An entrepreneur with a dedication to innovation, Jaime Harris is the president and CEO of Hydra-Flex, an engineering and manufacturing company he co-founded in 2002. Jaime grew up in a small town in the mountains of Montana before venturing to the Colorado School of Mines where he received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Harris’ impressive background in manufacturing includes 20 years of product development experience within a variety of industries. With Harris at the helm of Hydra-Flex, the company has averaged 42% annual growth over the last eight years. Harris is highly-involved with his employees, community, and the manufacturing industry as a whole. Outside of work, Harris is passionate about spending time with his family, coaching sports for his children, and the Carly May Foundation: a non-profit organization he and his wife founded to help children with disabilities.
Tell me about your early career.
My career trajectory is an interesting one in the fact that everything has been a chain reaction from when I was a six-year-old playing with Legos. I realized at this age that I enjoyed designing things in creative ways, and knew then that I wanted to be an engineer. By the time I reached high school, I was firmly set on the idea that I would own a business and never once deviated from my childhood dreams. After receiving my Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, I began my career in product development. Following many years at various engineering firms, I met my future co-founder, Gary Brown. We worked together at a previous employer where we gained experience in fluid handling equipment development. In 2002, we founded Hydra-Flex, Inc. and since then, Hydra-Flex has experienced tremendous growth and industry expansion. Recently, we have been honored with spots on the 2014-2017 Inc. 5000 and 2015-2016 MSPBJ Fast 50 lists of the fastest-growing private companies, named a Top Inventor by Twin Cities Business Magazine, and won Best in Class at the 2016 Minnesota Manufacturing Awards.
How did the concept for Hydra-Flex come about?
While at my previous employer where I met Gary Brown, we discovered a gap in the vehicle wash marketplace – a gap we knew we could fill. We saw an opportunity and knew we could make a tremendous difference. We founded Hydra-Flex as two men, a beer fridge, and a machine shop, driven by the passion to fight a war on waste in the vehicle wash industry through innovative products such as chemical injectors, chemical dispensing systems, and high-pressure nozzles. Gary and I turned my dream to own a business into a reality.
How was the first year in business?
It was the hardest, and yet one of the most fun years of my life. It was exhausting to work long hours, at two jobs, for what seemed like nothing at the time. Our first year revenue was only $35,000, which was crazy for the number of hours we were putting in. Looking back at these numbers and who I was back then, I realize now that I was just too stubborn to quit. Regardless of this, the first year gave us a sense of freedom that came in simple forms – going to Home Depot and buying the beer fridge, sawhorses, and plywood for tables. We felt a tremendous sense of pride knowing it was all ours. It was an exciting time for us to start as the underdog in the industry, living out the classic “David and Goliath” story. We entered a market full of big-name brands and international companies, but we knew they didn’t have what we did: passion, the will to win, and a product that would revolutionize the way the industry did business.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our vision was pretty well-defined in that the vehicle wash industry wasn’t sophisticated at the time, both technologically and in terms of marketing strategies. Our product positioning was, and continues to be, that Hydra-Flex develops measurably superior products in terms of performance, composition, design, and aesthetics. We made it clear that we had invented something unique; we were never there to imitate what was already on the market. We measured our equipment against our competitors and incorporated this data into our marketing strategy. It’s hard to ignore quantified facts when they’re put in front of you. Being a new company, and as small as we were, we also utilized the “let your customers do the talking for you” strategy. We pride ourselves, still to this day, on our customers who advocate for not only our equipment, but for our people and the way we conduct business.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Like I mentioned before, we really lived out the classic “David and Goliath” story. Our sales were extremely slow in terms of dollars for the first five years. Hydra-Flex was an outsider in this industry and had to scratch, claw, and bite our way in. It took a lot of creative strategies and smart risks to put our name on the map. 2007 was really the defining moment for Hydra-Flex when we started to get traction in the marketplace and we were able to bring on a small team of professionals. It wasn’t just two guys and a beer fridge anymore. We had a team that believed in our mission and worked alongside us to achieve our goals.
How do you define success?
Success is the journey you take to accomplish something that makes a difference. My journey began while I was growing up in a small “gritty” town in Montana, playing with Legos, and realizing at a young age that I could create something that could change my life and benefit other people. Now, Hydra-Flex is a company that is bigger than me. There is a succession plan that allows this company to grow beyond my limits. From the beginning of my journey to now (which surely isn’t the end), my path has been full of both obstacles and triumphs. How a person perseveres through obstacles and humbles themselves in times of triumph while reaching their goal is ultimately what success is.
What is the key to success?
I believe there are two keys to success: perseverance and optimism. The odds have always been against me, as they are against many entrepreneurs, but these two attributes have gotten me to where I am today. Optimism has been an imperative key to my success because I have always kept the mindset that I will “figure it out” when faced with adversity. I’ve had as many upsets in business as I have personally, but nothing has ever been so bad where I couldn’t fix it. In terms of perseverance, success comes to those who don’t accept any other option but success. When you combine these two attributes, people around you start to notice. My determination and attitude were ultimately what attracted my angel investor. I found someone who trusted me, trusted that I would not fail, and helped fund the company to get to the next level. The odds of all this coming together is still mind boggling to me, but I attribute perseverance and optimism to where I am today.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
If you believe in something and work hard for it, and then find others who believe and will work for it too, everything will fall into place. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Find people with your same determination and drive, but different ideas. Profit is a direct result not only from the product you offer, but also from the people behind that product.
What are some quotes you live by?
1. “Pressure makes diamonds.” – I believe pressure shapes you and leads to good character.
2. “Work hard, play hard.” – I have always lived by this saying, and it is now the essence of Hydra-Flex’s corporate culture.
3. “What gets measured improves.” – Another motto that Hydra-Flex lives by. We’ve even painted it on our facility walls. It forces us to measure and understand where we stand and enables us to always find a better way.
4. “No one remembers how long it took you to do something, they only remember that you got it right.”
What are some of your favorite books?
I’ve always enjoyed business development, leadership, and strategy books. Researching processes and different methods of problem-solving approaches has made me a better leader. One book that stands out is Traction by Gino Wickman. It’s an illustrative, real-world lesson book that has helped me discover simple ways that allow me and my leadership team to apply profitable and creative processes.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had a lot of tough days that are all sort of the same flavor; not one day or instance in particular sticks out. I think the hardest things entrepreneurs face aren’t defined by one day, it’s a combination of instances that add up to something big. However, tough times are what shape your character, what help you make future decisions, and – ultimately – make you a better leader. All entrepreneurs will face obstacles. It’s what you learn from these times that make tough days worth it.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The will to win and the urge to accomplish my goals is what keeps me moving forward.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Know yourself and be comfortable with who you are. You can’t lead without being vulnerable and transparent. The quality of self-awareness helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you, and how to improve. Be aware of others as well. Successful teams are made up of people with different ideas who remain vulnerable and transparent with each other. And above all, persevere toward your goals with an optimistic mindset – and don’t forget the beer fridge!
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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