Testing The Waters

July 31, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Paul F. Wooden Jr. vividly remembers the time in the early 1970s when he passed out in the woods near Park Circle in Baltimore after a session of heavy drinking, only to be awakened by nearby children wondering aloud who the "bum" was.

"That kind of hurt," said Mr. Wooden, recounting a youth of flitting from college to college, showing more interest in having a good time than taking on responsibilities.

But after turning around his life, that "bum" became president of Taylor Technologies Inc. -- a company he took over 15 years ago when it was on the brink of collapse and has since rebuilt into an operation with $5.5 million in revenues and 54 employees.

This achievement was recognized last month when Mr. Wooden, 45, was named Entrepreneur of the Year for Manufacturing in Maryland in an annual contest sponsored by Ernst & Young, Inc. magazine and Merrill Lynch.

"The result of Wooden's leadership and guidance is a successful company that has almost quadrupled its sales and is now recognized as a leading supplier of water testing chemicals worldwide," said the program booklet at the awards dinner.

The Sparks-based company that Mr. Wooden has built makes 500 different testing kits that are used to test the water in conditions ranging from hot tubs to power plant cooling towers. "Anywhere water is manipulated is a market for us," he said.

These plastic boxes -- filled with bottles of chemicals that turn various colors when added to water -- retail from $5 or $6 for a simple home version to $500 for a battery of tests that would be used in industrial applications.

Mr. Wooden took a tortuous route to being an entrepreneur, going from poorly performing college student to construction worker to coffee salesman to public accountant. Along the way he returned to his Protestant religious roots, which he said gave his life a sense of purpose and direction.

Growing up in the northwest Baltimore County community of Woodensburg -- named after his ancestors who settled in the area about 300 years ago -- Mr. Wooden came from a prominent family of lawyers and accountants.

His grandfather, Ernest E. Wooden, was a lawyer and one of the first certified public accountants in Maryland, getting his certification in 1910. He was one of the founders of Wooden and Benson, a firm that still exists in Towson, and helped start the Farmers and Merchants Bank, a small bank with offices in Fowblesburg and Hampstead.

Mr. Wooden's father, Paul F. Wooden, likewise became a lawyer and accountant and worked in the accounting firm and the bank.

But Mr. Wooden, the youngest of three children, had a shaky start. He flunked out of four colleges from 1967 to 1970 and then joined the Navy for a two-year hitch in the Mediterranean. Along the way he gained a reputation as a party animal, organizing the mixers for his fraternities and going to Woodstock in 1969.

"I was concerned, but not overly concerned," Mr. Wooden's father said about these years. "He straightened out and did very well."

After leaving the Navy, Mr. Wooden started changing the course of his life as the result of rediscovering his religious roots. "Some days, God just just picks you up by the shirttail," he said.

He went back to college on the GI bill, working at the same time as a watchman for a lumberyard. Following in his father and grandfather's steps, he graduated from Towson State University with a bachelor's degree in business, became a CPA and and started working for the accounting firm of Ernst & Ernst -- now Ernst & Young -- from 1976 to 1980.

Then Taylor Technologies, a small 35-person company founded in 1930, came on the block in 1980. Taylor had a long relation with the Wooden family, with both Mr. Wooden's father and grandfather doing work for company.

With only $900 down and an agreement to pay an undisclosed amount from company proceeds over 10 years, Mr. Wooden, at the tender age of 30, bought a majority of the shares. "I always had the dream I wanted to be in the manufacturing business," he said.

What he got was a company whose products lagged behind the industry, outdated computer equipment and a nearly nonexistent cost control system.

After implementing new accounting systems to bring order to the company's finances, Mr. Wooden in 1982 moved the company from its outmoded headquarters at York Road and Stevenson Lane in Towson to a modern 27,000-square-foot facility in Loveton Center industrial park in Sparks. That building was later enlarged to 50,000 square feet.

The company also bought modern filling equipment and had computer software developed to meet its needs.

The company -- until then known primarily for test kits for industrial purposes -- also started venturing into the pool and spa market, which now accounts for about 60 percent of its business.

While the company has a large part of the market for testing public and commercial pools, it has just 5 percent of the market for residential pools and spas, Mr. Wooden said.

"As a professional test kit, they are excellent," said Robert J. Cunningham, vice president of Miami Products and Chemical Co., a Dayton, Ohio, distributor that handles Taylor products.

"We've had exceptionally good reports on their kits," he said.

But the Taylor kits are edged out in the residential market by other testing kits that are simpler to use. "Taylor is a more technical company," he said.

Mr. Wooden concedes that Taylor faces tough competition in the residential market.

"It's a tough sell," he said.

But the company hopes to make some inroads with a new, easier-to-use kit with a retail price of $5 to $6.

The company also recently completed a six-month survey of major water testing companies and distributors to try to tailor the company's product line to customer needs.

With the company expanding into as many markets as possible, Mr. Wooden said the long-term plan is to reach $20 million in sales in five years. "It's a neat picture," he said.

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