Alkota Cleaning Systems has been the name behind the cleaning of some of the biggest messes around the country for the past 50 years. The company specializes in standard and custom pressure washers, which are hand-built by industry veterans and renowned for their durability and ease of maintenance.
The Alcester, S.D.- based company began in 1964 as Alkota Manufacturing Company and built steam cleaners in a converted creamery. In 1983, Senior Vice President Joe Bjorkman was one of seven men who purchased the company and changed the name to Alkota Cleaning Systems. “All seven of us came from a competing company called Electro-Magic and we all had expertise in different areas so it was a nice fit,” he says.
Today, Alkota manufactures pressure washers, steam cleaners, water heaters, detergents, trailer mounted pressure washers, industrial wastewater equipment and industrial space heaters. The company conceptualizes the product design, performs sheet metal fabrication and assembles all the components for a finished product. “We begin with raw forms of sheet metal ranging from 11 gauge to 20 gauge, and we cut, bend, weld and punch this material to make the frame of our pressure washer products,” Bjorkman says. “We also use an angle iron rod, tubing and pipe to strengthen the frame and complete the combustion chamber portion of our hot, high pressure washers. The combustion chamber is a particular area of strength in the design of our products.” The company purchases components such as pumps, motors and engines from suppliers and assembles them to the frame.
Alkota products are sold to distributors who then sell and rent them to end-users in just about any industry. “There are industries in every letter of the alphabet that use our product if something is in need of cleaning,” Bjorkman says. “We have a real variety.” The largest market for the company is the Midwest and the south central part of the country because its products are most popular among companies in the oil and gas and agriculture industries. Through its distributors, the company also sells to baseball parks, car washes, coal mines, dairy farms, farms, golf courses, hotels, industrial plants, repair shops, pools, restaurants, railroads, ships, steel mills, trucking companies and water treatment plants.
To add to its appeal, Alkota partnered with Dean Fernholz in 2006 to open Hydrus Detergents, a detergent producer, because the product is a good complement to its pressure washer line. “Pressure washers use all sorts of detergents to help clean the various types of environments that we get exposed to,” Bjorkman explains. “It made sense and that has grown into a profitable company.”
Experience Equals Quality
Alkota’s strongest asset is its people and the relationships that have been built over the years. A number of employees have been with the company 20, 30 and even 40 years. “We have good people with a lot of experience,” Bjorkman says. “We have 90 total employees and we average about 17 years of experience.”
The company prefers to develop and encourage its people to succeed, which is why its management team is made up of employees who were promoted from within. “We build relationships and that’s a huge strength,” Bjorkman adds.
Most employees at Alkota have taken a lean manufacturing course to build a base of knowledge. “We are meeting with employees and asking them ‘What’s the best way?’ and ‘What are your wasted motions?’” Bjorkman asks. “We want to know if the tools can be closer or if we can improve the tools or lighting that we provide.”
Listening for the Future
Alkota employs six salesmen who are assigned to specific regions of the country and work directly with distributors. Five of the salesmen started their careers in the industry inside the factory and have an average of 30 years of experience. “We have people with a lot of experience working for the company both inside and outside,” Bjorkman says. “That to me is the difference maker.”
The one-on-one interaction between Alkota’s salesmen and its distributors is a major strength for the company, Bjorkman says. “They sit and listen to distributors talk about what products and things they need us to build,” Bjorkman explains. “We are manufacturers, not distributors. They are the ones in the trenches competing against other companies and seeing these messes that need to be cleaned. We are isolated and focus on manufacturing good products for them to do these jobs.”
Alkota manufactures mostly stock pressure washers and accommodates custom orders. “Up to 25 percent of our units are custom machines,” Bjorkman says. “We are listening to what the distributor wants and are making those products on a daily basis with their input and the components and configurations they want.” The company strives to turn an order around within five business days.
Before being sent to customers, the products are tested to ensure each unit has the proper pressure, the right flows and that there are not electric issues. Alkota also looks for leaks and fit and finishes during its visual inspection because it wants the unit to be right and ready to go when it gets to the distributor. If there are complaints in the field, Alkota managers will have a meeting, sometimes with the people involved, to identify and fix the problems. “That’s how we are keeping up with the changing market,” Bjorkman says. “We are getting input into what’s changing and build custom units on top of our standard line. That differentiates us from the competition.”
In the future, Alkota is interested in growing through its strengths, which include increasing its focus on distributing hot pressure washers and other complementary higher margin products. The goal is to gain more of the marketshare in areas where it is currently weak. The company anticipates further growth by continuing to be loyal to its customers and building new products. “A lot of the (custom products) we end up making help someone else down the road and maybe ends up being a standard product eventually,” Bjorkman says. “If one person needs it, many times other people need that, as well.”