Cyberweld

From New Jersey to the World Wide Web, this pioneer in gases and welding online retail has its sights set on further growth in a digital domain.

Cyberweld Team

From Cyberweld’s storefront in Linden, New Jersey, employees work with customers located throughout the United States.

From the outside, J.W. Goodliffe & Son’s operations appear rather modest—a lone 5,000 sq. ft. retail location erected in 1947 is accompanied by two neighboring warehouses, acquired over time to give the company an extra 6,000 sq. ft. of operating space. For 74 years, the family business has served customers in the New York metro area from its headquarters in Linden, New Jersey, modest though they may be. But it is the company’s presence online that is truly astounding. Now doing business as Cyberweld, last year the New Jersey distributor saw more than 1.2 million visits to its online retail website, Cyberweld.com.

Building on Tradition
The roots of Cyberweld date back well before the cyber age to 1938, when Joseph White Goodliffe and his son, Joseph Jr., a father-son pair in the trucking business, lost their only client. For almost ten years, the Goodliffes hauled gas cylinders for Union Carbide from its plant in Newark, New Jersey. When the contract was terminated, they were sought out by Union Carbide’s rival, Liquid Carbonic, to establish a distributorship. Having hauled cylinders for nearly a decade, entering the welding supply business was a natural choice. In 1938, J.W. Goodliffe & Son was formed.

The latest chapter in the history of Cyberweld officially began in 1992, when current president, Bob Goodliffe, took over the family business from his father, Robert, Joseph Jr.’s son. From day one, Goodliffe’s goal was to make sure the family business continued to be successful. “Most family businesses fail in the third generation,” says Goodliffe, the fourth-generation leader. “I thought to myself, ‘This place has been here forever. Don’t mess it up.’”

COMPANY SNAPSHOT

Cyberweld Logo

President: Bob Goodliffe
Year Founded: 1938
Year Joined GAWDA: 1951
Headquarters: Linden, New Jersey
Employees: 18
Website: www.Cyberweld.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/cyberweld1

Goodliffe started in the industry in 1984, working for the other business in the Goodliffe family, Acetylene Supply Company (ASCO) in Woodbridge, New Jersey. “The first thing I learned was how to fill propane,” says Goodliffe, adding, “I also learned how to file, which drove me bats.” Goodliffe pitched in at ASCO wherever needed until he went to work for J.W. Goodliffe & Son in 1986.

At J.W. Goodliffe & Son, although he was given the title of general manager, Goodliffe knew he still had plenty to learn. “I spent the first two years just learning from the people who worked here, from the fillers and drivers to the salespeople, dispatchers and counter sales.” Through trial by fire, Goodliffe learned everything from operations to the financial side of the business, in preparation for his eventual succession.

Shortly before he took over as president in 1992, the country was in the midst of a recession. It was the first Goodliffe had lived through as a businessman, and the experience was eye opening. A large portion of Goodliffe’s customer base was made up of mechanical contractors, whose business is extremely sensitive to the economic cycle. “The ’91 recession was scary. I remember talking with another young family business leader at the time, facing the reality that we might not be as successful as our fathers were over the course of their professional careers.”

With his company’s vulnerabilities revealed by the recession, Goodliffe couldn’t help but feel that something had to be done to diversify the business. It was several years before Goodliffe found the answer he was searching for; but it was an answer that would ultimately redefine the business—and give it an entirely new identity.

Cyberweld's website

Cyberweld was built with the philosophy that customers should be able to buy in four clicks or less.

The Making of Cyberweld
It was at a Miller Electric distributor meeting in Georgia in 1995 where Goodliffe started to realize the potential impact the Internet could have on his business. “One of Miller’s marketing guys got up in front of everyone and said ‘Within a few years, there will be a distributor in Seattle, Washington, who sells a welding machine in your backyard.’ I thought, ‘I had better pay attention to this.’” The Internet was young, but the idea stuck with Goodliffe, who knew he would be well served to stay ahead of the curve.

In 1998, Goodliffe partnered with a distributor in the Midwest who was selling welding supplies online. By that time, the Internet was gaining traction, but what few distributors were online were still trying to get a handle on the logistics of selling and delivering to customers outside of their standard delivery areas. Because of this, the opportunity arose for Goodliffe to get involved. He paid a licensing fee for the right to fulfill orders placed within nearby zip codes. “If a customer in my area purchased a product on the website, the owner sent me the order to deliver. Any profit from the sale was ours to keep.” However, pricing was determined by the website owner and, as a smaller volume distributor, J.W. Goodliffe & Son often found itself fulfilling orders for minimal profit. “By the time I factored in delivery cost, I sometimes lost money on the transaction,” says Goodliffe, “but I knew it was a short-term deal.”

