In 1920, T.J. Collins opened the doors to Collins Plumbing Supply in Holyoke, Mass. He previously spent 14 years as a manager of another well-established wholesale distribution company out of the Northeast, where he saw an opportunity to strike out on his own and focus strictly on plumbing products.
Nearly 50 years later, a gentleman by the name of Larry O’Toole purchased the company and took it in a new direction, refocusing the company on industrial PVF products. Under his leadership and vision, the company thrived. Driven by a natural entrepreneurial spirit, O’Toole knew he needed to bring in additional talent if he was to continue to move the business forward on its strong growth path. Enter Brian Tuohey.
The Vision for Success is Orchestrated by God’s Hand
Tuohey, the current CEO of the Collins Companies, explains that the path for him and the company is what happens when faith intervenes. In the early ‘80s, Tuohey, an Irish Catholic with a strong sense of faith and family, ran a $70-million division for an international trucking company in upstate New York. He was happy and focused on his career when his old buddy O’Toole called him out of the blue. Tuohey thought he was calling to play a round of golf the next time they saw one another — after all, it had been about two years since the two had connected. But O’Toole had something different in mind.
O’Toole, also a man of strong faith, told Tuohey an unbelievable story. “He called to tell me that he had had a vision,” Tuohey recalls. “He was standing over his sink in the kitchen cleaning shrimp and praying to God to send him someone to run his company.” What he said next floored him. “He told me he had a ’crystal clear’ vision of me floating in the air holding balloons, and he knew this was a sign from God, and I was ’God’s choice’ to run his company.”
O’Toole noted that he wanted to exit the day-to-day running of the company and focus his energies on buying other distribution businesses. “He was a fantastic entrepreneur, but I was taken aback by the vision and the offer,” Tuohey says. “I told him I thought he had called me to play golf!”
Tuohey wasn’t sure how making the switch from running a massive division for the largest trucking company in the nation to working instead for a $2.5-million distribution business made any sense, so Tuohey told him. “It certainly looks like downward mobility to me,” to which O’Toole replied, “Maybe, but here you have an opportunity to own this company, and you’ll never own Consolidated Freightways.”
With that incentive, Tuohey took the leap and started work at Collins the following week. “I’ve never looked back,” he notes. “There was no reason in the world for me to have taken the offer, except I knew that God had a hand in it.”
Putting A New Stamp on the Map
Tuohey joined the company in 1983 as a sales manager and became president in 1989; he purchased the entire company in 1998. Under his leadership and with an incredibly talented and dedicated staff, they have developed a rich company culture that has enabled the company to grow into a powerhouse in industrial PVF wholesale distribution.
Headquartered in East Windsor, Conn., the now family-owned and -operated business has nine locations, 85 employees, six stocking locations with more than 100,000 square feet of warehouse space, and four complete valve automation centers. Collins Pipe serves New England and upstate New York, and has a worldwide presence working on EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) power projects and holds a significant number of large industrial MRO and OEM contracts throughout the Northeast.
Now officially titled The Collins Companies, the subsidiaries include Collins Controls in Bangor, Maine; Collins Pipe & Supply in Scarborough, Maine, and East Windsor; Power House Supply in Haverhill, Mass.; International Valve & Instrument in Springfield, Mass.; Collins Niagara with several locations in upstate New York; and Niagara Controls in Buffalo, N.Y.
Who We Are Today is Because of Who We’ve Been in the Past
As a leader in the pipe, valve, and fitting industry, the company has had to be adaptive to changes in the market over the years. “There has been tremendous consolidation in the industry, and you need to set yourself apart,” Tuohey says. Mirroring its previous shifted focus, the company today has again transformed to become a total solutions provider for its customers.
“We flipped the model,” Tuohey says. “We average 20-plus years of industry experience per employee, have tremendous in-depth technical expertise, and have nine degreed engineers on staff. We also have a widely recognized project management team and process, which guarantees perfect service and performance for our customers on their new construction and capital project work.”
He explains that the company focuses on all types of engineered specialties, with an emphasis on automated valves and steam specialties. “We are expected to be and have to be the experts in our chosen fields of endeavor,” Tuohey says.
Another Collins specialty is its project management work. For the last five years, the company has been actively involved with a U.S.-based boiler OEM building a massive desalination plant in Saudi Arabia. The project, called the Yanbu Power Plants, required large quantities of manual and automated valves to be installed in five separate boiler islands with alternating fuel supplies. As a one-stop, full-service provider, the work included spec review, application engineering, project-level bid preparation, drawings, contract administration, primer painting of valve bodies, wiring, testing, tagging and custom-designed export crating.
Other value-added services include comprehensive MRO contract management, mobile safety relief testing and complete valve repair and replacement capabilities, engineer-led training programs, valve automation, and 2 and 3D Cad drafting services. It is all about being a total solutions provider in every sense of the term.
Company Culture Sets the Tone
Family owned and operated, Tuohey moved to the CEO role this past year and turned over the day-to-day running of the company to his longtime friend and associate — Paul Andruszkiewicz, Collins’ new president. Andruszkiewicz has been with the company for 33 years and works closely with Tuohey’s five children. They are committed to making Collins a legacy business and are proud to support, encourage and improve upon the high-performance culture the company has fostered.
“We treat everyone as we would like to be treated, and that’s like family,” Tuohey says.
Tuohey believes in every sense of the word “family.” He also understands that with the acquisitions of other companies, you acquire their culture as well. He wanted to ensure that Collins maintained its family-first culture throughout all of the company’s branches.
