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A Discussion with Jeff Cooley About Passion, Investing, and Recycling Water



Jeff Cooley

Thirty-two billion gallons of municipal wastewater are produced every day in the United States, but less than 10 percent of that is intentionally reused. Recycling water not only prevents pollution by decreasing the amount of wastewater that must be discharged, but it can also be used to help create or replenish wetlands and wildlife sanctuaries. Water treatment systems produce a net positive for the environment and are what motivated Jeff Cooley to make the switch for his company, Whitaker Finishing.

Jeff Cooley is an entrepreneurial investor in Toledo with more than thirty years of business experience. After graduating from Central Michigan University, Jeff Cooley spent his early career in education before following his passion for business. He began his career in business by working in marketing for La-Z-Boy Inc. A few years later he began working for Calphalon, a cookware company, ultimately becoming its President and CEO. After Calphalon was acquired by Rubbermaid in 1998, Jeff was promoted to Global President of all housewares for Rubbermaid, giving him unprecedented experience in the world market.

After his retirement from Rubbermaid, Jeff chose to use his expertise to work with small businesses, providing investors with guidance on how to be successful. As the owner of several LLCs and Whitaker Finishing, Jeff Cooley is an advocate for responsible investing and sustainable business practices. He is here to shed some light on his career trajectory, adapting to COVID-19, and embedding sustainability into your business.

How has COVID-19 affected your work commitments?

 Like most people, COVID-19 has had a major impact on my day-to-day work commitments. My plating business, Whitaker Finishing, has been greatly affected by the pandemic. We were heading towards a record quarter at the beginning of the year when we were sent into lockdown in March. In April, our business was cut by more than 60%, and we are only starting to rebuild now. We spend a lot of our time picking up the phone to stay in touch with clients. In addition, my real estate portfolio took a hit in April and May due to the inability for residents to pay rent—a difficult situation for everyone involved. However, now that states are slowly starting to open up, I am optimistic for the future of business and look forward to things returning to a new ‘normal’ in the near future.


Why did you decide to start investing and what have you learned from it?

I decided to start investing because I wanted to directly support companies and leaders that I believed in. If you are going to invest in anything, whether it is a real estate property or a company, you have to look at how the business is being managed in order to gauge its long-term success. Every successful investment I have ever made was a result of seeing eye-to-eye with management on business outcomes and objectives. When I have not been as successful, it has almost always been because I picked the wrong manager. I have gotten better at this, and now trust my intuition when it comes to investing in both companies and leaders.


What career advice would you give a younger Jeff Cooley?

As generic as it sounds, I would give to my younger self would be to follow your passion. If you are able to find a business or an art form that you enjoy so deeply that when you wake up you are excited, motivated, and ready to tackle the day, you are setting yourself up for success. I think that it is really important to pick an industry or subject that you enjoy in order to thrive. On the difficult days, it is easier to pull through when you believe in what you are doing. My best advice? Explore different subjects, hobbies, and industries while you are young—learning what you do not like is as valuable as learning what you do.


How do you determine what businesses you want to invest in?

 I look for businesses that align with my own values and show positive and impactful leadership. In addition, I tend to look for businesses that are LLCs, rather than corporations because it gives me a lot more flexibility. Not only does it allow for better tax advantages, but it better incentivizes the company’s employees because I can base incentives on cash flow versus net profit.


Recently Whitaker Finishing switched to using recycled water. How has this positively impacted your company?

Just for some context: Whitaker Finishing provides metal plating services and metal finishing for parts—mostly auto parts. The plating provides strength for a part and keeps it from being penetrated by water. Whitaker Finishing specializes in cyanide copper plating, bright nickel and duplex nickel/chrome plating, and copper strip. We completed the installation of a closed-loop water treatment system to recycle all of our processed water. We collect about 90% of our water through rain and then use it in our plating process. After using the water in our plating process, we clean the water and recycle it. Not only is this a more sustainable model for the environment, but also saves our company money in the long run.


What factors went into the decision to switch your operations to recycled water?

 We started using recycled water at Whitaker Finishing to reduce our environmental footprint and to satisfy consumer demand. We thought we would get ahead on this initiative before it was mandated. The cost savings has also been a tremendous benefit. It saves us on water costs since we are using rainwater, roughly $75,000 or $80,000 a year. This also makes us better corporate citizens as it reduces our impact on the local water treatment facility.


What are your thoughts on the work from home movement?

Different things work for different businesses and people—it is not for everyone. I currently work from home, but I am also in and out due to my real estate investments and involvement with Whitaker Finishing. We conduct more business by phone than we used to, but we are also very hands-on. We are taking advantage of technology to connect with our clients; however, I do not know that I would have enjoyed working from home when I worked in the manufacturing business. When I was working with Calphalon and Rubbermaid, there was so much teamwork involved in daily operations that it would have been difficult to replace these types of interactions with Zoom calls. It is important to note that I am older too, so for younger generations growing up with this technology, their perspective might be different. I certainly think that it has its place, and obviously, as demonstrated through the last three months, a lot of companies have been doing it successfully.


What do you recommend other investors look for in the future?

The situation we are in with COVID-19 is evolving, so that is a difficult question to answer. There will likely be a number of different trends and opportunities for investors—the key is keeping your eyes and ears to the ground. For me, the key, regardless of the business industry or investment, is looking for an inspiring leader.

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