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Reliability, expertise and trust are key factors when choosing a business partner for a project as critical to life safety as a commercial or multi-family fire protection system.
Throughout its 40 years, Ameripipe has made those factors hallmarks of its business, and has built a reputation for best-in-class products, superior customer service and highly skilled pipe fabrication. The company has grown from a small, shared Dallas office to a 100,000-square-foot headquarters and 11 strategically chosen locations that serve thriving construction markets across the South and Southwest.
Ameripipe’s second generation of leadership is committed to continuing the legacy and family values started in 1979 by highly respected founder Jerome James. Together the three owner-operators — Mr. James’ son, son-in-law and nephew — have almost 90 years of experience with the company:
President and CEO Blair Franklin joined the company in 2001 after a 16-year business consulting career. He leads Ameripipe’s overall strategic direction, business development, finance and legal activities.
Executive Vice President of Operations Chris James has been with Ameripipe since 1993 and directs key operational areas including facility and equipment improvement, warehousing, fleet management, real estate, human resources and IT.
Vice President of Sales & Vendor Relations Randy Ensch came on board in 1984, just five years after James formed the company. He works closely with Ameripipe’s vendors and is heavily involved in leading the company’s sales team.
“We’re accessible at any time and try to be extremely responsive to anyone who needs an answer from an owner,” said Franklin. “We take personal responsibility for the safety and effectiveness of the systems we supply, and we’re heavily invested in the continued viability of Ameripipe and our business partners.”
Value-added service and support
In the late 1980s, Ameripipe (then named D-FW Supply) made a significant investment in proven, hard-to-find equipment — and its maintenance — and built a skilled team that would provide customers a single source not only of pipe, valves and fittings, but also of pipe fabrication services.
“Fabrication in controlled environments is extremely important to the quality and effectiveness of these life-safety systems,” noted Chris James. “Our value-added services are not commodities. The weld test requires an hour of extra time in the production cycle, but we consider that step crucial when it comes to protecting the public and property owners. Some fabricators skip this quality control step and that should worry a contractor.”
The company’s 11 branches are led by five territory managers who each have a dozen or more years of experience in this industry. About 75% of Ameripipe’s accounts are assigned to an outside salesperson who serves as a relationship manager. Customers are further supported by a dedicated inside sales team, and knowledgeable staff at the counter areas. Ameripipe’s team is also bi-lingual, which is a huge benefit in some of the markets they serve.
Ameripipe leaders believe strongly in keeping three months of local inventory on the ground to prevent delays in supplying customers. In 2018, Ameripipe became part of Affiliated Distributors’ PVF Division, a move they believe further solidified vendor partnerships, ensured their ability to remain competitive for customers, and provided tremendous networking with like-minded business owners nationwide.
New locations in thriving markets
After almost 15 years with a sole operation in Dallas, Ameripipe opened its first branch in 1993. Ensch moved to Houston for a time to launch and oversee the new operation.
“We had such success opening that branch that customers welcomed us with open arms,” said Ensch. “We made money the first year. Business was good for companies like ours who were out there working hard to build relationships and service customers.”
That was followed by a string of successful openings:
The Austin and Little Rock operations, as well as half the San Antonio operation, were gained by acquisition; the remainder were green-field growth. Each experience has given Ameripipe leaders an even broader view of the best way to expand operations.
“One of the important factors is to have some existing presence in the new market — either by already supplying jobs there for existing customers, or from interest expressed by local contractors,” noted Franklin. “But even that isn’t enough because, above all, we must assimilate an excellent team of locally based, customer-centric associates.
“For example, when we were preparing to open in Atlanta, we were fortunate to engage an experienced group of industry leaders who shared our values and wanted to join us. They have made all the difference.”
When it comes to acquisitions, Ameripipe looks for synergies with companies in markets that they believe have good potential for long-term performance, as well as fit their formula geographically. Because it is still such a relationship business, they rarely make major changes to personnel who are already in place.
Engaging and energizing the next generation
As they’ve grown, it’s been important to continually communicate Ameripipe’s core values and family culture to new teams at each location. One of the ways they’ve successfully managed the changing face and scope of personnel is through a dedicated human resources function — something the new management team put in place soon after taking the helm in 2013.
A recent strategy for encouraging and training its future leaders has been the creation of Ameripipe NEXT GEN. At a July meeting, 20 prospective young leaders from all territories participated in an imagining session with the purpose of designing the future Ameripipe.
“We’ve tried to become increasingly transparent with our teams not only about our daily business operations, but even more about our urgent desire to capture the energy and creativity of our younger associates,” Franklin said. “We know the success of our company and our industry requires attracting bright, dynamic minds and listening to their ideas.”
