Tommy Docks, Owen Jones

Owen Jones saw potential in Tommy Docks when he purchased the business in 2015. The Business News Photo by Jerry

Sometimes taking over a business isn’t about rescuing some downtrodden entity teetering on the bring of collapse. Sometimes, it’s simply about passing the baton.

That’s essentially what’s happened with Tommy Docks.

When Owen Jones purchased the dock materials supplier at 4003 Dixie Ave. in Wausau in December 2015, he felt it had been run fine and had grown significantly but had simply plateaued.

“It had grown from about $600,000 to about a million a year,” Jones said. “Now, we do that in a month.”

Founded by Norlen Inc. president Thomas Suthers in 1987, Tommy Docks was an offshoot when Connie Curran acquired and operated it from 2007 to 2015, more than doubling its sales.

After discussions with mutual acquaintances, Jones took an interest, which was a departure from the real estate business he’d been running.

“I’d been looking to diversify,” he said, adding that a real estate colleague called him up one day to discuss a possible acquisition over coffee. “I knew Tommy Docks because I had installed a dozen of them over the years.”

Partly because of his success in the real estate game, Jones felt he had the knowledge to continue the company’s upward trajectory. Not just knowledge of business and marketing but — perhaps more importantly — of the people to help him get there.

We had to reboot the whole process. For our trading partners, we expanded our SKUs available to them.

— Jason Parrett,

vice president of operations

Tommy Docks, Wausau

“I’m a huge fan of the gig economy,” Jones said. “I have someone who works on our Google Ads, but I don’t have 40 hours a week for him.”

Jones’ pursuit of “the best” available people in focused niches of the marketing world comes with a price, but it’s one he’s comfortable paying when it returns his investment.

“He might get $125,000 a year,” he said of his Google Ads tech. “My SEO guy gets $80 an hour. I’m able to get that skill set for a limited time.”

Jones felt that putting a strong offense on the field could move the ball in a game he felt had become a bit slow-footed.

“I saw a complacent, archaic market,” he said. “Where you could be kind of smart, and end up looking really smart.”

He also didn’t see a lot of highly capitalized competition descending into the market, so in he went.

“We had to reboot the whole process,” said vice president of operations, Jason Parrett, who joined Jones in 2016. “For our trading partners, we expanded our SKUs available to them.”

Jones and his team revamped about a month into his ownership. In October, he began repopulating Tommy Docks’ YouTube channel, adding videos of himself demonstrating setup of new products from a Tommy Docks offshoot brand, NinetyRight. The home hardware brand aimed at do-it-yourselfers includes a 49-pound flat-pack portable steel firepit and fuels Jones’ optimism for a bright future.

“We established a one-click buy strategy,” Parrett said of catering to DIY’ers. “You can get all the install parts you need packaged in one click rather than have to hunt around for each one.”

In between that first January and this past October, Jones re-established relationships with his points of sale. While a network of small, privately held independent retailers had been carrying the company’s dock parts, Jones was careful to distinguish many of them from “dealers” in a more formalized sense. Quantities and wholesale rates were revisited, and ties were severed. It required a lot of difficult discussions, but it was one that Jones felt Tommy Docks needed for its long-term health.

“It was not a sustainable way to run a business,” he said. “It’s a lesson that was hard-learned. It takes a lot of self-control to watch sales walk away.”

Tommy Docks has reinvigorated its presence in recognizable retailers such as Fleet Farm, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and many more. It’s all helped the company to an average of 15 percent growth in each of Jones’ years.

Revamping the website has jump-started Tommy Docks’ ecommerce presence, too, according Jones, who said in-store sales once accounted for roughly 75 percent of sales, compared to about 25 percent online.

“Today, that’s the exact opposite,” he said.

Tommy Docks, a Wausau Region Chamber “Small Business of the Year” finalist in 2020, has its eyes on a new parcel of land in the Wausau area where it will build a 30,000-square-foot facility to call home by October.