Photo by Kris Kathmann
They say God works in mysterious ways.
Le Sueur’s United Spray Systems owes much of its current good fortune to one tough-as-nails kid, Blake Plonske, 11, who beat long odds in surviving 13 major surgeries after being born prematurely in 1990.
Chris Plonske was a 22-year-old Minnesota State University student when his wife gave birth to Blake, their second child, a handsome boy, born with mild cerebral palsy and several serious medical conditions. It was touch-and-go for a while. Chris voluntarily quit his job at North Mankato’s Carlson Craft to begin a three-month bedside vigil at Blake’s Minneapolis hospital, and continued as medical bills climbed into the “millions.” If not for Carlson Craft’s generous COBRA plan, he’d have been swamped financially.
“I was at a point in my life,” says Chris, 32, from his Le Sueur office, “when I wasn’t able to work because of all the time I was spending at the hospital. I tried [working] at first, but couldn’t concentrate. My wife basically lived up there. That all made the decision much simpler to begin working for my father.”
In joining his father’s upstart manufacturing business, Chris had to derail his schooling and a promising career in graphic design. But it wasn’t for naught. Over the ten years since, he has strategically used his graphic design and marketing skills to help build his father’s already-strong manufacturing base into a business really worth shouting about. Today, over half the three-person company’s $750,000 in annual revenues come from pick-and-click Internet sales. Growth has been 20-30 percent annually the last five years — since beginning the Internet.
Blake Plonske had more of an impact on business than just redirecting his father to a new career. This boy who has had eight brain shunt surgeries, and multiple leg surgeries (including a tendon transfer and a derotational osteotomy in which his femur was sawn in half and rotated), also showed business savvy in naming the company’s Internet venture.
“Blake’s physical problems haven’t affected his mind. In fact, he’s too smart for his own good at times,” says dad Chris. “He thought up the name bugpage.com when he was 6.”
Chris’ eyes now look off towards a back office wall to resurrect a not-so-distant memory. “I was thinking for a domain name for a website about 1996,” he says, scratching his temple. “So I asked Blake, ‘What do you think it should be?’
“He said, ‘Well, you kill bugs, don’t you?’
“I said, ‘Yeah.’
“’And it’s an Internet page, right?’
“’How about bugpage.com?’”
Bugpage.com was a stroke of genius: an uncomplicated name, unique, and easy-to-remember. Chris says he had sought “something different, something bold to place on catalogs, and something not unitedspraysystems.com.” Bugpage.com gets 300-400 homepage hits a day now, which isn’t anywhere near a Yahoo.com, but it’s a healthy number considering most visitors become buyers.
Chris’ father, Lee Plonske, 61, started United Spray Systems in 1985 with $10,000 from a venture capitalist, and three years later purchased the company for $60,000. (Previously, he had worked for an Eagan company that had manufactured insecticide misting systems for the dairy industry before going defunct. Chris worked summers in Eagan before the new venture began in Le Sueur.)
Lee was selling his overhead misting units, which automatically spray insecticide on a timed basis, exclusively to Midwest dairy equipment dealers. Bad bugs can hurt milk production and spread disease. The dairy industry did well in the mid-’80s, which meant the company prospered, but dairy went into a tailspin about when Chris hopped on board. It was either “diversify or die” for the Plonskes.
“There were other misting manufacturers in the South doing what we were doing, but they were marketing towards the horse market,” Chris says. “So to diversify we decided to do the same. We began in 1992 by bulk mailing a catalog through mailing lists purchased from magazines like Horse and Rider. Our first mailing was a three-page flyer sent out to 10,000 horse farms. It was profitable, and we took the idea a step further to include more horse-related products.”
Their bulk mailings reached a peak in 1995-96, when they mailed out 50,000 catalogs several times a year. Customers began asking for “backpack” sprayers, mist blowers, and utility and garden carts. (A backpack sprayer can spray insecticides, herbicides, liquid fertilizers or even water in backyards and greenhouses.)
And then Blake sprung bugpage.com. “The Internet started for us in 1996-97,” says Chris. “Our Internet provider offered a free homepage. Interest began pouring in almost immediately. We listed our web address in all print ads, and started receiving catalog requests via email.” Chris did and still does perform all the web page creative work — thank you, MSU graphic design — including the site building.
In 1999 they ventured into e-commerce, which opened the door for customers to place orders online or purchase product using credit cards. Sales and orders began pouring in. To increase their return on investment they cut back on bulk mail. Though they still print catalogs, they now mail only 5,000 or so to current customers and per Internet requests.
Their original product line — the dairy turned equine misting systems — is still sold through a network of nearly 50 dealers nationwide. This product, which is made in Le Sueur, accounts for over 40 percent of revenues, though that percentage has been shrinking as Internet sales increase.
