Louisville, Ky.-based Masters’ Supply Inc., one of the region’s distinguished wholesale plumbing and industrial distributors, holds steadfast to one powerful motto — the future of the company’s success is in the pride of its people.
And it shows.
By honoring core values established long ago, the company’s goal of consistently providing premier products and services to loyal customers has created lasting partnerships and industry command. “Our mission has always been to hire the best people to supply quality products and superior customer service,” says President and CEO Jack Bell. “We consistently push the envelope to create different ways to meet clients’ needs, and this has played a pivotal role in our company’s growth and success.”
Being 100-percent employee-owned doesn’t hurt that mission either, Bell says. Masters’ Supply is an employee-owned entity (ESOP) where you’ll find “change agents” striving continuously to build a better local, independent company that focuses all its efforts on benefiting its customers and communities.
Employee ownership gives Masters’ Supply an edge over the competition because it drives the company’s workforce differently. “It gives employees an incentive to achieve success,” he says. “There is more of a dedication to performance when your prosperity is directly related to what you put into the job. If the company succeeds, you succeed. There’s something very powerful in that.”
Bells says there was definitely a desire from the beginning to be Louisville’s exclusive plumbing and industrial wholesaler when the company was founded in 1939 by Carl Zoeller of the reputable Zoeller Pump Co. family.
“When the company started, August ‘Pop’ Zoeller made pedestal sump pumps in his basement, along with making his own copper sweat fittings,” he notes. “Pop and two of his sons, Bob and Jerry, started Zoeller Pump Co., and two of the other sons, Carl and Vince, started Masters’ Supply. Both businesses started in the location on Millers Lane, where the Zoeller Co. still resides today.”
In 1957, Masters’ Supply strategically moved to Bishop Lane in the central part of Louisville.
After Zoeller announced his retirement in the mid-’90s, Bell says the company’s key leaders continued to build on his ambitions by expanding their territories. “Envisioning multiple-site, fully-stocked outlets, armed with optimistic initiatives, the company set out to capture market share and galvanize relationships,” he explains. Also upon Zoeller’s retirement, Masters’ Supply became 100-percent employee-owned.
Today, Masters’ Supply has eight branches complete with stocked warehouses and lavish showrooms by its subsidiary company, Creative Kitchen & Bath. Operating out of Kentucky locations in Louisville (primary location and central distribution channel), Elizabethtown, Lexington, Danville, Shelbyville, Bardstown and Bowling Green, as well as Jeffersonville, Ind., Bell says the company continues to carry on the tradition of specializing in meeting customers’ needs, with an ability to reach several different markets.
“The Jeffersonville and Bowling Green branches were opened to easily accommodate our customers in the area that service the plumbing/HVAC markets.,“ Bell notes. The Louisville location inhabits an extensive pipe shed and more than 100,000 square feet in warehouse space on approximately six acres of property. “Lexington and Elizabethtown have about 25,000 square feet of warehouse space, Jeffersonville 15,000 square feet, and the other branches about 10,000 square feet,” he says.
With annual sales of more than $50 million, Masters’ Supply houses over 14,000 SKUs, mainly consisting of plumbing, PVF, HVAC and industrial items. Bell says the company is open to the public and serves just about any type of contractor. “We also service factories, school boards, hospitals and distilleries,” he adds.
Streamlining Customer Care
The distributor really pushes customer service. “If you service the customers, they will buy from you,” Bell says. “We have kept that motto for the past 36 years. We offer drive-thru, counter and 24-hour emergency service, delivery, pipe fabrication, tool rentals and job storage trailers.”
Masters’ Supply is always thinking of new ways to make it easy for the customer to do business, he notes, citing the company’s drive-thru service as an example: “We started the drive-thru service to take some of the pressure off our counter, and it has become our best and most productive service to date.” In fact, Bell says Louisville alone serves about 120 customers a day.
Taking customer care to a whole new level, Masters’ Supply implemented a robust business-to-business (B2B) site, with more than 400 companies signed up for 24-hour online order entry.
“The new B2B site allows our customers to purchase material, quote jobs and check any history they may need for their business,” Bell states. “We also implemented a texting service using our main number that enables our customers to send a text and get a quote, or order without having to call into our sales department.”
With a focus on B2B integration, the software is specially developed to fit distribution businesses. “These CRM tools allow us to access information quickly and efficiently so we can streamline our day-to-day processes while improving customer service,” he says.