“Clearly, there’s a lot of competition for talent. We’re benchmark businesses inside and outside our industry who are setting standards for employee retention, and we’re talking with our people to learn how to keep them engaged in very difficult and demanding jobs.”
New era, new technology
One of the biggest factors in Ameripipe’s recent financial performance has been new ERP software. The system, implemented in 2017, enables the company to maintain and improve efficiencies, accuracy and productivity — and gives approved staff the ability to see and address any important issues that need immediate attention.
“When we upgraded our ERP, we had to re-examine all of our processes so it could help us achieve maximum efficiency,” he said. “We had created a lot of work-arounds with the old system that helped get us by. With the new software we knew we had to be more disciplined in every function of our operations.”
“The first year we added about 2.75% to our gross margins,” James said. “We could directly attribute this to eliminating errors we had been making in pricing. Previously, we had so many unique prices in the system, there was no centralized way to correct and control them. With the new system, Blair, Randy and I manage and adjust companywide pricing with just a few keystrokes.
Of course, for a company with a lot of veteran employees, change wasn’t necessarily easy. Company leaders injected some humor into the rollout, with an email reminder to all employees on the go-live day that featured a big sign with the words “No Whining.”
“And with our cloud-based business intelligence system, we have deep insight into how we are performing daily, which helps everyone remain accountable to the customer,” said Franklin. “We see what we are providing well — and what we’re not – so we constantly help our entire team have smarter, more strategic customer conversations.”
So, what’s next technology-wise at Ameripipe? They launched the company’s e-commerce platform this spring.
“Based on current adoption rates by our customers, it is imperative that we offer an e-commerce solution,” James noted. “Current figures indicate that 40% of the typical workforce will age out in the next 10 years. There is going to be a huge shift when it comes to decision makers and how they are using technology to run their operations. Our e-commerce system will enable customers — and us — to increase productivity per person.”
Four decades of growth
When Ameripipe was originally formed as D-FW Supply in 1979, it was the only supply house in Dallas that focused on fire protection systems — and they remain the only family-owned independent in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Even as they’ve grown to serve a significant region through 11 locations, they still stress the importance of their independent ownership and specialization in these life-safety systems.
Jerome James began his career with Grinnell in 1963, when the manufacturer still had company stores. He was hired as an accountant but soon transitioned to outside sales thanks to his relationship with the fire protection manager. Mr. James spent a month at Grinnell’s headquarters in Providence, R.I., where he took part in the company’s training program, which he described as “a great experience.” He worked at Grinnell for five years and was so fond of his boss that Mr. James gave a full year’s notice before leaving.
“I had an opportunity to become a business owner, which is something I had always wanted,” he recalled. “My boss really encouraged me. I joined John Vogt and Steven Butter to form Industrial International in Dallas. We grew to three locations, providing mechanical and industrial products for a wide range of applications. I saw a need for a supply house that was primarily focused on fire protection and decided to start my own business. When D-FW Supply opened its doors, we were fortunate to have the support of former customers and employees. That first year, we made $100,000 — and through booms as well as deep recessions we’ve had 40 consecutive years of profitable operations.”
To get off the ground, Mr. James rented 10,000 square feet from Trinity Fire, one of his customers.
“They actually built us a couple of offices inside their big shop. We had to go through their parking lot to get to our office,” he said. “A few years later the owners of Keefer Plumbing, another of our customers, wanted to sell their operation on Lady Bird Lane. It included a 5,000-square-foot office, 10,000-square-foot building and a two-acre yard. We didn’t have enough cash to make the purchase outright, but they financed me. I’m so proud of how we built the business there.”
In 1985, Mr. James bought Ameripipe’s current facility on Denton Drive in Dallas, and originally used it as their fabrication shop. They began adding on with additional warehouse space and indoor pipe storage and moved all their headquarters operations to the new location in 1997.
Younger people in the industry today probably can’t begin to imagine what was involved in running an operation like Ameripipe prior to ERP systems and other technologies.
“Every night, I would take the tickets home and price them,” he said. “Each morning, I’d manually post them in the books we kept for each product and tracked how many of each item had been sold. My wife prepared all the business paperwork for us for 25 years, which she would give to a third party for data processing.
“We knew our business, vendors and customers, and always had 5- and 10-year plans in place that we’d adjust as needed. With no technology to rely on, we had to keep everything in our heads. I got up early and stayed late, but I still can say that I never worked a day in my life — because I enjoyed every minute of it.”
A family legacy
And now, the family legacy continues. Four of Mr. James’ grandsons have been, or still are, interns at Ameripipe, and a great nephew and great niece have also worked for the company. As Mr. James shared, “hopefully they will choose to keep growing what we’ve started. I never imagined 40 years ago our company would become what it is today — and I hope that our current leaders will be able to say the same thing whenever the next generation begins to make their mark.”