Chicago, 1920. The city, having spent many years rebuilding itself from the devastating Chicago Fire in the late 1800s, was on a path to branding itself a major metropolis. There was a surge in residential and commercial construction, and many companies took part in this massive growth opportunity.
It was at this time that three gentlemen on the north side of Chicago melded their desire to create quality scullery-type products and butler sinks with exceptional customer service and experience. As residents were making their mark by building homes to showcase their social standing, the father-and-son team of Leopold and Louis Katz, together with Ellef Robarth, formed Elkay Manufacturing (El for Ellef, Kay for Katz).
All were a craftsman in their own right — Leopold was a carpenter; Louis was a salesman and Ellef was a skilled tinsmith. They started to produce products to fill the surge in the growing residential industry. Business was booming as the company offered a product different from the typical cast-iron sink used at the time.
Elkay’s original products were hand-fabricated from German silver, which proved to be too soft to survive the wear and tear of a typical Chicago household. The manufacturer took to fashioning sinks out of stainless steel — a substance sure to outlast the homes they were installed in.
The three men continued to build the business through quality products and exceptional customer service. Ted Hamilton, president of Elkay’s Plumbing Division, and fifth-generation family member recounts, “Family lore talks often about these early Elkay sinks that were hand-delivered by one of the founders riding on the trolley lines.” This set the example of excellence in product and customer service.
The company is built on a specific set of values and, from the beginning, set its standards:
Today, Elkay Manufacturing Company (www.elkay.com) is headquartered in Downers Grove, Illinois, and has branched out since its formative days of butler sinks. With more than 2,500 employees, Elkay’s Plumbing division provides sinks, faucets, water coolers, drinking fountains and award-winning rapid bottle filling stations, and their Commercial and Interiors division provides food-service products and custom turnkey design and build for commercial and retail interiors. The company has six domestic plumbing manufacturing facilities, two distribution facilities for its core plumbing business along with two manufacturing, distribution and back-office operations for its Interior Systems business.
It has a global presence servicing markets all over the world. Elkay established its first international operations with the purchase of EB Tecnica Mexicana in 1999, and today has global operations and sales organizations in China, Mexico and Dubai.
Elkay will celebrate 100 years in business on Jan. 26, 2020. It will kick off the anniversary celebration with a Roaring 20s-themed party during the Kitchen and Bath show in Las Vegas — and the fete is aptly named “The Great Katzby.” It will also showcase its largest booth ever at the annual KBIS show.
“Congratulations to the Elkay family,” says Charlie Reynolds, president of National Wholesale Supply. “Wow, for 100 years Elkay has been an outstanding manufacturer and trusted partner! We at NWS are proud to be an Elkay distributor.”
What has not changed in all these years are its core founding values and principles to manufacture the highest-quality sinks and provide exceptional customer service. The result is a thriving company built one satisfied customer at a time.
The founders made a bold statement and listed it as their core value: “To be in business forever.” It is not a braggadocio statement; it is one that reflects what they were about — creating a company that serves a need, gives back and invests in employees and purpose.
“We make decisions that reflect this long-term view, ensuring they are right for the business, right for the customer, right for the communities in which we operate and right for our employees,” explains Tim Jahnke, CEO of Elkay Manufacturing. “Employees understand and embrace the idea that we are each responsible for leaving the business stronger than when we started.”
He adds: “It’s a significant statement and everything else flows from that one value. It means we look at our brands, products, people, customers and suppliers as all part of our organization. If you continuously invest in these areas, you will be in business forever.”
The company remains family-owned and operated, with Ron Katz, Louis’s son, serving as chairman of the board.
Product timelines and innovations
What started as a manufacturer of scullery and butler’s pantry sinks has grown immensely and has brought the Elkay name mainstream with strong brand recognition. Today the company has its sink manufacturing facilities in Broadview, Illinois; Lumberton, North Carolina; and Ogden, Utah. These plants manufacture the majority of the sinks sold in the United States. The company has a manufacturing plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, that manufactures its product for Mexico and Central America.
From the 1930s through the 1940s, Elkay added shower stalls, sitz baths and even autopsy tables to its product line. The advent of WWII saw the company producing sinks for the U.S. Navy to use on destroyers and submarines. In 1948, Elkay was the first company to bring automation to the sink manufacturing process, adding a 350-ton press to its stainless-steel sink production process. In 1960, the company began producing its line of water coolers and water fountains, eventually acquiring Halsey Taylor in 1991.
Throughout the 2000s, the company substantially upgraded its capabilities in the commercial and industrial food service industry. In 2009, it acquired SSP, Inc (Spokane Steel Products), helping Elkay to establish more market share in the space.
