Interview with Blake Hobson, Co-owner, Image Industries
Illinois-based family company Image Industries has been in the business of stud-welding since 1976. Second-generation siblings Blake and Stacia Hobson are now pushing their father’s business to the next level with continuous innovation and expansion. Adopting a customer-centric approach and embarking on projects well outside their comfort zone has taken the company to new heights. Co-owner Blake Hobson spoke to Tharawat Magazine about knowing when it’s time to change and overcoming entrepreneurial fear.
How did the family business come about?
My father always had an entrepreneurial spirit. He started Image Industries in 1976 with $5,000. With his talent for sales, he became a manufacturers’ representative for competitors of his old employer. He did very well: his commission checks were fairly sizeable so the manufacturers he was representing decided to hire their own sales reps instead. He just said: “That’s okay. I can become a distributor instead.”
So he started buying product – from the same people who just fired him – and selling it on. When he ran into supply troubles – a lack of available product – he decided to buy his first piece of equipment and make the product himself!
It’s kind of backwards; most companies have a product, decide to sell it, figure out how to market it and get a sales force to sell it to customers. He did it the other way round. He started out as a sales guy but because people kept putting obstacles in his path, he had to find ways around them.
My sister Stacia joined my father in the business right after graduating. I, on the other hand, was always destined to be a corporate guy. I worked for Intel as a semiconductor engineer and after my MBA I joined Ford Motor Company in a product development role. I was a suit-and-tie guy, climbing up the corporate ladder. I did that for five years before I became very frustrated with the internal politics of the company.
How did you come to join the family business?
I started in sales. My first six months were a disaster but after a period of adjustment, I started to have some success. We were growing and had taken on a couple of good customers. The problem was we didn’t have the capabilities to land the larger customers. We were just a little family business.
We were already manufacturing weld fasteners so we decided to start manufacturing the welding equipment to install the weld fasteners. At that time, we were probably manufacturing 50% of our products and buying in the rest. Today we manufacture 98% of what we sell. We went from having operations over 5,000 square feet to over 70,000.
After a couple of years, we hired a salesperson so I could leave sales and move into a product development role. That’s when my engineering side kicked in. I looked at how we could develop superior welding equipment that offered more functionality to customers. My experience at Intel helped me think innovatively.
We developed the first digital stud welder. We exhibited it at the 1998 Detroit American Welding Society show and since then we’ve steadily expanded the product line and tripled our revenues.
How did you gain confidence in your leadership abilities?
My father has a very strong personality and that embedded a very strong culture in the business. But we needed to have procedures and structures in place so we could respond to the demands of larger companies. Because I came in from Ford Motor Company and Intel I had all this ‘big structure’ corporate thinking; but here we were at this little company, where everything is done by the seat-of-your-pants. I would say one of our biggest challenges in growing the business was to move it from this ‘personality’ culture towards a more ISO 9002 standards-based one.
Did working together as brother and sister fall into place easily?
It’s nice. We sit down and talk about corporate goals. I know Stacia is going to help achieve them and she knows how I’m going to help achieve them. Stacia handles production, purchasing, scheduling and shipping. I take care of marketing, engineering, and product development – I take care of tomorrow, she takes care of today. For the most part, we’re not in each other’s hair. It’s worked out fairly well and I’m very grateful.