Bell explains the company also is in the process of integrating its distribution software with a mobile, cloud-based field management solution designed specifically for HVAC, plumbing, electrical and other home-service businesses. “The system has a feature set that includes scheduling, dispatch, invoicing, sales and other tools,” he adds.
Advancing with technology is vital in keeping clients happy in today’s industry, Bell states. “Our goal is to give our customers ‘ease of business’ through computer automation,” he says.
The company has five core values: trust, collaboration, pride, opportunity and dedication. “We have these values posted everywhere,” Bell says. “I also put a management team together called the Big Ten to promote company-wide communication. We meet once a month to collaborate about all facets of our business,” he says, adding that the group then goes back and shares information with their respective departments/branches, and encourages discussion.
“This has improved our culture tremendously because the employees feel like they are being heard,” he says.
The ESOP is pivotal in the day-to-day, Bell says: “People feel as if they have a career here, and not just a job. Our retention rate is low because of the buy-in of being an owner. On average, an employee will have more than $100,000 in their account between year six and eight of being fully vested in the ESOP.”
Bell says he is the best person to sell the company to a customer or a potential employee. “All I have to do is tell my story of working through the ranks,” he says. “It is also easy to sell the ESOP when I can give some facts about the amount retirees have when they retire!”
He is proud to brag about the company’s customer service and how much Masters’ Supply employees exert each day at work. “Our service speaks for itself with our customers,” he notes. “Our competitors try to duplicate our standard but have been unsuccessful. I think being an ESOP is a big part of the reason.”
Growth in Retrospect
Currently in his 34th year with the company — becoming president and CEO in 2015 — Bell has worked in every department and holds knowledge of operations in all aspects of the business. He joined the company in 1986, working alongside his father, who was a valve specialist. “In the industry more than 40 years before his retirement in 2005, my father’s passion for the industry was passed down to me,” Bell says.
Bell has always been goal-driven and dedicated to setting and meeting objectives. He attributes his success to sticking to a set of personal morals he feels are as central to prosperity as knowledge, prowess or influence.
“I want to treat people the same way people treat me,” he says. “I listen and I help. When someone needs me on the job, I am there, and it never matters what the job is. If you are loading a truck and need some help, I am there. It doesn’t matter that I am the president of the company.”
The secret to his success, Bell says, is treating everyone the same, period: “We need to trust and respect people. It doesn’t matter what their position in the company might be. We all put our pants on the same, and we need to treat each other the same. I listen to people and implement what comes out of the conversation.”
When asked what he is most proud of looking back over the years, Bell decidedly states he is most proud of going back to school at 50 years old and getting his degree in business.
“I have been hands-on in the industry for over 34 years, but learning a new level of business in today’s world was extraordinary,” he says. “It has given me an edge in the industry, and I am proud of that accomplishment as much as anything else in my career. It has allowed me to merge the best of both worlds — the old and the new — into an approach that is relatable to everyone.”
Another accomplishment Bell is proud of is his affiliation with the Southern Wholesalers Association (SWA), stating that his predecessor championed his involvement in the organization. Bell then joined the SWA Leadership Development Council (LDC) and the Mechanical Piping Committee. He was later asked to join the SWA Executive Board as vice president/treasurer and will become the group’s president in 2020.
Building strong, mutually profitable relationships between wholesalers and their suppliers has been SWA’s primary objective since its founding in 1928, Bell says, adding that the association has been an influential factor in the dissemination of information and developing industry-benefiting programs and activities. The membership includes more than 950 locations throughout the southern United States.
“SWA’s annual convention, meetings and seminars are prime opportunities to become better acquainted with your industry peers, and build stronger relationships with your business partners,” he notes.
Bell believes his industry experience will be helpful in taking the helm as SWA’s president next year and says he’s really taken to the LDC, which is specifically designed to establish a professional network of emerging leaders in the industry.
“They are young, and I love mentoring younger people,” Bell states. “I thoroughly enjoy talking with them about how to grow and mature in the industry, and I take pride in being a part of developing their potential. It is a great feeling of accomplishment.”
When asked how Bell plans to continue to grow the success of the company, he proudly states that he would like to open two more branches before he retires. “We have several areas we are looking at, but timing is important for cash flow,” he says. “We are always looking for new product lines and services. The more you offer, the more you sell. As long as the economy stays steady, we will continue to grow. And I am proud to be a part of that.”