In the meantime, Goodliffe was making plans of his own. Having secured a trademark and the Cyberweld domain name, he sought out a proposal to put his own business online. After rejecting an initial offer that entailed $100,000 in up-front costs, Goodliffe agreed to pay $6,450 for an online store with 50 SKUs—and a copy of IBM’s Home Page Creator software, so that he could update the website himself. “When the website was finished, the designer sat me down and showed me how to add items. It was basically cut and paste. It was great.” Goodliffe had been given the keys to the website, with no one but himself to steer.

After months of preparation, Cyberweld officially launched on June 1, 2000. In its first seven months, from June to December, the site grossed $40,000 in sales. Over the next few months, as Goodliffe added new products and ramped up marketing efforts, the site enjoyed steady growth.

President Bob Goodliffe engages fans on Facebook

President Bob Goodliffe engages fans on Facebook, but not with the goal of generating sales. Cyberweld’s page acts as a forum where customers can interact and be heard.

In 2001, annual online sales were just under $200,000.

The next year, when IBM pulled Home Page Creator from the market, Goodliffe made a critical decision to move the site to a new platform. He transferred the site, with about 500 items at the time, to the Yahoo! Stores platform. “Although I had to build 500 items from scratch, it was a major turning point for us,” says Goodliffe. “Yahoo! was very influential in the Internet world, and our business took off.” By its third year in operation, Cyberweld had reached more than $1 million in sales.

Giving Industry a Friendlier Face
Cyberweld was born from the necessity to diversify; but it was not Goodliffe’s first attempt to branch out. In the late 1990s, J.W. Goodliffe & Son thought it had found the answer as a distributor for Blue Rhino’s propane exchange program. Operationally, Goodliffe calls the affair “a disaster.” However, the stint taught him a very valuable lesson in marketing. He explains, “Blue Rhino combined the rhinoceros—typically portrayed charging in anger—with propane. Is there anything more industrial and less consumer friendly than propane? By making the rhinoceros powder blue, making the horn a warm flame, giving it a bit of a smile, they took an intimidating image and made it welcoming, and it was genius.”

At a time when industrial websites had diamond plating backgrounds, sparks and tough-looking welders, Goodliffe sought to do the exact opposite. After coming up with the slogan “Weld with your mouse,” a reference to the computer mouse, Goodliffe enlisted an ad firm to illustrate a mouse—the animal kind—welding. “They came up with four prototypes. I took them home to my three kids, and they all picked the mouse we have today.”

The Cyberweld mouse embodies the welcoming atmosphere Goodliffe sought to create. “Our mission is to provide a more personal buying experience online than you can get in a typical store,” says Goodliffe. In order to provide the best customer service possible, Goodliffe sends employees who interface with customers to Miller Welding School for training once they have been at Cyberweld for six months. “One of our value propositions is that every customer service rep a customer speaks with has struck an arc. Even some of our warehouse guys have struck an arc,” he says. With a basic understanding of the equipment and processes customers use, employees are able to offer a more personal level of service.

In its brick-and-mortar operation, Cyberweld’s sales are 65 percent hardgoods and 35 percent gases; online sales are almost 100 percent hardgoods, with 70 percent of revenue generated from welding machines and power sources.

With that kind of investment in training, employee retention is key. Goodliffe credits Google as a channel of HR inspiration. As one of the first clients of the AdWords advertising platform, Google invited Goodliffe to stop by its Ann Arbor, Michigan, facility in 2008. “It was like going into a playground,” he says. Not only was the experience fascinating, it was eye opening for Goodliffe, whose company never even had a dedicated lunch room. “I don’t have a ping pong table, but we do have a nice lunch room now where people can gather, and I toned down the dress code. It definitely had an impact.”

Gaining Ground on Social Media
The use of social media has helped elevate the personal buying experience Cyberweld provides. Says Goodliffe, “I got involved with Facebook as a better way to engage the customers we were reaching through email campaigns.” He adds, “I go against the typical commercial Facebook page. I want customers to have the same experience on our page as they do when they go to one of their friends’ pages.” For Goodliffe, this means not having to click through ads or special landing pages.

The most effective use of Facebook for Cyberweld was a recent promotion where Goodliffe asked the company’s fans—currently more than 3,700—to make product recommendations. The fan who offered the best recommendation would receive a helmet bag and gear bag valued at $150. “I asked our fans, ‘What don’t you see on our site that you think we should carry?’ There was going to be a single winner, but we had so many good ideas that I picked six winners,” says Goodliffe. “We are still reaping the profits of the promotion.”

Cyberweld truck 1930s

Cyberweld’s roots date back to the 1930s, when the Goodliffe family used this truck to deliver gas cylinders for Union Carbide.

