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This year, the American Supply Association (ASA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Its president, Steve Cook, CEO of Northeastern Supply, has led the association through its banner year — at a grueling pace. Cook is an active leader in ASA; volunteering for the growth and health of the channel is close to his heart. He started with one of its regional associations and rose to volunteer leadership at the national level.
Cook has a passion for the industry and for business. He has been involved in his family-owned and -operated business since 1983 and assumed the role of president in 1987. Northeastern Supply is a wholesale distributor of plumbing, HVAC, water systems and PVF in the mid-Atlantic region, with its headquarters in Baltimore. The company has had tremendous growth since its inception in 1945; it currently has 36 locations throughout the northeastern corridor.
We connected with Cook to discuss his family business, his commitment to the industry channel and what is in store at this year’s ASA’s Convention.
Ruth Mitchell: Steve, in 2018, you relinquished the role as president of Northeastern Supply and became the sole CEO. How has the change impacted the company and what are you able to spend more time focusing on?
Steve Cook: Through hard work, vision and employee support, we have become successful and have done a lot of good things. I felt that I was running the company well, – but the company and the employees deserved more. It was a tough decision to make, but I believed with fresh leadership we could go even further and get there more quickly.
We brought in industry veteran Stan Allen as president, who is doing a great job. He understands family values and running a family-owned business, and we talk a lot about that.
I’m the second generation to run the company; my daughter Stephanie Cook is Northeastern’s director of safety and training. It’s good to see the next generation coming in and coming up. The changes have been good; it’s like the NASCAR term —“We are back up on the wheel again.”
RM: Northeastern Supply’s mission is “Working harder, doing whatever it takes to be your preferred supplier.” What steps does the company take to achieve this mission?
SC: We try to provide great service every day — and truly discuss servicing the customer. There is customer service and then there is doing whatever it takes to make sure the customer is happy. That is a big difference.
Our managers will meet up after work to exchange material and information to help our customers. At the end of the day, our job is to make our customers happy and help them be more profitable.
RM: You spend a lot of time with customers. Describe your long-standing connection with NASCAR.
SC: Really getting to know your customer is vital, and it helps to connect on a level where it’s easy to relax and have fun. Our partnership with NASCAR is significant because it connects with our customers’ interests, it’s a different type of event, and we get a lot of “soak time.”
RM: What drives your passion for the industry?
SC: The people! Being President of ASA this year has been a lot of fun. You meet a lot of cool people and travel across the country to talk about how great this industry is, as well as the contributions of ASA. For me, it’s about giving back, trying to help people grow within the channel, to make their success possible. I get energized from helping to develop and create opportunities for people who want to make this field their career.
RM: You have been a volunteer leader since the mid-1980s, starting with one of ASA’s regional associations and then progressing to the national level. What has your service meant to you?
SC: ASA is the voice of the industry and I have proud to serve on its executive committee for eight years now. A little longer than usual — I spent a few years as treasurer as I didn’t feel I had the time at that point to take on the presidency role in the capacity it needed and deserved. When the time was right, this past year, I assumed the role — and it has been an amazing time leading an excellent association doing fantastic things for the industry channel.
RM: What did you want to accomplish this year as president?
SC: ASA is on the right track and has been successful for many years. I wanted to keep moving forward in every way and challenged the organization to look at everything we are doing to make sure the programs and services are relevant, needed, and widely used. We reorganized some of the programs, making for a tighter, more comprehensive toolbox for our members.
My second objective was to ensure that the programs and services we offer are widely available and affordable, providing the best value to the ASA member. It’s about fulfilling the mission to get more members involved in programs, attending events — regardless of the size of their company — but especially for the smaller wholesaler.
RM: What are the most significant challenges that ASA members face today?
SC: Labor is a big issue and ASA is taking a big step in helping members come up with solutions. We are addressing it head on, and I’ll announce our initiative at the convention this year.
Training remains relevant and needed, as is addressing Internet sales and how it impacts our industry. ASA is providing the programs, resources and tools our members need stay relevant in the long run.
RM: How is the association marking the 50-year mark?
SC: We are celebrating the organization and its members in a memorable way at the convention in Washington, D.C. We are planning cool events — such as the evening celebration at the National Air and Space Museum. We have high-powered speakers to engage attendees with topics ranging from employee retention to leading through change. We are featuring networking roundtable discussions for members to share challenges and solutions with their industry peers. There are a few surprises mixed in as well.
Most important, we want our members to attend and be engaged – to help their fellow members obtain the value and tools they need to grow. ASA is in the best position to help the industry as a whole — wholesalers, manufacturers and manufacturers reps. Get involved!
RM: What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
SC: It was from my Dad: “Wake up every day and do the right thing — for your family, for your employees, and for your customers.”
RM: Congratulations to ASA on 50 years of service to the plumbing and heating distributor community! We are looking forward to celebrating its success and that of its membership at the event in our nation’s capital!