Stew Chaffee has arguably been one of the hardest-working, most driven reps in the plumbing industry for four decades. He developed his work ethic early while growing up on the family farm in Pennsylvania and as an athlete. That foundation landed Chaffee a job in sales at Rich-Tomkins, the plumbing manufacturers’ rep agency in Philadelphia.
Chaffee was trained as a mason and involved in the construction of then-agency owner Ken Holloway’s new home. Holloway couldn’t help but notice Chaffee’s talent and competitive drive, so he offered him a sales position.
“The idea of a business career really didn’t have a lot of appeal to me,” Chaffee recalls. “But my body hurt so bad that it was initially almost an act of survival so I could heal and rebuild. In those early days, I wasn’t very comfortable talking business with company leaders or clients, but I felt at home talking to the plumbers about products and projects. I knew if I could sell to plumbers I could control my destiny.”
At the time, Chaffee and his wife Jeanne had recently married, and she encouraged him to embrace the opportunity.
“I was working full-time, which gave us the confidence to take a chance,” says Jeanne. “His life and career completely changed — his attire, purchase a new car and study sales techniques. Every night he came home and reviewed his notes and would go over accounting and sales reports with Ken. He became a true student. It’s often said that you get out of something what you put in, and Stew worked really hard.”
As Chaffee got more comfortable in his new role, his confidence grew. And having been an athlete, he was competitive and hated losing. In the 1990s he started using third-party sales coaching to strengthen his team.
“I also emphasized the importance of keeping your word. Your integrity is all you have, so when you tell a customer you’re going to do something, you absolutely must — and do it right. There is a finite number of customers. If one is burned, there isn’t an endless supply to take his place.”
When Chaffee became president of Rich-Tomkins in 2008, the national mortgage and housing crisis was rearing its ugly head. They were forced to come up with a game plan fast. One of the accomplishments that Chaffee is most proud of is that the agency never laid off any staff during that period.
“Home values and sales were dropping by 30 percent, but we retained everyone. That sacrifice and commitment we chose to make built the DNA of our organization. By the time the economy got back on track, our team was so loyal they would run through a wall for us.”
Rich-Tomkins now employs 25 who span three generations.
“We have a very special team,” says Jeanne, who over the years took on the agency’s financial responsibilities and is now CFO. “Stew was instrumental in building this culture by selecting the right people to hire. He was able to see the abilities that each person possessed — often better than they were able to see themselves. He didn’t always go by conventional resumes and experience; he would take someone raw and mold them into a terrific long-term team player.”
It was always clear that Chaffee came to win, and as his knowledge and experience grew he used his platform to become a vocal and unabashed industry proponent on a national stage through affiliations with the Association of Independent Manufacturers’/Representatives (AIM/R), the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) and the American Supply Association (ASA).
“I learned so much from being involved with the industry on a national level — and particularly through AIM/R,” Chaffee says. “I was elected to the AIM/R board of directors and went through the progression of roles on the executive committee. I gained so much from my fellow AIM/R members; everyone needs a support group outside their own comfortable circle that broadens their vision and possibilities.”
Another effort Chaffee has been particularly vocal about in recent years is the visibility of trade schools.
“It’s increasingly important that we work within the industry to promote the trades because otherwise it’s not happening.” he says. “Kids are being told they’re wasting their lives if they don’t go to college because schools are incentivized to push them straight into universities. If their graduates go another route it can affect their ratings and funding.
“A degree can be a fantastic foundation for some, but it’s not the only factor to consider. It’s really about finding the right fit for your team and then developing their skills. I’m the kid who came through the trades and worked super hard and made a successful life and career. And it has all been a blessing.”
What friends and colleagues shared about Chaffee and Rick-Tomkins Co.
“Early in my career at Rich-Tomkins I told [then owner] Ken Holloway that someday I’d like to own the company. Ken said I’d have to earn the respect of Stew Chaffee first. From then on, I was attached at the hip to Stew. Every morning we would get together to discuss plans and opportunities. He was excellent at coaching and correcting. He helped me to see the other side when thinking about situations. “I’ll always be grateful for what Stew did for me; I wouldn’t be in this position without him. As he began pulling back these last few years, he pushed me forward as the face of the company. But he was always right there with advice. His direction during this transition helped make it seamless.” Bill Bradshaw, Rich-Tomkins
“Stew Chaffee has been a long-time pillar of the manufacturers’ rep community and we appreciate his great contributions to Bradford White and to our industry as a whole. His passion, resolve and vision are all key characteristics that have fostered his successful career, and his passion for excellence in service to our customers has been critical to Bradford White’s success. He has formed life-long friendships with many of us here at Bradford White, and we are so happy for Stew, Jeanne and the entire Chaffee family.” Jim McGoldrick, Bradford White Corp.
“Stew is an asset to our industry and will be sorely missed. He is one of those rare individuals who can see the path forward, articulate his vision and rally those around him. Stew’s passion and determination to execute and accomplish the task at hand is one we should all strive for. As Stew transitions into fulltime husband, parent, grandparent and ‘cook,’ I wish him nothing but the best and thank him for his many years of mentorship.” Tim Morales, Tim Morales Associates
“Stew was great at ‘seeing around the corner’ for our business and recognizing issues, trends, problems before they made it to our office. Having this type of vision from a business partner is invaluable for us to take advantage of opportunities in the market or resolve issues quickly. Delta could count on Stew to be the eyes and ears for us in the market on all things plumbing. He and his team were truly ‘in the know’ on everything going on his market.” Jon Dartt, Delta Faucet Company
“When you work with someone who’s run a long-standing successful business and also genuinely cares about the people s/he works with, you’ve got yourself a great rep. Stew ran a first-class business and went out of his way to show that he cared about the success of Jomar Valve. There were countless times where I’d call Stew for direction on topics outside of business pertaining to Rich-Tomkins. He was always happy to listen and help in any way that he could.” Noah Dinger, Jomar Group
“I have the utmost respect and admiration for Stew Chaffee. He’s a true professional and has such a thorough, calm and collected thought process when sorting through issues. Mentoring is one of the most important benefits for AIM/R members. And that’s because of people like Stew who will do anything to help their fellow reps — and the industry — be successful. He always made himself available to anyone who needed advice, even though he had his own business, family and responsibilities. It was Stew’s leadership that spearheaded the AIM/R strategic planning meetings and kept everyone on track with the task at hand. The board and the membership are much better for it.” Rick Root, Frontline Sales & Marketing