2010 saw the company launch a product into the marketplace that ties into its corporate and social responsibility of helping build better lives. The development and launch of ezH2O, the refillable bottle filling station, delivers cleaner water and reduces consumption of plastic waste from single-use water bottles. Its impact on the global environment is immediate as it is estimated that Americans use more than 50 billion plastic bottles annually.
The units are accessible in places such as airports, schools and gyms, and each has a “Green Ticker” that shows how many bottles have been saved from that station. “To date, the company estimates to have saved 8 billion plastic bottles from entering the environment,” Jahnke states.
In 2019, the ezH2O expanded into the household arena with the launch of ezH2O Liv, allowing customers to enjoy the same experience in their personal space.
Forever known as a quality maker of sinks, innovation continues, expanding from stainless steel into materials such as quartz, infused with high-resin colors to produce a bold new look, to the use of fireclay, which is baked at high temperatures for a nonporous and durable finish that’s scratch-and stain-resistant. Keeping up with trends, Elkay added interchangeable apron sinks to their line-up, allowing for the personality of the consumer to shine in their homes.
‘Our Word is Our Bond’
A value statement expressing integrity in business.
Elkay’s foundation is built on integrity, and a commitment to quality that continues today through its familial-style culture. The company prides itself on empowering employees to carry out the company’s exacting standards for excellence — in all areas. “We want people working here to make decisions, take independent action and use their ingenuity,” Hamilton says. “Allowing people to grow and prosper — that’s where you get growth and why we say employees are our most important asset. By allowing our people’s creativity, productivity and knowledge to come out, that’s why we’re successful.”
This is demonstrated in the company’s partnership with the wholesale distributor, which has been and remains a crucial element of success throughout most of the company’s history. Starting in the early 1930s, the company went to market through plumbing wholesalers and established longstanding partnerships that remain to this day.
“Our customers want a partnership — they want to be able to call us and say, ’I have a problem; can you help me take care of it?’ Our response is to help them find a solution because we are their partner. It’s not just a supply relationship,” Jahnke explains.
Coburn Supply Co. President Don Maloney says: “Coburn’s has enjoyed doing business with Elkay for multiple decades. Its support and commitment to our industry along with its quality products, customer service and innovation ranks them as one of our premier vendors. Congratulations on 100 years!”
Personalizing the brand through employee interaction, Mark Whittington is Elkay’s executive vice president of plumbing, as well as an industry ambassador. “We make it a point that customers know we are working together for their success,” he notes. “They know we will stand by them, through the good times and, if it happens, the challenging times.”
Whittington spends his time solidifying the channel bonds by representing the company and its commitment to channel health. Elkay is a strong supporter of their buying groups – Affiliated Distributors, Embassy Group Ltd., IMark Group and WIT & Company – as well as the American Supply Association. Early on, the manufacturer invested in ASA’s Supplier Partner Program with a sponsorship of the association to build the health of the channel. Whittington spent years volunteering for the organization, having held a seat on its Executive Committee, Vendor Member Committee, Education Foundation and numerous ad hoc groups that helped form industry best practices.
“I want to help distributors be stronger in what they are doing,” Whittington says. Known as an individual to give a forthright answer has been instrumental in building trust. “I talk to distributors about what is going on in the industry, what they see and what challenges we face,” he explains. “You get to know people and build trust; they know they can come to me and ask a question, and I will always give them a straight answer.” This open communication helps build healthier business relationships, which builds lasting bonds.
Other ways the company helps the wholesaler is by having a team dedicated to wholesale showrooms. Whether it’s product displays, design assistance or educational training, Elkay ensures that distributor showroom personnel have what they need to succeed — as well as sell Elkay product, Hamilton says.
“For more than 30 years, Elkay has been a true partner with Lion Plumbing Supply,” note President Paul Gentile and Vice President Sheri Newman of Lion Plumbing Supply Inc. “It’s built a well-earned reputation for manufacturing high-quality products and back it with great customer support. It offers training programs and displays that help our team increase sales. Partnering with a manufacturer like Elkay has been instrumental as we’ve continued to grow our business.”
The company also employees Robb Best, a highly sought-after speaker in sales, marketing and customer experience, who has presented at ASA, KBIS, buying groups and other national channel events. “Robb’s presentations are non-Elkay specific and focus on how your brain works as it relates to selling,” Hamilton explains. “We offer Robb as a resource to strengthen the showroom community and sales community within wholesalers’ businesses.” This example of providing educational training to help wholesalers in their overall business is personified in the all-in-it-together approach.
‘Our Strength is In Our People’
“This particular value is all about attracting the right people because with the right people on board, everything else follows,” says Hamilton.