Surprisingly, the misting systems line has been experiencing healthy growth this year from people concerned about the mosquito-spread West Nile virus plaguing the East Coast. “Homeowners are installing our misting systems in their backyards,” claims Chris, a bit confounded himself at the recent sales spurt. “The insecticides are labeled for use in residential areas. We, in no way, shape or form, went after this market. It has been ‘attacking’ us. We even have landscapers and new home builders putting this system into up-front home quotes.”
For their misting systems they sell a large variety of EPA-registered and -approved insecticide “systems” that will kill any type of fly, mosquito, spider, ant or gnat.
Chris says, “In misting systems we have four major U.S. competitors. Many of the parts in the various competitive systems are similar to ours. A customer purchase usually comes down to unique design or pricing. Because of our smaller size as a company and our lower overhead, more often than not we have a better price than our competitors.”
Other products are gaining momentum, including Tree Guard, a latex-based, environmentally friendly product sprayed on trees and flowers to repel deer and rabbits. “It’s a bitter and very repulsive product,” Chris says. Home owners who have new landscaping that includes young trees are principal buyers, especially in the fall and winter. The company also sells two-wheeled garden and utility carts boasting 5.5-11.5 cubic foot tubs. Similar carts are sold at Menard’s and Home Depot, but United Spray Systems’ can be ordered online in seven shapes and sizes, in any color, and any wheel size, from a pneumatic innertube tire to a bicycle tire.
They distribute for “about ten companies.”
March through November, due to the pesky bugs, is by far their busiest season, with business tapering off 50 percent in winter months. The slower winter is well-spent planning and budgeting and developing marketing strategies for the next year — and Chris is always on the prowl for new items to distribute.
Spraying For Tomorrow
When Lee Plonske purchased United Spray Systems’ current 7,800 sq. ft. building in 1998, he and son Chris were planning on growth. Extra office space that could be used for future expansion was rented out to another local business, and an unused 3-1/2 acres was held in reserve.
Office walls are painted hypnotic white, with the physical office environment itself generously described by this writer as “aesthetically impaired.” The lack of concern for physical comforts has been the direct result of running a business that has few if any face-to-face human contacts with the outside world save for the occasional meeting with a curious magazine writer. The low-key atmosphere leads to informal job titles for father Lee, “he’s just the president,” and son Chris, “I don’t need a title; I’m just the marketing guy.” Such is the life of a 2001 Internet distributor.
Next year United Spray Systems plans on carving out a niche in the “gardening” market.
Father and son work well together, says Chris, with decisions arrived at by mutual agreement. Lee is 61 and owns 100 percent, and is interested in selling out to his son. But Chris isn’t biting his nails waiting: he has another online business which he started two years ago, one he works at night: forthebirdz.com. With it he sells bird houses, feeders and baths and other bird-related items to retail customers through a wholesaler that drop ships. Chris says that “birds” are the No. 2 U.S. hobby behind gardening, and that, “there is room in this market for everyone, though it’s a hard one to crack. You have to offer unique products.”
Igniting Search Engines
“’Search engine relevancy’ is a job in itself,” says Chris, who has been responsible for all United Spray Systems’ marketing and Internet work. “Search engines have different ways of categorizing information. Some take the first 200 or last 200 words on your main index page, or the meta tags (an html language script at the beginning of a web page used by meta tag search engines), or the title.”
It’s tough to place a web page high on a search engine list when “popular” words are used. For instance, putting the word “shoes” on a homepage won’t lead to good listing, but more specific words such as “slippers,” “clogs” or “baby booties” might. On bugpage.com’s homepage he uses the words “automatic insect control systems,” “misting systems,” “mosquito systems,” and “fly systems.” The words “garden carts” and “backpack sprayers” don’t draw too much of a crowd and lead to decent listings.
Their backpack sprayer supplier, SP Systems, has been “pushing” potential customers toward bugpage.com rather than to national retailers because United Spray Systems will sell its entire line, not just the one or two SKUs offered by many home chains. They switched to SP Systems in 1998 because it drop-shipped all orders to the consumer, which meant United Spray Systems only had to worry about marketing, billing and orders, and not about warehousing and cash flow problems due to a tied-up inventory.
Recently, with the number of websites reaching critical mass, larger search engines such as Yahoo! have been charging a fee for submittals. “But that doesn’t affect us,” says Chris, “because we got in so early, and our keywords and domain name have been floating around for so long, that everybody picks them up. The whole system is intertwined.”
For a fee, some companies will submit a business’s website information to 300-400 search engines, but Chris doesn’t see the point. All the smaller search engines use the larger ones to fill in their search engine pages, he says, so “if you’re listed on the Top Six search engines, your page eventually will filter down to the smaller ones.” He resubmits his web pages only through companies that don’t charge fees, ones who make all their money off banner advertising.
He advertises his own web page by buying ad banners on high-traffic web pages (linked to his website) for up to $1,000 per month. Some highly popular web pages charge up to $5,000 per week.
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