He brought in a company called High-Performance Culture to develop a set of fundamental beliefs and actions that everyone in the company would live by, every day, and they named it The Collins Way. It was a total team effort. Employees got together to discuss what was important and developed the 32 fundamentals the entire company can read about, talk about and follow. For example, one week’s fundamental was “Be relentless about improvement!”
The company also developed an app, appropriately named The Collins Way app — where each week a new fundamental is presented as a way of encouragement and a reminder of its unified high-performance culture. Emailed and texted “kudos” for a job well done and acknowledgments of service excellence are a much-appreciated daily occurrence at the company.
“Through this engagement, our team knows that we are all in this together and that their thoughts and ideas are heard and acted upon,” Tuohey notes. This, coupled with the mantra of empowering employees to make their own decisions and to think like an owner, is why the company’s retention rate is so incredibly high — 50 percent of its employees average 20-plus years with the company.
“We treat our associates as our most prized asset by encouraging personal growth, creativity and giving them the freedom to think like entrepreneurs,” he says.
In a Crisis, The Team Pulls Through Together
Working together as a team is personified when earlier in the year, COVID-19 forced closures, and workplace changes were mandated across the globe. “Our first concern was that our employees were going through so much already, the last thing they needed to worry about was getting a paycheck to take care of their families,” Tuohey notes.
He, along with the management team, immediately devised a plan to do what was needed to keep every employee employed. They tightened their belts, and also applied for a Cares Act Paycheck Protection Program loan. “It was truly a Godsend,” Tuohey says. No employees were laid off; instead, they were redeployed to special projects in other areas of the company while business was down. Doing what it takes to build, support, and grow a family culture is at its core, and it is a people-first philosophy.
“Several years back, we realized we had a significant employment problem, as we had 23 employees who each had 30-plus years of experience who would retire in the next five years,” Tuohey explains. The company immediately hired its then outsourced executive recruiter to become its fulltime in-house talent acquisition manager.
“This was one of the best decisions we ever made, as attracting qualified employment candidates has not been an issue for us,” he adds. “We believe in hiring heart.” Tuohey explains it is not something you can teach; he also is quick to note that the company does not have job openings. “When I meet candidates, I tell them that our goal for them is to retire from the company,” he says. “We don’t have jobs — we have careers.”
Empowering employees every step of the way is part of the distributor’s success. “We have a total commitment to the people who dedicate their lives to our company,” Tuohey says. Education in all aspects is threaded into the culture, and the company utilizes American Supply Association’s University (ASAU) to help in that aspect.
“ASAU has a terrific curriculum,” he notes. “About 10 years back, we had an ASAU team come out and interview our employees on their job responsibilities, and they took that information and built a course schedule for every job function. We updated the course schedule last year, which has allowed us to have a concise and comprehensive training program — and a reliable roadmap for every job function’s needs and responsibilities.”
The customized education program also helps employees understand how and where money is made within a distribution firm, which gives employees a clear understanding of the full business process
“We pride ourselves on doing things well and also rely on analytics to measure our success rate,” Tuohey says, citing a monetized error-free program Collins employ in its warehouse. “Understanding that there is a certain average number of errors made each quarter, we have incentivized our employees by paying them $50 for every mistake they don’t make each quarter,” he explains. “It’s a neat program because it focuses our employees on getting better, which also results in a better customer experience.”
Remarking on other tools that have been part of the secret to his success, he quickly pointed out that the company’s No. 1 fundamental is, “Treasure, Protect and Promote our Reputation.”
Tuohey adds: “We are the company that we are today because of the reputation we have in our industry, and the wisdom and guidance that was freely shared with myself and our managers by the many industry icons that we have met through our membership in the A.D. buying and marketing group and our longstanding association with the ASA.”
The Next 100 years
With the company celebrating its 100th anniversary, I asked Tuohey if Andruszkiewicz’s philosophy differs from that of his own. “It doesn’t,” Tuohey explains. “Paul and I have grown up together. He has been at my side supporting and advising me for the last 33 years. He embraces and embodies the company’s people-first philosophy and has the full support of the entire company to move into the position of president. My children are all owners of the company now, and they unanimously voted that Paul should be president when I moved to the CEO role.”
All of the Tuohey children are involved in the company’s management and look forward to Collins being a family-owned and -run company for the next 100 years.
While they use all the tools in the toolbox to be best prepared to one day move up to assume the helm, they continue to heed their father’s advice. Tuohey explains: “Their decision to make Collins a legacy company was critical in promoting our move to becoming a regional player. We were in that uncomfortable position of being too big to be small and too small to be big. Their legacy decision gave us the clear direction that we needed to craft our path forward.”
Each sibling brings their unique talents to the company, while at the same time soaking up all the guidance and mentorship that they can along the way. When asked what changes would guide the company into its next 100 years, Tuohey explains how the company is focused on redefining the customer connection experience with a combination of digital marketing and face-to-face consultative solution selling.
“Times and landscapes are changing quickly,” Tuohey notes.“ The company is adjusting and investing in a myriad of ways to maintain our commitment to deliver an innovative, cost-saving, ’perfect’ customer service experience every day.”
The company plans on celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021 when physical distancing is no longer an issue. But in the meantime, it is celebrating as a family by truly working together as a cohesive group, living the fundamentals, and having fun at the same time. “We’ve created a company that is definitely worth preserving: We work hard, have fun and challenge each other every day to be the best version of ourselves,” Tuohey says. And it shows.
I asked Tuohey what the best piece of advice is he has ever been given. He quickly responded, “To whom much is given, much will be required, Luke 12:48.” It is obvious when one meets Tuohey that giving back, a strong faith, and an unwavering belief in your people can make for a company that will always stand out and shine.