Adds Jahnke: “The foundation of our business is built on employee engagement and getting people involved — our people are responsible for everything we are – from what we do to what we want to be known for, but also what we’re going to leave behind.”
Elkay’s founders understood that its employees are central to the company’s success. Their hard work and dedication have made the plumbing manufacturer what it is today. Treating employees like members of a family is a cornerstone to Elkay reaching its business centennial. “Leopold Katz was friends with his employees, often going out with them on Friday nights to ‘raise a pint’ and celebrate a long week of hard work well done,” Jahnke says.
The company also invested in its employees by helping them when times were tough. Hamilton recalls how early company records show the many personal loans made by Leopold Katz to company employees during hard times. Family stories passed down through the generations indicate that, for the most part, there were no expectations that these loans would ever be repaid.
Elkay has a rich history of employees with long tenures. Elkay’s Quarter Century Club has more than 800 members. Every year, the employee and a spouse or guest are flown to a weekend event to celebrate their dedication to the plumbing manufacturer.
During a particularly tough year when the market was struggling, Jahnke remembers a conversation he had with Ron Katz about the possibility of postponing the event that year. “We could, but people will remember, and it won’t be as important in the future,” Katz says. This response resonated with Jahnke, who recounts, “That’s living the values that our people are important, that our word is our bond, that we’re going to be in business forever.”
He adds: “We invest in our people — and in return, we expect the highest level of performance and integrity. We strive to create career growth and opportunities for them to develop and reach their full potential.”
Several years ago, the company refocused its training processes and brought onboard a chief human resources officer, who formalized executive development programs to help individuals become best in class. An emerging leaders program unites Jahnke with employees to build camaraderie and mentor them on their career paths.
“There’s a tremendous level of leadership and pride in this company, whether you are running a press or the entire business,” Whittington says. “And that speaks volumes for how we give people a chance to grow.”
Connecting with employees is crucial and Hamilton has his spin. Aptly named “Ted” talks, he sits down for a video interview with different Elkay team members to discuss their role within the company, as well as their challenges and successes and personal stories. The videos are sent out each week, company-wide. This connection with employees is personified every day.
Another way that connects employees with the company is in its advertising. The individuals you see in print ads, videos and social media content are Elkay employees. After all, what a great way to connect the integrity of the company and its product by using its most significant assets — its people.
‘We Value Quality in All We Do’
Built on integrity, Elkay is committed to delivering quality products and quality service. Principles that are represented in the relationships it has with customers, consumers, communities and the environment. “I find Elkay to be one of the most innovative businesses I’ve been associated with,” says Chip Hornsby, chief executive officer of MORSCO. “Elkay’s customer service and support from its field sales team led by Mark Whittington is extremely astute and committed to our industry.”
The manufacturer gives back to the communities where it “works, lives and plays” through its ElkayCares program. The annual giving campaign allows employees to support more than 70 national charities. These groups must align with company values and culture by supporting healthy living, living well, protecting the planet and compassionate care. Charity Navigator is used to track the performance of each charity and ensure that at least 75 percent of proceeds are used for programs.
Sustainability is another central tenet to Elkay’s values, and the company has initiatives in place such as producing products that are recyclable (such as stainless-steel sinks), participating in river cleanups, the advancement of the ezH2O for the home and continuing efforts to reduce the number of plastic bottles in landfills.
The giveback doesn’t stop there. Recently, the company donated 16 filtered drinking fountains with water coolers to schools in Chicago that could not afford them. Having such a successful response the company launched its Fountains for Youth program in July 2019, pledging to donate an additional 150 units to schools this year alone.
“Relationships with our vendors go beyond business,” says Scott Russell, senior vice president of category management at Ferguson. “We look for true partners that share our values of exceptional customer service and integrity. Partners that embrace a culture of caring for its associates and bettering its community. Elkay stands behind its people and its products and prioritizes being a good corporate citizen. We’re proud to work with Elkay for more than 60 years to supply quality products that our customers can rely on. Congratulations, Elkay, on 100 years in business and we look forward too many more years of partnership.”
While meeting with Jahnke and talking about family, I noticed a sign in his office that reads, “Always Stay Humble and Kind.” It was a natural progression to discuss family — both the one you are born into and the one you surround yourself with — as well as integrity and character, which are well-represented in the company’s people, processes and products.
“This is who we are,” he says. “The killer of any leader is arrogance. The one thing my parents gave me was a strong work ethic and a belief that you need to be nice. You can’t always give the answers people want to hear, but you can always treat people with respect. I hope that I have made Elkay a better business during my time here. You should always leave it better than you found it.”