Among the winning suggestions from Facebook was that of pipe marking and measuring tools such as pipe wraps and pipe guides. Goodliffe says he was particularly surprised by the success of the products, since 70 percent of Cyberweld’s customer base consists of individual retail end-users, be it hobbyists, farmers or one-man fabrication operations. “With pipe marking, I typically think of welding on gas pipelines,” says Goodliffe. “Many customers are welding small tubing and fabricating roll bars and cages, and they want good, professional tools to measure their pipes.”

As a result of Cyberweld’s customer-friendly approach to Facebook, more than 1,300 people followed links from Facebook to Cyberweld’s site in 2011; of those people, 100 made purchases during that visit, resulting in $8,200 in sales. Undoubtedly many more made purchases on later visits. However, Goodliffe is quick to point out that the reason he uses Facebook is not for sales. “It’s about goodwill; it’s about getting our name out there and showing people who we are,” he says. “I love to see what customers write, what gets them excited about welding, and what they like and don’t like. Our industry spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveys, and yet Facebook is a survey that costs absolutely nothing.”

The Mouse Comes to Linden
Up until recently, operating under two distinct brands led to certain redundancies between J.W. Goodliffe & Son and Cyberweld. For example, although the two shared common staff and facilities, separate phone lines were necessary for customer service reps to answer phones without confusing customers. Says Goodliffe, “From the time I started at J.W. Goodliffe & Son, I never felt that our name communicated what we did. But every time I bounced it off of advertising agencies, they would say, ‘Your name has been around since 1938. Don’t mess with that.’ ”

When he took the business online, Goodliffe had his sights set beyond the confines of the New York metro area, and recognizing that the family name didn’t carry much weight in other parts of the country, he elected for the self-evident Cyberweld moniker. The success of Cyberweld convinced Goodliffe that a rebranding effort was in order. As of November 2011, the company started doing business as Cyberweld both online and locally to leverage the success of a nationally recognized brand. Under one name, the company is now enjoying increased synergies.

Cyberweld warehouse staff

Warehouse crew members Jeff Brinser, Dave Robel and Chris Pessoa send out orders to customers.

Today, Cyberweld’s online business accounts for 80 percent of the company’s sales—and what started as a contingency plan has redefined a 74-year-old brand. But while Cyberweld has expanded in some areas, Goodliffe has been able to maintain a lean operation. When Goodliffe joined the company in 1986, it had 21 employees. Today, Cyberweld has a total of 18 including Goodliffe. All but four employees—fillers and drivers—are involved in both the local and online business in some way.

In its brick-and-mortar operation, Cyberweld’s sales are 65 percent hardgoods and 35 percent gases; online sales are almost 100 percent hardgoods, with 70 percent of revenue generated from welding machines and power sources. Nonflammable gases—nitrogen, CO2, argon and argon mixtures—make up less than 1 percent of online sales, serving mainly those customers who are not located near a gas distributor. The remaining sales are split evenly between safety products and welding and cutting accessories.

While the website’s offerings have grown to more than 1,800—a considerable increase from the 50 with which it began—Goodliffe plans to cap the number of SKUs available online at 2,000. The reason goes back to customer service: “The thing that sets us apart in our industry is the depth of product support that we offer. The more products and brands, the less deep we can go on product support,” he says. “Some people would say a 2,000 SKU site, especially in our industry, is a very small site. That’s exactly right, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”

Of the 1,800 products currently listed on the site, all but the first 50 listings were created by Goodliffe himself. The Facebook page, too, is run by Goodliffe, and that’s on top of his primary duties of running a distributorship. However, as his son Jim comes on board full time this spring, Goodliffe says he’ll begin to pass on some of his responsibilities on the Internet side of the business to the fifth generation.

Bob (right) and Jim Goodliffe

Bob Goodliffe (right) and his son Jim carry on the tradition of previous Goodliffe generations with an Internet-based sales retail approach.

A Step Ahead
Goodliffe prides himself on being a pioneer both within the gases and welding industry and in the online retail world. When it comes to search engine optimization, for example, Goodliffe says he was experimenting with site optimization before SEO was an industry. “Google runs the world,” he says. “If Google can’t see you, you’re not going anywhere.” Cyberweld was also one of the first websites in the industry to launch a fully optimized version for mobile phones when its mobile site went live in May 2010. Today, more than 500 people access Cyberweld through mobile devices every day. “If you don’t stay a step ahead, you get wiped out,” he says.

For Goodliffe and Cyberweld, remaining competitive in the online world is about constantly adapting. He explains, “The welding supply industry has been around for over 100 years, and it doesn’t change much. From a technology standpoint, the torches we sell today aren’t much different from the torches we sold in 1938. But the Internet changes every single day, and that has become the biggest challenge.”

With Goodliffe at its helm, Cyberweld has managed to stay relevant long after many dot-com startups have gone boom and bust. And in a world where the Internet is increasingly entwined with traditional business, Cyberweld is poised for continued success.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association