began to take equipment distribution in New Jersey seriously. Though we still maintained an export activity.”
During the height of Hoffman’s export business, international sales accounted for approximately 90 percent of the company’s revenue.
“We really needed to be more diversified so we turned back to the domestic business. We became a dealer for Fiat-Allis, Lorain, American Hoist, Terex, Euclid and a number of other manufacturers. I think as a result we created a better balance between the two businesses,” Watters said.
Today, more than 30 years later, Hoffman International remains a diversified company. But ask Watters to reflect on his career or to discuss his future plans now that he has time to do whatever he wants, his answers are completely “international.”
When he said that “maybe I’ll play some golf,” he’ll simultaneously recalled the times he played in Russia and the business achievements he experienced while there. In fact, what he considered to be his (and the company’s) biggest achievement is the opening of the Russian marketplace for Hoffman, as well as other USA manufacturers and distributors.
“Following some success in that market in the early 90s, we were invited by the Russian Road Ministry to join forces with six Russian companies to form an equipment leasing company featuring USA manufactured machinery. The company opened in 1996 just outside Moscow under the name RAMTEC Leasing or Russian-American Leasing Company,” he said.
“In two years, I went to Russia 13 different times to help make this happen. We exported about $10 million of USA manufactured equipment over an 18-month period to this leasing company of which we were a shareholder.
“Unfortunately, the Russian economy took a big nosedive in the late ’90s and the shareholders finally decided to liquidate the company,” he continued. “But, by that time, we had established ourselves in the Russian marketplace and we continue to be there today. We have a licensing agreement with a Russian manufacturer to build road patching machines, and we expanded our operations in Russia to not only include the western zone of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in the eastern zone timber areas and a number of the NIS countries, which were former Soviet republics.”
Part of what Watters really intends to do now that he’s retired is help his son, Tim, who purchased all of the shares of the company three years ago, to assume more of the international reins.
“I was intimately involved in many of our transactions,” Watters said. “We have one going on now in Kazakhstan. It’s a major project for us, and we have a number of other major deals in South America and Africa that I was very involved in right up to my last day. I’m just trying to help Tim, president of Hoffman, with the transition process.”
When it’s really time to let go completely, Watters will have no regrets. But he will miss the company and the excitement that his career offered.
“I look at Hoffman International as a family company, and by that I mean everybody, including all our employees and worldwide representatives,” he said. “I’ll miss the close family association with them, I’ll miss the joy of the international relationships that I’ve developed. It’s different in the international business because trust continues to be so much a major part of it.
“When you have those kinds of business relationships, friendships develop,” he continued. “We sold a crane to a fellow in Guatemala just before this past Christmas and I sold him his first crane 30 years ago. And he continues to come back to us. We’ve had folks from around the globe attend our children’s weddings. They’ve come from South America, Europe and elsewhere because they’re our treasured good friends. These friendships won’t be gone, but I’m afraid there won’t be many new ones, either.”
When Watters looks back over his life and his 38-year career at Hoffman, he still can’t quite believe how wonderful everything turned out.
“For a guy who grew up in Bellville, New Jersey, I never expected to be out of the country. Then one day, years later, I’m in the Kremlin standing in Red Square looking up past Lenin’s tomb. Unbelievable! It was quite a thrilling career.”